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Historical Perspectives

The Russell Gates Mercantile Co.

Long before Sam Walton opened the first Walmart in 1962, another retail entrepreneur blazed a mass-merchandising trail right here in El Paso County. His name was Russell Gates, a native of New York who had been successful in the nursery business.Like Melvin Sinton, founder of Sinton Dairy in Colorado Springs, who left New York in 1880 looking for a cure for his asthma; Gates left New York for Colorado because, at the age of 30, his health had begun to fail.Gates settled on the Z Bar Ranch at the headwaters of Big Sandy Creek, northeast of Peyton. There, he became a successful sheep rancher.In 1888, Gates was ready for something new, so he left James Durkes in charge of the ranch and moved with his wife, Elinor, to Denver; where he bought a controlling interest in the Summit Grain and Feed Co.From his office on the second floor of the Railway Exchange, Gates had a view of Denverís railway lines that were spreading across Colorado. He imagined building a chain of retail stores ñ the Russell Gates Mercantile Co. ñ to serve communities like Peyton that were sprouting up along those lines.In 1893, Gates opened the Peyton store and creamery, followed in 1894 by a cheese factory and, later, a grain elevator.The storeís first manager was 25-year-old Edgar Wise, who lived with his wife, Clara, in a house owned by the Russell Gates Mercantile Co. In 1904, Wise died at the young age of 36 from kidney disease.In the store, Gates sold everything from sewing needles to coffins to threshing machines.He sold the big items ìon timeî and loaned money on houses, livestock and crops ñ something his smaller competitors could not do. In Peyton, several general stores were driven out of business.Local clubs could meet on the storeís second floor, which was also the scene of many country dances.In 1899, the superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed in 1807 to define and manage a national coordinate system of markers) reported that a geodetic marker was imbedded in the foundation of the Peyton store. ìThe bolt is in the upper stone of the foundation, on the south side, at the southeast corner of the building, at the west end of the steps leading to the front porch,î according to the report.In 1917, the second floor was also used as a school while the Peyton School District, which had consolidated with the Farview and Pleasant Prairie school districts, built a new school building.The Peyton storeís barn was used to store ice cut in blocks from Shawís Pond (presumably todayís Shaw Ranch). With no other form of cooling, ice was used to keep the storeís perishables fresh.At the creamery, Peytonís dairy farmers delivered the morningís milk in tin milk cans that could hold as many as 10 gallons. Inside, workers skimmed the cream that had risen to the top of the milk cans and sent the cream (probably by horse-drawn wagon) to Gatesí Eastonville store and creamery. There, workers churned the cream into butter, which was then shipped by rail for distribution throughout Colorado.At the time, Eastonville was a thriving community of 400, 8 miles north of present-day Falcon.The Eastonville Russell Gates Mercantile store was built in the shape of an ìLî and was especially large, with a total of 400 linear feet.Like the Peyton store, the Eastonville store had two stories. The top floor housed a hotel, a furniture store and a large hall with a stage for entertaining that has been described as ìsplendid.îThe train that ran through Eastonville provided farmers with access to a market for almost all their products, and they could buy almost everything they needed for a farm at the Russell Gates Mercantile, which also had a lumber yard.Gates built stores throughout the Pikes Peak region and beyond. There were stores in Elizabeth, Kiowa, Elbert, Calhan, Colorado Springs (where there could have been an automobile dealership), Limon and Denver; and they connected with each other by a private telephone line.Olive Higby was an employee at the Eastonville store. One of her duties was to gather the cash receipts ñ as much as $20,000 ñ from the rural stores and deliver them to the main store in Denver. To do so, she took the Colorado and Southern train from Colorado Springs to Denver, all the while hiding the cash in her corset.Built in 1902, the Elbert store was robbed by two men described as young, well-dressed and wearing masks. Sheriff Roy Brown pursued, but they hid in the Black Forest area and escaped.For a time, James Cash Penney worked at the Russell Gates store in Elbert. He went on to start the J.C. Penney chain of retail stores.By the 1920s, the Russell Gatesí empire was beginning to crumble. The Peyton store closed in 1924, and the entire chain went into bankruptcy in 1926.The Peyton store was sold to the storeís last manager, Ed Moreland, who bought it for the grain elevator, which he ran for a while and later sold to a family named Drake, who eventually tore down the elevator and building.The Eastonville store was sold, and remained a retail store into the 1930s under the ownership of a man named Ragsdale.The Elbert store still stands, although only the back wall is original. The Elbert Womenís Club is engaged in a restoration project funded by monthly community breakfasts. The store can also be rented for events such as weddings and concerts.The main store in Denver still stands along the west side of Interstate 25 near Gates-Crescent Park, which might have been named for the man himself.

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