The closing of McNeill’s Department Store in downtown West Jefferson marks the ending of a 123-year legacy.
Current owner Robin McNeill is thankful to the community for all of the years of patronage.
“I am taking away so many memories from having been the fourth generation McNeill to work at McNeill’s Department Store,” Robin said. She enjoyed telling the history of her family business.
At 123 years old, McNeill’s is the oldest family owned department store in North Carolina.
The store itself was founded by Elihu Alexander (E.A.) McNeill in 1889. With the help of his older brother Gaither McNeill, E.A. opened the E.A. McNeill Store when he was 17 years old, starting his 50-year career as a merchant. The original building was constructed in Jefferson and it was a center for trade and socializing.
The store was a country general store, which provided its customers with everything they might need, such as groceries, dry goods like seeds and Nunnallys hard candy, ready-made clothes, necessities like wool and hardware, and even patent medicines.
The E. A. McNeill Store changed its name to McNeill’s Department Store in 1933 when it moved to a new building in West Jefferson. The new store no longer sold groceries. The original building in Jefferson was lost to fire damage in 1935.
A true businessman, E.A. also invested in real estate and in banking. He was a director and vice president of the First National Bank of West Jefferson.
In addition, E.A. was deeply involved in his community through his membership with the Jefferson Presbyterian Church. He held different positions within the church over the years. Most notably, he was a Sunday school superintendent and a teacher.
While visiting his church one day in July 1939, E.A. was struck by a vehicle when crossing the road. He died a few hours later.
After his untimely death, ownership of the store would be taken on by E.A.’s two sons. On Jan. 1, 1941, James McNeill bought out his brother Edward and took full ownership of the store.
The current store in West Jefferson was built in 1952. As the store continued to move forward, ownership would change once more.
Keeping the business in the family, James’ son Robert D. McNeill started at the young age of 18. He bought out his brother Elihu (nicknamed “Hu”) in the 1960s.
Winning several awards, merit awards in particular, Robert D. McNeill enjoyed a very successful time for McNeill’s Department Store. When asked about her father, Robin said he was the go-getter of the family, and that he was always reading.
After Robert D. McNeill’s death in 1995, his daughter Robin would run the day to day operations of the store for about a year. She would take full ownership in 1996.
Robin recalls one memory in particular while working for her father as a clerk. One of her responsibilities was to make herself available to customers for assistance. One day, two ladies entered the store and didn’t accept Robin’s offer to help. Trying to remain available for questions, Robin hovered near them, straightening merchandise.
After the two women left the store, one of them called Robin’s father to complain on Robin for standing too close. The shoppers believed Robin was keeping a watchful eye on them to guard against theft. In reality, Robin was only trying to be considerate of the potential needs of the customers.
Robin’s uncle “Hu” would stick around the store after Robert’s death, often to chat with the customers. Robin said that the regular customers loved talking to her uncle when they stopped by.
During the 1990s, McNeill’s strongest brands were Levi, Wrangler, Carhart, North River and different types of dress clothes. However, Robin began to notice that dress clothes were only being purchased for weddings, funerals and graduations. Sense these are rare occasions, she decided to stop keeping dress clothes in stock.
When asked why McNeill’s Department Store has been so successful over the years, Robin McNeill said it was because of “fair prices and old time personal service.” In fact, the slogan for McNeill’s used to be “store for the thrifty” in the 1960s.
“It’s so difficult saying goodbye,” said Robin. But she does have one final message to all of her patrons from over the years:
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my many customers for their loyalty to my store. I have made so many friends and acquaintances along the way.”