Downtown Fergus Falls, my employment home for 10 years, was my childhood neighborhood, living only a few blocks east. Because of my passion for the river and the city it runs through, I also served on the board of directors for the Fergus Falls Downtown Riverfront Council. Traveling down memory lane whenever I drive through the three-block area, is as natural as breathing. A few years ago, we had more than 21 empty buildings downtown. While we still have a few, Greater Fergus Falls and the Fergus Falls Downtown Riverfront Council, along with other concerned citizens have worked hard to revitalize the city.
Today, in preparation for this story, I slowly drove past the businesses and took inventory of some of the new faces on the street. Most of them I have frequented, but others I didn’t even know existed. On Downtown’s west end is my favorite ice cream shop, Uncle Eddie’s, with The Bric right next door. Across the street is SoapWerks Naturals, a very fun homemade soap and skin care store. In the center block Dandelion & Burdock, another novel clothing store resides. Only a few doors east is the fantastically family friendly Otter Cove Children’s Museum. Zen’s Seafood and Steakhouse, is new to the east block of downtown, along with Boss Mom’s Crafts. Anchoring the downtown area is the Balance Gymnastics Center. Yes indeed, the character and face of downtown has certainly changed over the years.
On my trip down memory lane, I recalled the old cobblestone streets. Remember them? They were later paved. When the downtown area was renovated in the late ‘80s early ‘90s and concrete sidewalks were replaced with paving stones, I remember hearing old-timers grumbling that we had just gotten rid of the cobblestone streets and now we have it on the sidewalks. FYI, I love the brick paved sidewalks with trees and vintage style lighting.
Years earlier, probably the most outstanding retail building downtown when I was growing up was Norby’s Department Store, which is now home to Cooper’s Office Supply. On the southeast corner of the intersection of Mill and Lincoln avenues, their huge diagonal display window facing northwest became the retail centerpiece of the shopping area. They sported stunning window displays, especially at Christmas. We would make a special trip past their window and storefront on Thanksgiving night when all the displays were lit up with lights. It seemed as if they spared no expense on their decorating.
Ah yes, the upscale department store. Norby’s was the first store in town to promote that it was “cool inside,” being probably the first retail store to install air conditioning. I remember during hot sunny “crazy days” in late July, sliding into Norby’s to cool off. One hot summer day my friend and I slipped into the cool store and found ourselves in the men’s clothing section on the main level. Since only customers were supposed to be loitering in the store, we found ourselves looking at the men’s swimwear. While inspecting the unusual construction of men’s swimsuits, a sales clerk shewed us out of the store. We were offended that she would think us incapable of making a purchase. After all, we each had a dad and an older brother. Of course, she was correct, but still …
A few years later, my favorite haunt was the mezzanine. They had the cutest teen clothes and if I found things I liked on sale, I could usually talk Mom into buying it for me. Sometimes I had babysitting money and if items weren’t too expensive, I could buy my own. My favorite purchase from Norby’s was a pair of maroon colored bell-bottom slacks. I was in sixth grade, and thought myself very grown up.
I rarely went to Norby’s basement, but while Christmas shopping in 1972, I fell in love with a yellow acetate full-sized quilt that felt like heaven on the skin. While making regular pilgrimages downstairs to touch the quilt, I became aware of their household department. A friend of mine, a former Norby’s employee who worked in the lower level, reminded me that they sold everything from a full bridal registry and housewares to luggage. I received that quilt for my birthday my senior year and cherished it until it completely fell apart. When I became engaged, Mom and I went to Norby’s to register for crystal stemware. Years later I found myself on second floor where there were women’s and children’s clothing. I rarely purchased anything unless it was on sale, because as a young mom I was usually flat broke.
There were four Norby’s Department Stores in the area although they were not all owned by the same family members. Loren Norby was the president and general manager of the Fergus Falls store from 1962 until 1979. Norby’s was sold to Fandel’s in 1982 and moved to the Westridge Mall as Herberger’s in 1984.
It has been fun for me to remember Norby’s Department Store, an important business in my growing up years. Because so many of you have asked for more stories about historical Fergus Falls, I decided to write a series on various clothing stores in town, starting with the four in the center of the business district: Norby’s; O’Meara’s; Arneson, Larson; and Saint Claire & Rovang. If you have fun tales or important details about any of those stores, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, stop in and visit the new stores in town and enjoy the changes as you take a backward glance at shopping in our town.