By CHARLES CANTRELL
THE BROTHERS FIVE: Pictured are the five Vandever brothers, who grew a small dry goods store into Tulsa’s premier department store. From left, Charles, Vern , W. A, Gary and Voris Vandever.
Courtesy of the Vandever Family
At the time of statehood Tulsa had much to offer. The early settlers had already arrived in Oklahoma Indian Territory seeking land ownership for farming and ranching. Then came the horde of speculators seeking the promise of oil wealth. But W. A. Vandever came here for the opportunity the wealth of land and oil would provide for a merchant. He offered dry goods to what was to become a very wealthy city known as the Oil Capital of the World.
Vandever’s lifelong career in the mercantile business began at age 15 in his hometown of Irving, Ill., when he got a job at the general store. He took to the business in a big way and embarked on a path that would eventually bring him to the little boomtown of Tulsa in 1904. But first he would work in several stores in his hometown, gaining the kind of knowledge and experience he dreamed would lead to ownership of his own store.
After absorbing all he could in Irving, Vandever made his way to the big city of St. Louis to finish his self-education at one of the larger stores. There he met B. C. Beane from Arkansas, who offered him a job as manager of his store in Fayetteville. Beane must have seen the potential in Vandever when he sold his store in Fayetteville and the two joined forces making their way to Tulsa by way of Tahlequah, Indian Territory, where they opened a dry goods store.
But the lure of Tulsa was obvious for mercantile business entrepreneurs. Oil and capital were beginning to flow and were destined to foster not only a wealthy class of oil barons, but also a strong professional and working class of consumers. The two partners saw Tulsa’s market potential, and Vandever’s dream of store ownership was realized when the doors of Beane & Vandever Dry Goods Company opened on Main Street in the Eagon Building, the tallest and largest building in town.
Vandever wasted no time in luring his four younger brothers to the city of opportunity. The first to arrive was Charles. Although all the brothers would eventually work in and manage the store, Charles first tried his hand at retail by opening a cigar store and a barbershop, both on Main Street across from Beane and Vandever. When W.A. finally bought out Beane in 1912 to become the sole owner of Vandevers Dry Goods Company, Charles would take the occasion to sell his stores and join his brother.
Brother Gary came fresh out of high school and started as an errand boy and ended up on the management team. Finally came the remaining two brothers, Voris and youngest brother, Verne. Each Vandever assumed a role in running the store under the overall guidance of eldest brother, W. A. It proved to be a formidable family team as the general department store began to successfully establish itself in the Tulsa market and achieve the status of a premier retail outlet for the region.
But it wasn’t always easy. In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s general department stores were the equivalent of today’s shopping malls offering something for everyone. Floor space was dedicated to products that appealed to a broad demographic range. Oil-wealthy Tulsans wanted the accouterments of the eloquent life style, while most Tulsans just wanted value products, good bargains and fashionable attire. It was always a daunting challenge to juggle inventory among so many market demands. Often the only answer was to increase floor space to accommodate the ever-increasing needs of the marketplace and not give up market share to competing stores like Brown Dunkin, Clark’s Good Clothes, Renberg’s or any of the many locally owned department or clothing stores. The results of the on-going quest to serve Tulsa’s diverse market needs came during the mid-20th century as Vandevers became firmly established as a household name in the city.
When the 1950s arrived and the post-war economy kicked in, W.A. and his brothers had positioned the store to take full advantage of Tulsa’s robust economy. They managed more than 129,000 square feet of multi-level retail space in the heart of downtown Tulsa, plus a store in Bartlesville. At Vandevers one could purchase everything from Paris fashion knock-offs to Levi Jeans, from a full-length mink coat to a youngster’s Hopalong Cassidy outfit, expensive imported jewelry and Mickey Mouse watches. Tulsans could even purchase household appliances at a Vandevers warehouse location. All things big and small could be found at the store with everything. Vandevers continued to be the go-to department store in Tulsa.
In addition to keeping pace with the retail merchandise needs of a fast-growing city, the Vandever family always found time for community service. In the first half century of the city, very little of major importance happened without the avid support of the Vandevers. Whether it was W.A. Vandever joining with other city leaders to sign a “stud horse” promissory note that financed the creation of Tulsa Municipal Airport or the many donations he made to bring railroads to the city, the family was always there whenever a need arose. W.A. is credited with founding the Tulsa State Fair and was instrumental in creating the first International Oil Exposition. His brothers and their wives served on boards, chaired charitable events and embraced every opportunity to serve the community. This legacy of community involvement had been well established in 1926 as noted in a news article about the family: “In every movement for the good of the city one or more of the Vandevers is almost certain to be found taking an active and helpful part.”
The city’s migration to the suburbs that began in the ‘50s increased many fold in the ‘60s. Like other merchants of the times, Vandevers followed the migration south of the city first to Utica Square, then to Southroads Mall, opening large stores designed and staffed to duplicate the original store’s merchandising model. In addition, the company opened Miss Jackson’s and a store in Bartleville. But the times and economics of Tulsa were rapidly changing. Even though the central city became less viable for retail business, Vandevers was one of the last to close its downtown store mostly out of respect for its many long-time customers. Many factors contributed to bring about the end of Vandevers. It could have been the large investment in time and resources made chasing the market migration to the suburbs or the invasion of big chains with their marketing prowess. It could have been adhering too long to the traditional general department store model of being everything to everyone and the consequential loss of a well-defined market position. Add to these factors the loss of team leader W. A. Vandever with his impeccable leadership along with attrition taking its toll on the team of brothers who had so effectively meshed their talent over the years and all together it was enough to bring an end to one of Tulsa’s finest retail enterprises.
Many retirement-age Tulsans hold fond memories of shopping with their parents downtown at Vandevers. A few will recall their mother’s story of how they were able to hold a job through the great depression because they worked for the Vandever family who took care of employees. Some might remember Mr. Vern (Vandever), who stood at the door of the big store downtown and warmly greeted customers by name. They remember aisles of goods and friendly clerks who knew the customers, or riding on an elevator controlled by a nice lady who announced what floor you were on, or sitting on Santa’s lap. Many women recall purchasing a stunning prom dress, the sight of colorful dry goods and the smells of expensive perfumes. The store, with all its wonders, may be gone, but the memories and the positive impact of Vandevers Department Store and the Vandever family, one of Tulsa’s finest centennial families, live on.