OXFORD — The aesthetics may have changed some, but the J.E. Neilson Co. Department Store on the square still hearkens back to a bygone era when horse drawn carriages were folk’s main transportation.
One could easily mistake what is reportedly the oldest store in the South, according to a 1929 survey by the trade journal The Dry Goods Economist, for a museum. Its heavy carved wooden doors, marble entranceways, rustic hardwood and glass display cases and wide gallery on the front sidewalk seem better suited for a Smithsonian exhibit than the small Mississippi town. But the well-preserved building, which has occupied most of the square’s eastern side since 1897, will be an Oxford landmark forever if owner William Lewis Jr. has anything to say about it.
Neilson’s was originally a log cabin trading post on the north side of the square, selling everything from overalls to needles and thread. In 1964 when Lewis bought the store, he completely overhauled the place, making it into an upscale department store.
The odds may have been against the store, considering the four-plus years of turmoil the Civil War brought, followed years later by the Depression and later desegregation. And Neilson’s may not have survived if it had not been for Lewis and his sister and business partner, Olivia Nabors, who passed away in 2001.
Lewis practiced law in Oxford until a lady’s clothing store next door to Neilson’s burned around 1967.
“We had to get with it or let it go, and so I just left the practice thinking I might go back,” Lewis said. “I’ve never gone back.”
Neilson’s was founded in 1839 by East Tennessee migrant William Smith Neilson. Neilson left Tennessee not long after the former Chickasaw Indian lands were opened up for white settlement. Lafayette County had been founded just three years earlier.
The store was burned along with most of Oxford during the Civil War, but resumed operations in 1866. W.S. Neilson’s son, Joseph Edwin Neilson for whom the store is named, assumed operation of the store when his father died in 1892. In 1897 J.E. Neilson built the structure still occupied by Neilson’s and divided it into departments, concentrating the inventory on clothing.
In 1914, J.E. Neilson took on his son, David Glenn Neilson, as a business partner, and in 1930 William Lewis Sr., a store employee since 1912, bought into the business. J.E. Neilson died in 1936, leaving in his will his interest in the business to his son, David Glenn Neilson Jr., and Herman Glenn, a nephew.
In 1954 Herman Glenn retired from the partnership, and David Glenn Neilson Jr. followed. In 1964 David Neilson Sr. sold his interest in the firm and in the building occupied by the business to William Lewis Jr. and Nabors.
The 10-year period from 1954 to 1964 saw major changes, but it was nothing compared to what was ahead for Neilson’s.
William Lewis Jr. and Nabors began gradual renovation, modernization and expansion of Neilson’s, slowly turning it into the building it is today. The exterior has remained the same since 1897.
The work paid off. In 1980, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1989 Neilson’s celebrated its 150th birthday.
The work did not stop after that, however. Since that time, a modern computer system has been installed in the store to better serve customers, and more renovation has been completed, the latest of which should be finished by the end of this summer.
Of all the challenges Lewis and Nabors faced throughout their ownership of the store, Lewis said it is Oxford’s changing economy that has been the most challenging.
“Oxford and small towns in Mississippi didn’t get out of the Depression until the late ‘40s,” Lewis Jr. said. “When I first came upon the square, things were pretty dull.”
Today, the square is thriving, especially during football season. Lewis is happy about that.
“I don’t mean they (students) are all throwing their money around but they do have more means by a long shot than they did in the ‘30s or ‘40s,” he said. “Today we have a very pleasant niche in the market.”
Lewis still faces some challenges, such as the changing dress codes of students. Women still dress up, but the men’s line has definitely changed. His men’s line now mainly consists of blazers, khaki pants and polo shirts.
Lewis is now training his daughter, Amanda Lewis, 30, to run the business. But whoever the future owner is, he has a few suggestions.
“We’ve always been able to lope along and I wouldn’t suggest that the person who runs this store next try to look at the next town and put another branch in,” he said. “I think if we can keep it simple and personal it will always make someone a good living. The charm and ambience and success of this store is that it’s an upscale fish in a small pond.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1042.