Houlton Pioneer Times

Current, former Houlton residents share memories of Woolworth’s store

HOULTON, Maine — Even now, more than 50 years after she last stepped inside and with more than 2,300 miles between her Texas residence and the site of the former hometown store, Beverly Sawyer still recalls the F. W. Woolworth Co. in Houlton. 

“When I was a child, it was one of my favorite places to go to get a hot dog and soda with my grandmother,” said Sawyer, a 68-year-old former Houlton resident who now lives in Austin, Texas. “Later on, when I got older and went to school, it became the best place to meet my friends and to shop for clothes and things with money from picking potatoes. It was one of those stores that just gave Houlton life back in the day.”

One of the original pioneers of the five-and-dime store concept, the F.W. Woolworth Co. was opened by Frank Winfield Woolworth on Feb. 22, 1878, in Utica, New York. The first store failed, however, according the company’s history, but was successfully relaunched in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1879. The company expanded quickly and by the 1960’s, Woolworth’s founded a chain of discount stores called Woolco, and also purchased the Kinney Shoe Corp.

The company has an extensive history in Houlton. A photo from the Maine Memory Network of a 1919 World War I victory celebration in Market Square shows the business decorated in bunting and U.S. flags.

Leigh Cummings, curator of the Aroostook Historical and Art Museum, confirmed Friday that the store was located in the Mansur Block before it moved up to Main Street, into the building that currently houses Jean’s Serendipity.

There, the store and its lunch counter became a gathering place, according to current and former residents.

Mary Peabody of Houlton said she still recalls the first Christmas gift that she ever bought — a maroon glass sugar bowl  purchased for her mother at Woolworth’s.

“She appeared to be happy with it,” Peabody said. “I still have it.”

Susan Laing Cullen of Patten also has fond memories of the business, including a time in which she went to see Santa Claus.

“Each child received a clear plastic bag with a fish in it,” she remembered.

Several residents recalled visits to the lunch counter with friends or loved ones.

Carolyn Cheney, a Houlton High School graduate who now lives in Presque Isle, remembers being allowed to walk to the store from school to eat lunch.

“I had the same menu item every day,” she said. “Macaroni and cheese, coleslaw and a coke. It used to be the best macaroni and cheese I ever had, and I’ve never forgotten it. When I was younger, I also used to buy paper dolls there.”

Dick Palm, another former Houlton resident who lives in Presque Isle, “loved to eat at the lunch counter.”

“I used to go with my mom shopping there,” he recalled.

Cathy O’Dell, a former Houlton resident who now lives in Concord, New Hampshire, said that some of her fondest childhood memories revolve around the Woolworth’s store.

“I used to love doll houses,” she said. “And my grandfather was an excellent carpenter. They sold some lovely premade dollhouses in that store, but he made me a dollhouse by hand. We used to go in there all the time to get ideas for new furniture, and also to get parts and clothes for the house and dolls. It was just something he was almost giddy about doing with me. He’d see a little room in a premade house that had a step stool or doll bed and he’d go home and make me one a hundred times better. It makes me tear up.”

Several former Woolworth’s employees said they believed that the Market Square store closed around 1977. In 1976, F.W. Woolworth Co. opened a Woolco at the Houlton Shopping Plaza on North Street. But that too closed in early 1983. At the time, the Woolco was the largest department store in southern Aroostook and employed between 70 and 80 people.

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