Remembering the Days of the Handshake Lease
In 1929 Leo Schelling came to Visalia and set up Schelling’s clothing store on Main Street. Ken, his son, eventually took over and in 2000 he retired and closed the 70-year-old shop, ending Visalia’s oldest apparel establishment.
Ken, now an 88-year-old man with a gracious demeanor and infectious smile, alongside his wife, Marla, the love of his life for more than 40 years, looks back on these early days with a phenomenal memory and a story to tell.
Born in Exeter on November 24, 1924, Ken moved to Visalia as a young boy with his family. The town’s population at the time was just under 10,000 and Main Street looked much different than it does today. A few planked boardwalks were present and Visalia Granite and Marble Works displayed its carved headstones prominently along the 200 block of west Main Street.
Ken attended Jefferson and Conyer schools, then Visalia High where he graduated in 1942. After a short time at Visalia Junior College he enlisted in the United States Navy. Identified early as naval officer material, Ken was selected to attend the University of Oklahoma to study engineering. He earned a civil engineering degree and then went on to graduate from Midshipman’s school. In the fall of 1946 he left regular navy service.
When he returned to Visalia he was hired by the County of Tulare in the planning department where he worked for about five years. In the early 1950s his father asked him to help in the clothing store, so Ken joined the family business. They worked alongside each other until the early 1970s when his father left for medical reasons.
Ken described the business climate downtown in the 1950s, as “a great time for everyone. The merchants did very well, including the small ‘mom and pop’ businesses.” He added that Visalia’s downtown was the regional shopping area and as a result it had a wide draw. He also remembered the wonderful cooperation between the big chain stores like Sears & Roebuck, J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, F. W. Woolworth, and J. J. Newberry, and the small shops like Bonny’s Jewelry, Ralston’s and Links Men’s Wear. “Everyone helped each other,” he said. “It was a different era.”
In 1957 he met with Burrel Hyde, his landlord at 207 W. Main Street and the two negotiated a lease for the clothing shop location. Once they came to terms, they shook hands and it was done. There was no written lease agreement and no paperwork. Years later, Ken and David Hyde, Burrel’s son, chuckled about the “handshake lease” that stayed in force until the shop closed in 2000.
The good times of the 1950s did get a wakeup call as the 1960s arrived. The shopping mall idea was spreading, and the thought of one on Mooney Boulevard was sending shock waves through Downtown. The business owners knew that if a mall were built, big chain stores would leave Downtown and so would many shoppers.
The merchants scrambled to create a plan to meet the mall challenge. Ken was one of the merchant leaders. They knew they needed city government support for their effort and the merchants found allies in Harry Tow, Randy Zeeb and others.
“They were godsends for Downtown,” Ken said. Shopping malls offered a large variety of merchandise under one roof in a controlled temperature environment and provided plenty of free parking. So, the downtown merchants took action. They pushed to get parking meters removed, more on and off street parking, and better traffic flow on Downtown streets.
More importantly, the merchants realized that with a mall located away from Downtown, the Chamber of Commerce would have to promote all shopping areas in Visalia and not just Downtown. They decided to form a Downtown association calling it “Visalians, Inc.” The new group was incorporated July 23, 1963, and Ken was one of the signers of the incorporation papers.
On May 11, 1964, the City of Visalia issued a $1.3 million building permit for the 200,000 square-foot Visalia Fair Shopping Center for Mooney Boulevard. Many of the Downtown businesses suffered economically after the center opened, but thanks to the efforts of the merchants and city officials, devastation of Downtown was averted.
Included Downtown was Visalia’s five-story Hotel Johnson – a hotel that at one time was called “The Queen Hotel of the Valley.” Built in 1917, it was in the heart of Downtown on the northeast corner of Main and Church streets, where Bank of America is now. It had a popular hotel coffee shop and an elegant dining room called the “Mirror Room” where many service clubs met regularly. The Towne Club was also part of the hotel. “It was one of the best bars in Downtown,” Ken said and added, “Otto, the bartender lived in the hotel and he knew the preferred drinks for all his regular customers.” The Hotel Johnson had a devastating fire in 1968 and was demolished.
Ken also remembered open gambling Downtown. Several establishments offered it legally including the Wunder Bar and The Stag. Both served food and had card rooms in the back. Later the two combined to become the Wunder Stag Café, located near where Colima Mexican restaurant is today.
Service stations were common Downtown as well. Bartell Todd had his Texaco station at 309 W. Main Street across from the Fox Theatre. Eventually it was removed to make way for the building that became Sears & Roebuck.
Restaurants were part of the Downtown business scene in the 1950s, including places like Motley’s at Church and Main, Sequoia Coffee Shop at 123 W. Main, and Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen at 414 W. Main. But there were few compared to the number of restaurants today. “Downtown has become a place where people come to enjoy dining,” Ken said.
It’s clear, this modest man had his finger on the pulse of Downtown history. Ken called Downtown Visalia in the 1950s a center for shopping and now it has become much more. It continues to offer people a great shopping experience, but now it has expanded into an entertainment center as well – a place where people go to stroll the streets, mingle with friends, see a show, and have a nice meal.
More challenges lie ahead for Visalia’s Downtown, but Ken Schelling is confident the business district will continue to do well.