By Michael J. Caylor, Jr.
Unless you moved to Merrill in the last few years you probably shopped at Caylor’s Corners at some point in time and along the way learned a thing or two about the store and the family behind it.
But one thing most people do not know is the secret behind a 50-year running advertisement in the Foto News every February. Despite numerous customer questions, few ever heard the true story on who Abe Schwartz was and why Caylor’s observed every Feb. 28 as his day.
Caylor’s was definitely a variety store. Over the years it grew to selling furniture, carpeting, appliances, and a host of clothes and footwear for every size that God created. The slogan of the store, “if we ain’t got it, you don’t need it,” never had too many doubters. And if they didn’t have it they were sure to point you to a local business that probably did.
Despite all of the merchandise stuffed in the store and in the bulging backroom, many people knew Caylor’s mainly for hunting season. During the course of a year you might have stopped in for a new pair of boots or maybe you bought your new water heater there or checked them out if you needed carpet or linoleum, and, of course, there were the Crazy Day bargains. Come hunting season though, very few entered the woods without first entering Caylor’s.
Many people who returned to Merrill to head to the family hunting cabin in November did not get the true hunting fever without first checking in at Caylor’s for a new hat or gloves along with plenty of stories and legends that were sure to be told by the family and visitors.
C.L. “Bud” Caylor got his start in the grocery business in his native Minocqua; he moved his growing family to Merrill in 1937 and operated a number of businesses. In the early 1940s, Bud was running a grocery store in the 400 block of West Main Street when for some reason he received a crate of rain coats. Not one to pass up a bargain, Bud put the coats on display and by that afternoon had sold them all.
Realizing there was more money in rain coats then ravioli, Bud soon closed up the grocery store and opened up what was later called a “freight salvage store” across the street before moving to a much larger storefront in 1954 in the 1200 block of East Main Street where LA Salon is today.
Cecil Hill was Bud’s first employee. Cecil kept his first pay check for the rest of life; it was what Bud could afford to pay him: a shovel, a hoe, and a rake. Cecil stuck around for 50 years until he moved to Bell Tower. What followed him was a host of “gals” for the front and a colorful group of “gas men,” but those are stories for another time.
Caylor’s had their ups and downs over the years. The winter of 1957 was legendary. It was so mild they were playing golf at Christmas time in Merrill, and there Bud Caylor sat with a family to feed and $3,000 worth of rubber boots in the basement of the store (that’s $25,000 today.) The winter of 1958 was also legendry, with snow so high it bailed out Bud from under the mountain of boots.
In 1959 things were going so well Bud opened a second store at what now is the empty lot at Main and Stuyvesant streets. It was called the Used and Bruised Store. If you check the city directory Tim Caylor is listed as the manager, never mind the fact that he was in the 9th grade at the time.
Then in July of 1962 the happy times came to a halt. Bud Caylor unexpectedly died at the age of 51. The six Caylor children still in town were stretched thin as the family tried to regroup and run the store. Pete and Kate had already moved out of Merrill, but the rest of the kids were doing their best to help. Bill (Thomas) who had gotten out of the Army a few years before was running the front, Bingo and Tuffy (Mary and Margaret) were already teaching, Shorty (Tim) was going to teachers’ college, Loopy (Michael) was in high school and Hank (Dan) was in grade school. Granny was trying to help where she could while trying to maintain the house on Genesee Street.
The family made it through Christmas of 1962 without Bud and without much money. The family spirit was truly broken. Without Bud they were missing the energy the store once had and certainly there were more bills than bucks. Then on Feb. 28, 1963, Abe Schwartz darkened the doorstep of Caylor’s Corners and a grim outlook for the future got even darker, at least for the next few hours.
Abe worked for a clothier company out of Milwaukee. A few months earlier his company had sold Caylor’s a shipment of pants on credit and their credit had run out that day. Abe was there for his $28, and he told the boys he was not leaving until he got it. Bill and Tim were not trying to get out of paying Abe, but the fact was they didn’t have $8 much less $28. So as he had promised, Abe waited.
Abe sat at the front of the store from 10:30 in the morning until just before closing that Thursday night when the boys had finally sold enough merchandise to come up with his $28 ($216 today.) As Abe headed back to Milwaukee, Tim and Bill were feeling almost as low as the day they buried their father. So they did what any good Irishman does. They went across the street to Carl Billington’s tavern to have a drink and talk about their problems.
There they discussed the future and life without Bud. Knowing they had two younger brothers and a mother to support, not to mention Bill’s now growing family, the boys decided then and there that no clothier from Milwaukee was going to break them.
With the continued help of their siblings the boys kept at it and soon the store was peeking its head above water. By the time more of their own children started coming along the boys could breathe better. Although far from being on Easy Street it appeared they might have beaten old Abe. A year to the day after Abe set up camp in the front of the store Bill took out an ad in the paper marking the first anniversary of Abe Schwartz Day, but no one outside the family got the joke.
Then in 1973 the State of Wisconsin passed a law that required all hunters to wear red tops during the gun deer season. Not wanting to miss out on clothing all those hunters, Caylor’s purchased a load of red coats and pants. When the coats arrived they were shocked to find the company accidently sent them double their order. Fearing they would never sell all those coats and not wanting to meet the next Abe Schwartz, the boys sheepishly called the company to explain their financial status. The sympathetic manager told them to sell what they could and they would talk after the deer season, but he would be willing to extend them 60 days credit – something that did not set their minds at ease.
At the end of the season Tim called the company and promised they would meet the 60-day mark; all they had left unsold was one coat and two pair of pants.
The ups and downs continued for the family and the store. Granny died in 2002, Bill in 2004, Loopy in 2009 and Hank in 2015. The store itself downsized in 2010 and closed altogether in 2013 as a sign of the economic times. The boys estimated they survived 11 depressions locally, but this one was the worst.
What is left is legendary. People still talk about the hunting season cartoons, the Crazy Day dances, the handmade signs in the windows, and come hunting season most of you hunters probably have at least one piece of clothing from Caylor’s that you take in the woods. The Caylor family will never forget the customers and the city that continued to support them for 50 years and allowed them to establish an honest business with fair pricing, something Bud would have been proud of… as would old Abe Schwartz.
By Michael J. Caylor, Jr.