Wednesday, September 3, 2008
German immigrant, Ernst Johann Lehmann (1840-1900), was instrumental in developing one of the earliest department stores, and also for putting Lake Villa on the map.
As a young man, Lehmann opened a small jewelry store on Clark Street in Chicago. His ambition was to market affordable goods to the working class, selling items for less than other stores. In 1875, he was so successful that he moved his business into a larger building at State and Adams Streets and called it, The Fair Store. He named his store "The Fair" so that people knew they would be treated fairly.
"He was," according to the Chicago Tribune, "a shrewd business manager and gained a wide reputation by the cheapness of his goods and by his practical business methods." He sold items for less than other stores, making up for smaller profits by the sheer volume of sales.
In addition to jewelry, The Fair sold men's and women's clothing, hats, shoes, notions, and household goods. One building at a time, The Fair grew and by 1882, occupied every building along the north side of Adams between State and Dearborn Streets. That same year, Lehmann saw another of his ambitions realized. He brought the Wisconsin Central Railroad to the tiny north suburban community of Lake Villa to create a thriving resort town. By the early 1900s, 18 passenger trains a day arrived in Lake Villa.
The Lehmann family was very influential in the Lake Villa area, building large estates and employing area residents. Their legacy lives on in area subdivisions and communities, including the Lehmann Mansion built by son, Edward John in 1912 as a summer home, and purchased by the Village of Lake Villa in 2001; and the Village of Lindenhurst which was created from son, Ernst E.'s, 240-acre dairy farm known as Lindenhurst.
Lehmann advertised extensively, as seen in this circa 1880 ad. The Fair was the first department store to place a full-page advertisement in a Chicago newspaper.
In 1897, Lehmann built a $3 million modern store, said to be more than two times as large as the Bon Marché in Paris.
As his store expanded and fortunes increased, Lehmann's health deteriorated. In 1890, his wife, Augusta Handt, gained legal authority to commit him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in White Plains, New York. When he died in January 1900 many theorized that the pressures of his business enterprise and interest in the development of Lake Villa was too much for him.
The family continued to operate The Fair until 1925 when they sold it to chain store magnate S. S. Kresge.