By 1917 Burley had a population of nearly twelve hundred, with electricity, telephones, an ice house, and an ice cream plant. Two general merchandise stores were recent additions—the Davis Department Store and Skaggs.
In 1914 W.M. Davis, who had operated a general store in the small Missouri town of Gamaliel, arrived in Burley. His brother Carl had come west earlier, and he told W.M. about the opportunities that existed in the growing town. W.M. worked for Parley Clark in his general store for a few months, then purchased it and named it the Davis Department Store. It was “A Store for Every Member of the Family, The Home of Everything to Eat and Wear.”.
In 1917 Skaggs United Stores opened for business in Burley. Samuel S. Skaggs had started the first Skaggs store in American Falls in 1915. A former Baptist minister, Skaggs was concerned about the high cost for merchandise he and his neighbors had to pay. To help people obtain supplies at a more reasonable price, he opened a tiny store, eighteen by thirty-two feet, and began selling items with only a small markup.
At that time customers did not help themselves to items on the shelves, remembered John Clark who with his brother Charles Clark began operating a store in Oakley in 1923. A customer “would see an item on the shelf and ask for it. We’d pick it off the shelf. Sugar we took out of a big paper sack. Rice was that way. We had a whole bunch of bananas hanging on a string from the ceiling. Meat couldn’t be cut ahead of time. We’d cut meat as they wanted it.”
But in order to keep costs down so he could give his customers a better price, Samuel Skaggs started the practice of having customers select their own items.
Times were good in 1917, and there was plenty of business for both the Skaggs and Davis stores. But business decreased significantly when farm prices plunged in the early 1920s. The Davis Department Store was especially hit hard. With banks failing and farmers unable to sell their crops, the Davises soon found that their customers stopped paying their bills. Even worse, they stopped being their customers. Fearing that they would be asked about payment, or too embarrassed to face their creditors, many of those who owed money stopped shopping at the Davis Department Store and began shopping at Skaggs. Thus, in spite of the depression, the Skaggs store flourished. Marion Skaggs and his five brothers expanded their business. By 1921 the Skaggs brothers were operating Skaggs United chain stores in all of Idaho and parts of Montana. In 1926 Skaggs United Stores merged with another chain and changed its name to Safeway Stores. Within two years Safeway was operating in much of the nation and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Excerpted from “Cassia County Idaho The Foundation Years” by Kathleen Hedberg and used by permission of its owners.
Kathleen Hedberg is the author of “Cassia County the Foundation Years” and “A Flood Can’t Happen Here”, and she’d love to hear from you. Drop her a note at [email protected].
Copies are available at: Cassia County Museum Corner of Hiland and Main, Burley, ID 83318, 208-678-7172 and Mini-Cassia Chamber of Commerce, 1177 7th Street, Heyburn, ID 83336 at 208-679-4793