Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An historic fashion find in Faribault February 3, 2012

IT WAS AN IMPRESSIVE FIND. There, hanging on a circular clothes rack jammed with winter coats, I discovered the soft suede coat collared in fur.

I beckoned my daughter to come, try it on. Wrap yourself in this finely-crafted coat with covered buttons and deep pockets and hand-stitched lining at the collar. Try on this fawn-colored coat that reminds me of Mary Tyler Moore when I picture you wearing it.

But she hesitated, not certain about wearing a coat trimmed with fur, a fur we couldn’t identify because we’re not accustomed to such luxury.

Eventually I coaxed her into slipping on the tailored garment from Ochs of Faribault, a fine, but now defunct, department store that served communities in southern Minnesota for nearly 100 years with branches in Owatonna, Waseca, Rochester and Austin and, later, a store in New Ulm.

That deep history alone made the coat worth purchasing. Ochs, established in Faribault in 1888 as a seller of dry goods and notions, became “the” place to shop in the heyday of department stores.

I’ve lived in Faribault long enough to remember Ochs. I couldn’t afford to shop at this elite business, although my husband rented our wedding tuxedos there in 1982. Not long after that, Ochs closed, about the time high-end department stores began disappearing from Main Street.

Buying the coat would equal acquiring a piece of history. I impressed that upon my 25-year-old daughter as she pondered purchasing the coat. Soon she pulled $12 and some loose change—I threw in the remaining coins—to total $12.50.

She’d just purchased a finely-made coat from one of Faribault’s finest department stores for half price at the Faribault Senior Center’s Clothes Closet.

I thrilled in the thrift store find and followed with a back yard photo shoot to document our discovery.

And then I suggested to my daughter that she pose for a second photo shoot next to the Mary Tyler Moore statue on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. She, like the actress in the 1970s The Mary Tyler Moore Show sitcom, lives in Minneapolis and is a strong, independent, single working woman.

Such a photo would be a fitting tribute, I think, to the strength and power of women. When Verna Love Ochs became the president of Ochs in 1969 upon the death of her husband, she was one of only five women in the country serving as a department store president. That’s according to a Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission Downtown Walking Tour video clip produced by Daniel J. Hoisington of Edinborough Productions.

Note the Faribault Ochs store in this mid-1920s photo from the private collection of Daniel J. Hoisington.

Verna Ochs, who died in 1989, was also a member of the Rice County Historical Society and a charter member of the Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission. She’d likely appreciate the restoration of the Ochs Department Store building several years ago by the State Bank of Faribault.

Will my daughter value her new suede coat? I expect, given its history, she will.

CLICK HERE to watch a video clip about Ochs.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Vintage photo courtesy of Daniel J. Hoisington