You are now standing on the corner where one of the world’s largest department store empires began. Adam Gimbel was a Jewish man who came to the US from Bavaria (in what is now Germany) and arrived in New Orleans around 1830. At the age of twenty-five he made his way, mostly on foot, to Vincennes in 1842. He had worked along the way peddling small goods to people out of a sack he carried with him. When he arrived in Vincennes, he must have liked what he saw, because he acquired a peddler’s license and began selling to the citizens of Vincennes.
In the beginning, he rented space, and eventually he built his own store at the intersection of Second and Main Streets. More and more members of his family moved here to support the business. Many were very involved with the business and social life in Vincennes.
Gimbel has been given credit as being one of the first store owners to offer goods to all purchasers at set prices. In an era when many stores changed prices arbitrarily or based on factors such as the buyer’s race, this likely added to the trust and confidence that consumers felt towards the Gimbel family.
The Gimbels would eventually expand their business operations to Wisconsin, Philadelphia, and New York. The Vincennes store closed in 1981, and Gimbel Brothers finally shut down in 1987. In 2011 the most notable Vincennes building constructed by the Gimbels in Vincennes burned and was not rebuilt.
One of my favorite stories is about Jacob “Jake” Gimbel, Adam Gimbel’s son, and a young man named Curtis Grover Shake. Curtis did not know Jake Gimbel personally, but received word that he wanted to speak with him. After being prodded a bit by his father, Curtis put on his Sunday’s best outfit and went to Mr. Gimbel’s office downtown not knowing why. When Mr. Gimbel greeted Curtis, Mr. Gimbel explained to Curtis that he understood that he was planning to go to college at Indiana University. He went on to tell him that he wished to pay for all his college expenses. Not knowing what to say, but smart enough to accept, Curtis told Mr. Gimbel that he did not know how he would ever repay him. Mr. Gimbel replied that the only thing that he wanted was to know that if later in life Curtis had the means to help someone out that he would. As he said this, he was writing a note which he then handed to Curtis. He told him to give it to the lady downstairs in the store and it was to get Curtis a new suit of clothes to take to college with him at no cost.
Curtis Shake went on to do many great things in life. He was appointed to be a Supreme Court Justice for the state of Indiana and appointed as the presiding civilian judge over the Nuremberg, Germany war crime trials held after World War II. He was also a great historian and left a legacy of knowledge.
To some this corner may simply look like an empty lot with not much to offer. However, this historic corner still has countless stories to tell!