Four-year-old Louisa Shipley visits Santa for the first time at Bradley’s in Delavan last weekend. She gave Santa a card and a gift. The building Bradley’s is located in has sold so the store, which is in the midst of celebrating its 168th anniversary, will close at the end of the year. (Mike Hoey photo)

By Michael S. Hoey

Bradley’s Department Store in Delavan has been celebrating its 168th anniversary this year. Sadly, it will not make it to 169 years. Owner Lois Stritt, who has owned it for 10 years, is closing the store at the end of the month.

Stritt proudly displayed a “Don’t Give up the Ship” flag in her store window in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and struggled forward despite having to close for a long stretch and seeing sales lower than normal after re-opening. The phrase “Don’t Give up the Ship” is thought to be the last words of Captain James Lawrence before dying during the War of 1812 with the British. It became the unofficial motto of the U.S. Navy for decades and was a favorite phrase of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry adopted the phrase and placed it on his battle flag. The flag became known as the Commodore Perry Flag.

While Stritt acknowledges that the pandemic has made it very difficult on her business, she said that’s not why she’s closing.

“Every day I hear from people who come in here, ‘why should I buy anything when I can’t go anywhere’,” she said.

Sales have been down, but Stritt says, even at the age of 84, she would have pushed forward. The building was sold, however, and the new owner has other plans for the space. Fred Gaul purchased the building from Dale Bradley and will close on the property in late January.

Stritt said she has known for six to eight weeks that Gaul was interested in the building but just learned during the last week of November the deal was done and she would have to close. Gaul, Stritt said, runs an estate sales business and plans to use the building for that.

“He’s been very nice to me,” Stritt said of Gaul.

Even so, the decision to use the building for something else is forcing Stritt into retirement.

“It makes me very sad, of course,” Stritt said.

“It’s my life right now and I never thought it would end this way,” she added. “It’s the reason to get up every day,” she added.

Stritt said she has no grandchildren and it’s not easy for her to go out of business. She also said it was probably a good thing Gaul bought the building because she may have eventually had to go out of business due to COVID-19 anyway.

Bradley’s began as a knitting mill in the former Borg Building on Wisconsin Street along with a retail store just down the street from where the store is currently located. Stritt said Bradley’s got its start making wool swimwear but she was not sure what year the retail store moved into the current building.

When asked what she plans to do with all of her inventory and the numerous pieces of Bradley’s memorabilia and other antiques, Stritt said she really didn’t know. The inventory is all on sale and the rest, she said, she may try to sell, give away, or donate to the Delavan Historical Society. She said some people have already shown an interest in some items.

Stritt gave no indication anyone was interested in buying Bradley’s to possibly open a location elsewhere.

She said she remembered fondly working at Bradley’s for eight years before buying the business. She said her husband Jack had retired and she wanted to get out of the house, so she asked Bill and Diane McKoy, the owners of the store at the time, if she could work there. Ten years ago, when the McKoys were ready to sell after owning the store for 61 years, Jack supported her desire to buy it.

Tragedy struck when Jack unexpectedly died the week the sale was to close but Lois went through with the sale anyway.

“I don’t think many people would have done that,” McKoy said.

McKoy said Jack took to calling Lois Mrs. Bradley because she was at the store so often.

Stritt said her fondest memories of owning the store have been bonding with her customers, many who became friends over the years. She said after many of them learned she was closing on Facebook, some reached out and offered to take her to lunch.

“I love our customers,” Stritt said. “I will miss them.”

She said closing now is disappointing since so many great things seem to be happening in downtown Delavan lately like the new Boxed and Burlap next door to her store, The Treasury, and the plans for the former theatre.

“I am sad for Delavan that it is losing such an icon of the department store era, the quality clothes, the nice brands,” Jackie Busch said.

Busch has worked at Bradley’s for over 20 years and said Stritt is an amazing woman.

“She is 84 years old and works as much as I do, even more than I do,” Busch said. “I am eager to see her take on a new direction.”

That direction may be at United Church of Christ, where Stritt has been active for years. She said she taught Sunday school for 27 years there and the “church ladies” have already reached out to let her know they have plenty for her to do.

“I’m going to be OK,” Stritt said.

 
 

2 Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Love this store. We live out of the area now, but when we would visit Delavan, was always one of the stores we looked forward to going to. It seems Bradley’s is the center store of the downtown. The store will be greatly missed. Thanks for all the years! Appreciate all your hard work!!

  2. Dawn Sanders says:

    My mom and I are going to miss setting up our crafts in front of Bradley’s. We have had the most fun. Lois is such an inspiration and a wonderful Woman that I admire. I wish her the best, and can’t imagine her sitting idle, looking forward to seeing what her next adventure will be. We love you Lois.

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