Jim McKee: Furniture store was full of forgotten firsts
Omaha’s Old Market, like Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket, is home to many of the city’s oldest buildings and some of its best architecture. Interestingly, although called the oldest building in the historic district, built before Nebraska was even a state and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, one structure which was indeed one of many “firsts” in Omaha and the state, still is almost forgotten and rarely individually pointed out today.
Charles H. Dewey was born in Maine, lived in several states including Ohio and, in 1849, walked to California as one of the first people to seek his fortune in the just-discovered gold fields. After seven years Dewey moved to Sacramento where he partnered with A. J. Simpson, another man who was to have Omaha connections, in opening a furniture store. After subsequent stops in Pike’s Peak in 1862 and Indiana, Dewey arrived in Omaha in 1864 or 1865 by wagon and camped at 15th and Capitol where there was then enough grass for his oxen to graze.
In the early 1860s Louis Hax arrived in Omaha from St. Joseph, Missouri, which corresponded in time with waning interest in the village of Florence to the north. There Hax purchased a two-story, frame store which had coincidentally been used as the site of a rump session of the 1858 Nebraska territorial legislature and moved it to Omaha, placing it at 1115 Farnam (Block 123, lot 3) for use as a furniture store. In 1865 Dewey bought Hax’s half interest in the store for about $2,000 then partnered with Hax’s store manager and partner John Trimble. A short time later E. L. Stone bought out Trimble and by 1870 the furniture retailer was known as Dewey & Stone.
Dewey & Stone razed the frame building in 1875 and the following year built the extant High Victorian Italianate building noted as “the first four-story business building” in Omaha and one of the city’s “largest buildings.” In a history of furniture article, later written and published by Orchard & Wilhelm, it was reported that in order to stock the new store “Mr. Dewey went to a furniture exhibit in New Orleans and bought a whole carload of the best they had.” Wm. “Buffalo Bill” Cody wrote in his autobiography that when he failed to buy promised furniture in Wyoming for his new house in North Platte, he simply ordered “six-mule teams” worth from Dewey & Stone in Omaha to fulfill his wife’s orders.
The furniture business grew with Omaha and in 1875 Dewey & Stone built again, this time including the “first hydraulic elevator in Omaha.” Their 1882 building across the block on Harney Street was “the first five-story building erected in the state of Nebraska.” This was capitalized on in an 1883 ad in the Omaha Bee which boasted “no stairs to climb — Elegant passenger elevator to the different floors.” Another ad four years later stated, “everything useful and ornamental in the furniture-maker’s art, at reasonable prices.” The business was incorporated in 1888 with $500,000 in capitalization.
While Stone became one of the incorporators of the Omaha Motor Railway Co. in 1887 Dewey’s health was failing and in September of 1890 Charles Dewey died in Battle Creek, Michigan. The firm continued to prosper and in 1895 it was noted that, with 55 employees, they were not only retailing furniture but wholesaling through the entire western half of the U. S. doing about half a million dollars in trade a year “not exceeded by any house of the kind west of Chicago.” A display ad in the Omaha Bee in 1899 offered divans at $9.75, iron bedsteads for $2.25, solid oak dressers for $8.50 and dining room chairs for 90 cents.
With no specific reason stated and no accompanying story, a February 1902 ad announced “Dewey & Stone Furniture Co. quitting business” with appropriate note stating that all stock must go with prices about half off.
The Farnam Street store mentioned by one source as “the first furniture store in the state of Nebraska” was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was made an Omaha Landmark in 1985. The building lives on as the oldest building in the historic district while one of their warehouses was razed in 1989 as part of the Jobber’s Canyon project. Charles Dewey was eulogized as belonging to no church or society, a truly liberal and independent man and his name lives on in Dewey Street and E. L. Stone is remembered in Stone Avenue.