ROCHESTER – The biggest attraction could have been the escalators – the first to be installed in Rochester.
It was October 15, 1953 and it seemed like everyone wanted to take the escalators to shopper heaven at the new Donaldson store, which opened that day in Rochester’s Miracle Mile mall.
So many people blocked the escalators in the three-story emporium, said store manager Alan Rich, that “a lot of people struggled to move from floor to floor.” An estimated 25,000 people visited the store on opening day.
The escalators symbolized that with the opening of Donaldson’s, Rochester had entered the big leagues, in terms of retail. This was only Donaldson’s second store outside of the Twin Cities (the first was in Rapid City, SD).
“Superb, formidable, way above expectations,” was how Rich described the first day of the Post-Bulletin. To handle the shoppers’ crowd, about 40 salespeople from the Minneapolis store have been temporarily assigned to Rochester for the first week of operation.
The original store was known as Donaldson’s Glass Block Store when it opened in 1882 in Minneapolis. By 1900, it had nearly 500 employees and 150,000 mail order customers, not to mention the crowds who shopped in person on a daily basis.
To help shoppers, Donaldson published maps and brochures detailing the best ways to reach the store and offered a post office branch, travel agency, lending library, and daycare center. Along with rivals Dayton’s and Powers, Donaldson’s made the Twin Cities a shopping hub for the Upper Midwest.
The Rochester Donaldson wouldn’t have all of these extra features, of course, but with 70,000 square feet of floor space and an inventory of 350,000 items, it would be, as the Post-Bulletin claims, “the first big Rochester store “. If it’s not that, then definitely the greatest.
Rochester was chosen as the site for the new store, Rich said, based on “extensive polls which indicated this community is in need of additional stores due to its tremendous growth and national significance.”
The location at Miracle Mile was advertised as having parking for 1,500 cars and being “less than five minutes from downtown Rochester by bus or taxi.”
In an era when nearly all of Rochester’s retail businesses were located downtown, Miracle Mile and Donaldson’s offered something new: a suburban-like shopping destination with easy access for automobiles. It was a trend that took off nationally. In the metro area, Edina’s Southdale, which would also include a Donaldson store, was due to open in 1956.
For three decades, Donaldson’s thrived in Rochester, even in the face of competition from a new store in downtown Dayton’s and, eventually, Apache Mall.
Then came consolidation and mergers in the department store market. In June 1985, Donaldson’s purchased six Twin Cities Powers stores. Only a year later, Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott channel swallowed up Donaldson’s. By August 1988, all Donaldson stores, including the Rochester branch, had been renamed Carson Pirie Scott outlets.
Today, the great old lady at the north end of Miracle Mile is a multi-story furniture store with modern stairs and an elevator taking guests from the living room sofas to the bedroom desks. The central escalators, which were once as popular as a new carnival ride at the county fair, are gone.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.