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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!
01:52 pm - Sat, April 7 2018
Keller Donovan said:
My grandfather John Keller built the municipal pool at the park the Levenger gave to the city. He also helped build Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls- now Souix Falls Airport along with many landmarks around Yankton and the state.
I loved Fantles to shop as a kid and especially the basement restaurant that had wonderful Taverns. I bought my first girlfried a "friendship" ring at Fantles.
Good times.
04:19 pm - Sat, June 23 2018
Lanny Stricherz said:
I happened on this story after walking in the neighborhood of my youth. I had never walked past the two Fantles' Charles' and Sam's beautiful homes in the Pettigrew Heights district. (I had driven past many times over the years.) Those two homes would be worth a story in themselves, as in front of one of them is a historic marker for the tent that was erected in front of it for the 1900 election. The tent was to be the site of the Populist Party's convention, which nominated William Jennings Bryan as it's standard bearer. I caddied for Sam Fantle when I was a kid. His son Sam Jr was one of the first South Dakotans killed in Viet Nam.

What amazes me, is with all the comments on here about the stores, no one has mentioned the Christmas displays in the window, which as a kid, we couldn't wait to see what the new display would be this year. Oh for the memories.
05:14 pm - Sat, June 23 2018
Lanny Stricherz said:
In thinking more about it, I caddied for Sam Fantle II whose nickname was Bud, It was his Son, Sam III who died in Viet Nam.
11:53 am - Mon, April 22 2019
Robert Hardy said:
Sam III and I entered the Air Force in 1960, training as Navigators at Harlingen AFB, Texas. We were further stationed together at Electronics Countermeasures School in Keesler AFB, Mississippi. Upon graduation in 1962 were were both assigned to the Flight Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio where we flew a wide assortment of highly classified missions photographing and recording Soviet ICBM's, flying a highly modified KC-135 out of Shemya, Alaska. We also flew reconnaissance aircraft in support of many US orbital mission, filming the recovery of Gemini capsules, Athena test missiles reentering on the holloman Test Range and other high value missions. At about the same time I was assigned to pilot training, Sam received orders to train as a Wild Weasel systems operator, a crew member on an F-105 operating out of Takhli, Thailand. It was an exceedingly dangerous mission, the purpose to ferret out surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and to kill the sites before the SAM could be launched. His aircraft was shot down on Jan 5, 1968 BY A mIG-17, Sam was seen ejecting, had a good parachute, but apparently received fatal injuries on landing or shortly thereafter. Sam was my best friend in the several years we served together and his wife, Louise, was very good friends with my wife, Janet. I hope this brief narrative enables his many relatives to remember Sam as the loving, enthusiastic friend that I knew.
04:14 pm - Sat, May 4 2019
Greg Fantle said:
Robert,
Sam Fantle III was my father. I was born at Wright-Patterson AFB when he was stationed there with you. If you somehow get this message, please reach out to me at gfantle@hotmail.com or call me at 303-901-8718. I'd really like to talk with you.
Greg
08:25 pm - Sun, May 12 2019
Gerald Doran said:
When I was crowing up on a farm in Mission Hill in the 50's I still remember going to Yankton on Saturday. My older sister and brother would run off with their friends and as I was small I had to stay with my mother. It used to drive me crazy because she would run into friends and stop and talk. Then she would take me to Fantles for a sandwich and coke. Dad would stop in and have a few beers in the Blue Fox and Ted at Ted's café would always save cigar boxes for me. Mom would do her grocery shopping at Council Lokes. I always enjoyed watching the Nash dealer moving his cars from the lot to inside the dealer ship. Mom and Dad would sit in the car and as friends walked by they would stop and talk and then later they would walk up and down the street and talk. South Dakota was the greatest place on earth to be born and raised.

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