"Meet me under the Clock!" This catch-phrase became a signature for one of Oregon's best known businesses, the Meier & Frank Company, and helped folks find each other for more than 75 years. Aaron Meier could hardly have imagined that his quite meager entrance into retail marketing in the mid-1850s would later bring him to the forefront of commercial circles in the northwest and the nation. Just another example of a determined spirit enabling someone to overcome all obstacles and difficulties to go forward and achieve success. Truly a rags-to-riches story.
How sad to return to his home in Portland with his new wife and discover that his long-time business partner had not managed things well and the business was on the brink of financial ruin!
Meier had previously used much of the $14,000 of his inheritance to purchase the stock of a department store in New York, and was now resolved to engage in business on his own account, using the remaining funds to open an unpretentious dry goods store under his own name at 136 Front street, between Yamhill and Taylor. He built his counters out of dry goods boxes and covered them with calico and made his shelves out of rude material.
On an 1870 trip to San Francisco to purchase stock, he met Emil Frank, whom he brought to Portland to become a clerk in his store. Later, in 1873, Emil's brother Sigmund Frank joined them. In 1873, Emil became a full partner and the store was renamed the "Meier & Frank Company." Wife Jeanette, an astute partner, also urged members of her family to relocate to Portland to help. One nephew, Max Hirsch, agreed. He worked with them 20 years before partnering with Harry Weis to purchase Willamette Tent and Awning, the forerunner of Portland's "White Stage" ("Hirsch/Weiss" in German.)
A disastrous fire destroyed the store and its property in 1882. A new building was then erected, and as the trade continued to grow, a new location on First Street was chosen. The business property was gradually expanded until the store faced First, Second, Yamhill, and Taylor streets. In 1894, floods struck downtown Portland. Meier & Frank, ever putting the needs of the customer forward, ferried their customers by boat to wooden plank structures they had erected across the storefront, allowing them to reach the store without wading in the rising waters.
Another example of their philosophy that a happy customer was the best advertisement was their fleet of delivery wagons, which were then replaced by trucks in the early 1900s. They would deliver any purchase, of which there were a myriad of choices, directly to the customer's home free of charge, even a spool of thread.
They instituted their own credit system, billing customers for their purchases over time. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Meier & Frank showed their confidence in the country by cancelling interest on all customer credit accounts. As the banks closed, hundreds of people brought their savings to the Store for safekeeping.
Meier & Frank became known as one of the most innovative stores in the nation, a flagship demonstration of the change from the "mom & pop" general merchandise store to the new concept of having multiple types of retail stores located within one larger store--the modern department store! M&F grew to be the largest department store on the west coast, with modern innovations such as escalators replacing stairs to the upper floors, over 80 different departments ranging from a bakery to a pet store, and even their own radio station, KFEC, broadcasting from 1922-1929 (still broadcasting as KIT in Yakima, Washington). In 1922, soon-to-be-famous actor Clark Gable worked in their Tie Department. By 1932, renovations and reconstruction efforts would allow the Meier & Frank Store to encompass a full city block in downtown Portland. During the WWII years, Meier & Frank sold more war bonds than any other outlet in America.
The site selected for the Salem Meier & Frank Store was located just north of the downtown center, on the northeast corner of Center and High Streets. The site contained the old Salem High School which was relocated to a new building on 14th Street NE.
The ground-breaking event in 1954 was attended by dignitaries from across Oregon. The 185,000 s.f. store was slated to open in the Fall of 1955 and would contain the most modern innovations in retail marketing to date, including escalators to reach the upper floors and an attached parking garage able to accommodate more than 750 cars. The Salem firm of Viesko & Post was selected as the General Contractor. Gerry Frank, son of Aaron "Bud" Meier Frank, would serve as the store's General Manager.
Opening Day festivities drew more than 75,000 folks--half again as much as the 49,000 listed population of Salem at the time. Some folks just came to ride the new-fangled escalators! In the photos below, Gerry Frank addresses the crowd (left); notice the choir, presumably from Willamette University. The famous clock, festooned for opening day, hosts its first mass gathering (center), and the novel escalators get quite a workout (right). In 1960 another new store was opened in Portland at the Lloyd Center, the largest shopping center on the west coast at the time.