By Carolynn Tews Mawhinney
Most of the buildings in downtown Cedarburg have been standing there since the 1800s, but the majority of them have served many different purposes along the way.
Today the building at the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Spring Street bears signage stating “Cedarburg General Store Museum.” Over fifty years ago it held a dress store called Jermaine’s, and its co-owners, Ruth Mielke and Jermaine Buchel, were instrumental in shaping the lives of all who shopped there.
The store itself held nooks, crannies and treasures galore. There was a glass jewelry counter just as you came up the steps. There were racks of dresses and coats along the walls, and a dressing room in the far corner. There were open shelves on the south wall with plastic boxes of gloves and hankies, scarves, nylons and women’s underwear. There were belts on hangers and shelves filled with cardboard boxes of sweaters, blouses, slippers, purses and hats. Assistance was required if you needed anything from the shelves, but you could browse through the dresses as you pleased. Jermaine’s also offered bra fittings — probably the first store in OzaukeeCounty to do so.
If you were invited into the “back room,” you walked alongside Ruth and Jermaine’s sewing machines, strewn with garments, stick pins and thread. There were more racks of clothes, many not yet priced; clothes waiting for Jermaine and Ruth’s alterations; a table for the employees to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, and boxes of more clothes just about everywhere, anxiously waiting to be opened. Organization in the back was often on an “as needed” basis, but I don’t think anyone cared. We were there to shop – a female quest that hasn’t changed in all these years
What has changed, along with the store itself, is the innate trust of years gone by. Women who walked into Jermaine’s could walk out with three to five dresses or sweaters or slacks without paying a dime. Instead of credit cards assuring payment, the customer walked out with a 3X4” carbon copy receipt showing their name, the date, the items, and the price, along with the message “On Approval.” If you needed a dress that day, but your wallet was empty, you could take it home and pay for it — a little from each paycheck.
Ruth and Jermaine had a gift for knowing what their shoppers liked. Given enough notice, if a customer needed a dress or outfit for a special occasion, they would shop for her when salesmen came into the store, or on their next shopping trip to Chicago. I had the privilege of going on several of those trips as a teenager, and have many fond memories of warehouses and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.
Back in the day, Ruth and Jermaine worked together to bring quite a sense of fashion to our fair city. But even more important was the trust and respect they graciously gave their customers.
About the Author: Growing up in Cedarburg, Carolynn never dreamed life and work would take her to Ohio, New Jersey and eight other Wisconsin cities. She loves cooking, gardening, reading and water color painting, but most especially writing. She has written stories about growing up in Cedarburg, has co-authored her Degner family history book, and wants to learn more of her Tews ancestors who settled in Freistadt in the 1840s. Carolynn lives in Grafton.