“A clerk had to show Mother each item. She retrieved a pair of folded silk stockings and carefully inserted her hand to show how the color looked against the skin.”

–Jean Lobe, from her memoir recounting her experiences growing up in Wauwatosa in the 1930s

In a memoir of her childhood in Wauwatosa, Jean Lobe fondly recalled shopping with her mother and sister at the Lefeber Brothers Department Store in the 1930s. The large, red brick store anchored the corner of State Street and Harwood Avenue in the heart of downtown Wauwatosa – known locally as “the village.” Jean recalled the dusty smell of wood and dry goods, and the bare wood floor that supported the elegant glass and wood cabinets stocked with merchandise. She heard the whir of vacuum tubes that, after each transaction, carried sales slips, cash, and change, to and from the store’s office on the balcony far above her head.

For Jean, her mother, and sister, shopping at Lefebers’ was more than just an errand – the “ladies” dressed up and made a day of it. From their home a couple of miles away, Mrs. Lobe drove the family’s 1930 Chevy to downtown Wauwatosa, where she angle-parked on the street. In those days, cars shared the streets with the trolleys that clanged and wobbled along their tracks, transporting passengers to and from Milwaukee several times daily.

A new brick Lefeber Brothers Department Store was built in 1906 at the corner of State Street and Harwood Avenue. It replaced an older wood frame structure built on the same site. Image Source: Wauwatosa Historical Society Postcard Collection.

In addition to Lefebers’, there were many other places for the Lobes to shop in downtown Wauwatosa – the village had more than one pharmacy, a hardware store, meat markets, bakeries, and several family-owned grocery stores. By the 1930s, Wauwatosa had evolved from its beginnings as a mill town that served local farmers to a thriving bedroom suburb of Milwaukee with homes built side by side along tree-lined streets with sidewalks.

The First Lefeber Brothers Department Store

The first Lefeber Brothers store that opened in 1886 on the lower level of the old Wauwatosa House. Image source: Wauwatosa Historical Society, Lefeber Glass Plate Collection

Originally called Harts Mills, Wauwatosa was established in 1835 by Charles Hart and his brother, Thomas, who built a sawmill and gristmill along the Menomonee River five miles west of Milwaukee. The settlement of Harts Mills was in the center of Wauwatosa Township – one of seven townships in Milwaukee County created by the federal government’s General Land Office in 1840. After its first town meeting in 1842, the name “Harts Mills” was changed to “Wauwatosa.” In 1892, Wauwatosa was incorporated as a village.

In 1886, three brothers – James, Abraham, and Joseph Lefeber – opened a general store selling farm implements and general merchandise on the lower level of the old Wauwatosa House. The three-story wood frame inn once served travelers along the Milwaukee to Watertown Plank Road that first reached Wauwatosa in 1849. After the first generation of brothers retired, the store passed to the next generation, and James’ sons – Ernest, James C., and Cornelius – managed the store.

On July 10, 1895, a large fire spread through the village business center. The flames destroyed thirteen buildings and damaged six. Sixty-three people were left homeless. Almost the entire town center had to be rebuilt, and the Village Board mandated that all new buildings be constructed of brick or stone. Soon after the fire, Emerson D. Hoyt – village president and a state assemblyman – helped secure a charter with the state of Wisconsin that declared Wauwatosa a fourth-class city. The change from village to city status allowed Wauwatosa to issue bonds to finance the business area’s rebuilding and to create a professional fire department. Although Lefebers’ wood frame store escaped significant damage, the brothers tore it down and built a new red brick store in 1906.

The New Lefeber Brothers’ Department Store

The interior of the new Lefeber Brothers Department Store. The sign advertising oysters is notable – one of the store’s most popular items was fresh-made oyster stew. One of the three store owners, Ernest Lefeber, stands second from the left. A younger brother of Ernest, Wilbur, stands next to him at his left. The man at the far right is Clarence Lefeber, a cousin of the owners. An employee identified as Convers is at the far left. Image source: Wauwatosa Historical Society Lefeber Glass Plate Collection.

The new Lefeber Brothers Department Store, true to its name, had an ample first-floor space divided into “departments” that held similar types of goods. The second floor had room for storage and offices. (It was home to Wauwatosa’s City Hall from 1936 to 1957.) Large picture windows with ever-changing displays tempted the passersby. Weekly ads in the Wauwatosa News also drew shoppers into the store.

Lefeber Brothers’ Department Store carried a great variety of goods to supply the needs of its customers. Some specific items include women’s hats and men’s caps, fur-trimmed overcoats, dishes, pots and pans, kitchen utensils, rugs, furniture, umbrellas, books, stationery, hardware, shoes, and boots. A central stairway led to a toy department on the lower level with stuffed animals, toy trains, paper dolls, and crayons.

The store added groceries to its inventory in 1913 and installed a large refrigeration system. They even sold tulip bulbs – a reference to the Lefebers’ ancestors, who emigrated from Holland to the United States in 1850.

The End of an Era

The Lefeber Brothers’ Department Store prospered in downtown Wauwatosa for over seventy years. It closed in 1958, soon after two of the brothers, Ernest and James C., died. By then, Cornelius, at seventy-two, was ready to retire.

The store served the community well during its heyday, but Cornelius’ decision to close in the late 1950s was a sign of the times. Chain stores and newly built shopping malls nearby funneled business away from Wauwatosa’s downtown. Capital Court Shopping Center and Mayfair Mall opened just a few miles away.

A Lefebers’ window display featuring Jelke’s Good Luck Margarine. Image source: Wauwatosa Historical Society Lefeber Glass Plate Collection.

The old red brick building stood vacant from 1958 until a fire destroyed it in 1964. It was not until 2001 that a new building named Lefeber Point was constructed at the corner of State Street and Harwood Avenue –the original site of the Lefeber Brothers Department Store.

–Written by Carol Rosen, January 2024


Michael Leannah. Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department Store. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013.

Michael Leannah. “Wisconsin Department Stores,” Recollection Wisconsin, 4 October 2013. https://recollectionwisconsin.org/wisconsin-department-stores

Jean Lobe. “The Village–Wauwatosa in the 1930s” Child in Urban America Project. 1 May 2001. https://www.marquette.edu/cgi-bin/cuap/db.cgi?uid=default&ID=6002&view=Search&mh=1

Wauwatosa Historical Society. Wauwatosa. Images of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.