As a Daily Oklahoman newspaper article once declared, “John A. Brown Co.—like Delia D. Brown herself—was the grande dame of central Oklahoma merchandising.” In fact, the fabled department store’s reach stretched across Oklahoma. Its roots extended before statehood to a chain of downtown Oklahoma City dry goods stores beginning at least as early as 1901.
Doug Loudenback’s blog article at www.dougdawg.blogspot.com provides a colorful and informative chronicle of Brown’s history. It features a 1904 Oklahoman article announcing “Brock’s Elegant New Store.” The story described the opening of Brown’s forerunner Sidney Brock’s Dry Goods store, which itself inhabited space previously operated by Mitscher-Mitchell Dry Goods Company:
“The infant’s wear department is one of the most complete as well as the sweetest in the store…The corset department is a special feature, and will be given great attention by the store management…notions, handkerchiefs and neckwear and such like trifles dear to women’s hearts are there in abundance.”
As shared by Loudenback, the article also described how a “full orchestra played all during the day” and detailed a garment display room which “has in connection a rest room, which will doubtless be a welcome convenience to ladies shopping. It gives the true metropolitan touch to the store.”
Kansas native A. O. Rorabaugh and his younger cousin John A. Brown bought the OKC entity in 1915. For seventeen years, they grew Rorabaugh-Brown Dry Goods until Brown and his wife Delia’s brother John Dunkin bought out Rorabaugh in 1932. Majority partner Brown changed the store name to his own.
Growth and Challenge
From the 1920s through the 1950s, Brown’s flagship downtown store expanded across the pulsating heart of downtown OKC from Robinson to Harvey and Main Street to Park Avenue. Delia personally selected innumerable items that the company offered for sale. Brown’s presence mushroomed outside of downtown OKC as well, into the suburbs and Tulsa.
All the while, challenges were legion. They included John and Delia’s apparent fears in the 1930s of kidnapping, a loathsome phenomenon of the time whose victims ranged from Oklahoma City oilman Charles Urschel to aviation legend Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy, who was found murdered. Then, John died on a trip with his wife in 1940, unexpectedly forcing her into solo leadership of the booming company.
OKC civil rights pioneer Clara Luper and other African-Americans and whites pressured the company intensely from 1958-1961 to integrate its lunchroom, soda fountains, and rest rooms, and to allow blacks the same opportunity as whites to try on clothes and shoes before they purchased them. The nation’s longest civil rights sit-in ended successfully when Delia befriended Luper and, despite economic threats from some sections of the white community, decided of her own volition to extend the same privileges in her stores to African-Americans as whites received in this era of lingering segregation. Our OKLAHOMA GOLD! podcast “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” covers many of these dramatic events HERE.
Throughout the 1960s, “white flight” spawned by ruinous federal school busing mandates took tens of thousands of people—and Brown’s customers—away from central areas of Oklahoma City to suburbs and other communities, including the family of this author. At the same time, innovative new air conditioned indoor shopping “malls” provided additional incentive for shoppers to abandon the downtown districts of OKC and other cities across America. And, both federal and local urban renewal zealots pressured Delia and her company, whose aging buildings stretched across a wide swath of premium downtown real estate.
Then, in 1967, Delia Dunkin Brown, the heart and soul of John A. Brown Company for decades, died. The organization never recovered. Indeed, now owned by Minnesota-based retail giant Dayton Hudson, within a few years even as smaller Brown’s suburban locations opened, its colossal downtown store closed, and the wrecking ball destroyed the entire complex, rich in history and memories as it was.
Triumph and Challenge
The end of the trail for John A. Brown Co., largest retailer in Oklahoma and eighth-largest employer in Oklahoma City, came in 1984 when Dayton Hudson sold all remaining Brown’s properties to Dillards Department Stores, which placed its own name on the Brown’s stores. Upon that occasion, The Oklahoman’s Mary Jo Nelson recalled the vast and loyal following commanded by the company through its half-century-plus of glory days:
From all over western Oklahoma, families brought children to Brown’s for the annual school outfitting. A former cityan who moved to California planned vacations around the store. Her travels included an Oklahoma City stay so she could buy her favorite crystal and goods at a cost that pleased her.
Longtime shopper Betty Paramore spoke for countless Brown’s customers when she told The Oklahoman at around the same time, “Everybody traded at John A. Brown’s. They carried nice brands of things; they weren’t necessarily the most expensive. It was always interesting to shop there. It was like a home place.”
Perhaps another Oklahoman article when Dillard’s purchased the remaining stores in 1984 provided an appropriate epitaph both for the historic John A. Brown Stores and the woman who so long led them:
Mrs. Brown was faithful to downtown…When rumors of a closing spread in 1966, she vehemently denied them. ‘The store is not for sale,’ she declared, disclosing plans were under way for the ‘nicest store in the Southwest, if, and when, urban renewal authorities decide to leave me alone.’ Just back from New York, she said, ‘I'm staying…While others have, I'm not running out on downtown, because no one, my people or my customers, have ever run out on me.”,
But this remarkable woman died the following year. Not even her dynamic and innovative husband proved to be indispensable to the continued success of his namesake company. Time has shown that she was.