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Bustling downtown Yankton, circa 1903. The Fantles department store is on the right. Photo courtesy of the Yankton County Historical Society.
Bustling downtown Yankton, circa 1903. The Fantles department store is on the right. Photo courtesy of the Yankton County Historical Society.

Fantle's: The Big Store

Aug 14, 2012

Everybody loves America's sweet downtowns. We love them in a Norman Rockwell way. They remind us that we once had the time and inclination to don a hat and jacket and stroll around, store to store, visiting neighbors and meeting newcomers.

Some of South Dakota's downtowns are in a revival stage. Mobridge, pop. 3,500 or so, has an amazing Main Street, complete with a movie theater, clothing stores, a top-notch eatery painted purple, an excellent library and other amenities. Rapid City's downtown was once considered off-limits to families after 5 p.m., but now it echoes with the laughter of children thanks to a visionary Main Street Square that attracts families and more than a dozen new shops that feature toys, outdoor gear, local foods, Native American art and even an English pub with appropriately-attired waitresses.

So downtowns aren't dead in South Dakota. And the funny thing is that the come-back cities are doing what the Fantle/Levinger family did a century ago. They make shopping fun.

The Fantle family came to Yankton in 1893 and opened what was then called "The Big Store." They suffered fires and setbacks, but they persevered well into the Wal-mart age because they loved their community and it showed.

In the 1930s, when nobody had any money, they served a two-cent lunch so nobody went hungry. They also featured 97-cent women's frocks.

They held Watermelon Days every summer. One year, they served 2,780 melons so Harold Levinger (who married a Fantle) figured 27,800 people showed up because he got 10 slices to the melon. I don't think he accounted for the kids who ate three or four slices each, but 27,800 sounded great at the Chamber of Commerce.

The Levingers and Fantles had a cafeteria, a stylish beauty salon, a big children's store and the first elevator to carry people between Sioux City and Sioux Falls.

And they had a monkey. Everybody remembers the monkey. Every farm kid who came to Yankton wanted to stop by Fantle's to pet the monkey.

Here's another thing the Fantles and Levingers did: every time their city needed something, they were among the first to put up cash. Other families were equally supportive — certainly the Danforths, who owned the bank and a lot of downtown property, and of course the Gurneys who had the nursery. The Danforths, Fantles and Gurneys each put up $25,000 cash in 1921 to construct the Meridian Bridge because local leaders had grown tired of waiting for the state of South Dakota to build one. That same bridge is the city's newest tourist attraction today, because it has been transformed into a pedestrian/biking trail.

After WWII, the Fantles gave 40 acres on the north edge of the city for a park. They did list some caveats. It had to have a pool for children, and it had to include a memorial to the soldiers who died in war. The park is a beloved place to Yanktonians today.

Many smaller retailers in the city also were generous with their time and money. And the employees of today's chain retailers and box stores that have followed — some might say supplanted — the Fantles and the smaller mom-and-pop stores — surely try to contribute. Some have become important civic leaders.

But a town needs the likes of the Fantles, Levingers, Danforths and Gurneys to really grow. That's as true today as it was in 1893. Rapid City and Mobridge have them. So does every other town in South Dakota.

Comments

09:22 am - Tue, August 14 2012
Laura said:
My dad and I were talking about the downtown Yankton shopping experience of his boyhood in the 50s. It sounded like more like a weekly community event than a chore--so much more enjoyable than, say, my most recent trip to the big box on the north side of town, a place guaranteed to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels. It's good to be reminded that shopping doesn't have to be like that.

09:22 am - Tue, August 14 2012
Rebecca said:
My dad was just telling me we should do a story on that monkey.
09:59 am - Tue, August 14 2012
jack curl said:
My mother used to take us kids and later the grand kids to Fantles in Sioux Falls every year for lunch and Christmas shopping. It was a big event! She had a Fantle's credit card..along with a lot of other store cards. When the Western Mall opened and signaled the decline of downtown..she was not pleased!
10:15 am - Tue, August 14 2012
Sheila said:
It was a big deal to get to go to Fantles shopping--one usually reserved for buying clothes for a special occasion! I remember riding the elevator, riding the carousel upstairs in the children's department, and when we got older, getting to try on and buy dresses in the back part of the store where the "fancy" dresses were kept. My prom dress my senior year in high school came from Fantle's! Along with Newberry's, the Cinderella Shop, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards and other stores downtown, making the trip to Yankton to shop was something we looked forward to as we weren't the mobile society that we are now Getting to go to Yankton shopping was a treat growing up in the 60's and 70's!
10:29 am - Tue, August 14 2012
How many other great family stores were there in SD ? Fantles, Shrivers, Haggertys in RCity, Wards in DeSmet, Cole's in Bkgs, I grew up in Mn...so Dayton's was the ultimate and even brought their elegance to SF's at one time....Are there other great FAMILY stores anyone remembers?.. Maybe there still are some? Now I'm not talking about the Macy'sor Younkers etc...I'm talking FAMILY owned in SD.
11:25 am - Tue, August 14 2012
What great history we have in Downtown Yankton! It's been so fun to give tours of our new Riverfront Hotel (which used to be the children's department of the Fantle's store) and hear all the wonderful stories and memories made there. So we don't have the monkey anymore, but we do still have the original elevator and love to tell people about Fantle's history as they check out how much the building has evolved and changed, as well as how much has stayed the same!
05:19 pm - Tue, August 14 2012
MelCena Bernard said:
The article was wonderful.
12:37 pm - Wed, September 5 2012
Loved the story. I have written a memoir called GROWING UP JEWISH IN SMALL TOWN AMERICA and it begins, of course, with my birth in Yankton. We moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa when I was three...but we often returned to Yankton to see my grandmother, Carrie Eiseman Fantle. Anyone interested in my book can get it on Amazon.com.
09:51 am - Sun, December 23 2012
Holly Antosz said:
What a great article. My friend Lynne remembers Fantle's too. I thinnk she dug out some old pictures or newspapers and gave them to Lynn. She was raised in Sioux City.
02:43 pm - Sat, March 9 2013
Catheryne Lowe Dickinson said:
I remember visiting Fantle's when I was a young girl. We were vising family in Yankton and surroundng area. My Uncle Aldy had a shop on Broadway. I've always loved Yankton and it's small town charm. Everytime I cross the Missouri River my heart does a dance. I hope to settle in Yankton, sooner than later, and enjoy visiting with family and friends still in the area. It truly is a "wonderful" life!
10:07 pm - Wed, April 17 2013
John Fantle said:
What a great article.....brought back many wonderful memories of Yankton & the Fantle store. I was born there in 1929 at Sacred Heart Hospital. My dad (Willard) opened a branch store in Austin, Mn & we moved there. After college & a stint in the army, I returned to Yankton & worked in the store for a while. My grandmother, Carrie Eisman Fantle, was also born in Yankton ... the first two story house in the Dakota territory. They floated the lumber down the Missouri River to build it. Not enough trees there. I remember Nancy Gurney playing piano in the lobby of the "Nancy Hotel," for the dinner hour & often having dinner at ,"The Gurney Hotel,"( next door) with my grandmother.
04:01 pm - Thu, April 18 2013
JOEL FANTLE said:
I AM THE SON OF WILLARD E FANTLE AND BROS AND LEVINGERS TOOK OVER THE STORE AND THEIR GREAT GRANDFATHER, CHARLIE FANTLE IN ST PAUL MINN. WAS KNOWN AS HONEST CHARLEY FANTLE HE SENT MY GRAND FATHER AND HIS BROTHER WEST WITH WAGONS OF DRY GOODS ONE SETTLED IN YANKTON MY GRANDFATHER AND THE OTHER WENT TO SIOUX FALLS SOUTH DAKOTA, THOSE WERE THE FIRST 2 FANTLE STORES.HOWEVER THEY NEVER WERE PART OF THE ORIGIONAL FANTLE BROS STORES OF WHICH GREW TO 7 WOMENS READY TO WERE STORES. I WAS BORN IN LA CROSSE MY SISTER ANN AND JOHN BORN IN YANKTON AND WILLARD JR, WAS BORN IN AUSTIN AS THE STORES SPREAD THRU THE MID WEST . I HAVE A PAPER FROM ST PAUL TELLING ABOUT HONEST CHARLIE FANTLE AND HIS SONS ....
07:48 pm - Fri, May 17 2013
Bernice Mikula said:
My mother Helen Kube worked in Fantles when she was 19. She tells us many stories of Mrs. Fantle coming downstairs to have lunch and visiting with my mom. It must have been around 1947. My mom is 84 now and still has fond memories of Fantles!
05:34 pm - Wed, January 1 2014
Julie Sorenson Merklin said:
My father, Harland Sorenson, managed the Austin Fantle's store after the Fantle family moved to LaCrosse. There was a real family feeling among most all who worked there. Jim Seekey took over when my father retired. When it closed so many former customers told Dad how much they missed shopping there.
03:36 pm - Mon, July 7 2014
Susan Fantle said:
My grandfather was Samuel Fantle. He and his brother Charles came to Sioux Falls, S. D. and opened a Fantle's department store there. Charles' son Benjamin eventually ran the store for many years, then sold out to Daytons. Ben told me later in his life that he really always wanted to be a sailor but in those days you did what you were told to do, I guess. My father was Samuel Jr. He never had much to do with the store, but was an early owner-operator of KELO Radio in Sioux Falls. It is strange to me now that we never spent time with our cousins in Yankton. Yet, the towns are so close. I am the last Fantle who grew up in Sioux Falls to still be around. Hello to all the other Fantles out there. I wish you all many happy memories.
01:41 pm - Tue, September 16 2014
Lynn Lawver said:
I bought the cutest hat and hat box marked Fantles Sioux Fall the lady that sold it to me is in her 70's she said it has been up in the closet from her mother I was wondering the age I would think the 20 ' s to 30's. How intersting!
01:43 pm - Tue, September 16 2014
Lynn Lawver said:
I bought the cutest hat and hat box marked Fantles Sioux Fall the lady that sold it to me is in her 70's she said it has been up in the closet from her mother I was wondering the age I would think the 20 ' s to 30's. How intersting!

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