Marshall-Wells Hardware (through 1922)

Marshall-Wells c. 1920. (Image: Zenith City Online)

The history of the Marshall-Wells Company has a place of importance in this publication because it frequently throws significant light upon the history of Duluth itself and involves in a peculiarly interesting manner the fortunes and careers of a number of prominent local business men, chief among them being the veteran founder of the business, Albert Morley Marshall.

In 1882, when Duluth had less than 5,000 population and was only a small and unimproved town around a lake port, with the lumbering industry behind, a retail hardware business under the name G. C. Greenwood & Company was established in the depot corner of Superior street. About two years later the first iron ore was shipped from the Vermillion Range, and with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad Duluth grew so rapidly that it became a city of 18,000 population.

Needing larger capital for his business, Mr. Greenwood interested his uncle, A. B. Chapin, a Saginaw lumberman, and in 1886 the firm was changed to A. B. Chapin & Company, with Mr. Chapin in personal charge. A three-story frame building was erected on South Lake avenue that year. Another important firm of Duluth at that time was Wells-Stone & Company, wholesale grocers and hardware men, who soon afterward merged the hardware department with that of A. B. Chapin & Company, resulting in the Chapin-Wells Hardware Company. In 1891 this firm moved into a new six-story and basement brick building on lower Fifth avenue, West, which was the home of the company for nine years. In 1892, when it became apparent that large additions of capital were necessary, there occurred the great crisis in the business. This was due partly to the industrial depression which culminated the following year, and also to the fact that some of those interested in the Chapin-Wells organization were desirous of withdrawing. At that time negotiations were entered with Albert M. Marshall of Saginaw, Michigan.

Albert Morley Marshall was born December 25, 1851. His father, Seth Marshall, was born near Hartford in Colebrook, Connecticut, but spent his active life at Painesville, Ohio, where he was a hardware merchant, president of the First National Bank and otherwise extensively interested in northern Ohio business. His fifth child was Albert M. Marshall, who grew up and was educated in the schools of Painesville. At the age of nineteen he went to Saginaw and entered the shipping room of Morley Brothers, hardware merchants. For twenty-two years he remained with that firm, and when he left was vice president and general manager and had demonstrated the faculty of gathering about him and infusing his personal influence through a splendid organization. He was also president of the U. S. Graphite Company and the Lufkin Rule Company, which he had started at Cleveland and later moved to Saginaw.

In the face of conditions that prevailed in 1893 it is possible to credit Mr. Marshall with nothing less than extraordinary vision and courage in surrendering his attractive and promising interests in Michigan and elsewhere and taking hold of a proposition at Duluth that promised a constant battle as a precedent for growth and success.

In the spring of 1893 he acquired the controlling interest in the Chapin-Wells Hardware Company, the name being changed to the Marshall-Wells Hardware Company. The chief owner of the Wells interests, C. W. Wells, was drowned the same fall while duck hunting, and his partner, F. C. Stone, died three months later. Their estates were represented in the Marshall-Wells directorate for some years. Mr. Marshall in the meantime was left to fight out the battle almost alone.

With the beginning of the panic of 1893 there was a general shut down of mines, lumber operations, railway extension, but he persisted in maintaining his business organization and even added to his force of salesmen, soliciting business all over the northwestern country. The wisdom of this step was proved several years later, when with the gradual lifting of panic conditions it was found that the Marshall-Wells Company had become securely entrenched in all the northern and northwestern states and even in Canada and Alaska.

In the midst of trying conditions in 1894 Mr. Marshall began the preparation of a complete catalogue that would represent every article carried in stock, and at that time the “Zenith” trade mark was adopted, which for a quarter of a century has been the guarantee of quality on all goods distributed by this firm.

One of the chief sources of success to the Marshall-Wells organization has been Mr. Marshall’s faculty of picking and retaining the right sort of men in his organization. He entrusted a young Canadian with first opening up an international business for the firm in Canada, and with the Klondike gold discoveries of 1898 the emissaries of the Marshall-Wells Company were soon within the Arctic Circle. Out of this venture developed the great business handled by the firm in the Canadian northwest through Winnipeg, where the first warehouse of the company was established in 1901. In 1901 the company also rented a barn in Portland, Oregon, as the first warehouse of the Portland branch, and within less than ten years several successive buildings were erected by the firm in that city, until the Portland branch now handles business from the Pacific northwest to Los Angeles and the Imperial Valley of California. Through the Portland house was also done a large export business to the Hawaiian Islands, and more recently to Russia and China. The Spokane branch of the firm was opened in January, 1909, to serve the great trade of the inland empire. In July, 1912, was incorporated the Marshall- Wells Alberta Company, which took over previous connections of the firm and an old established business at Edmonton, Alberta, and this house now controls the trade of that northwestern province and north to the Arctic Circle.

In the meantime, in spite of developments and extensions to these far-flung fields, addition after addition has been made to the Duluth headquarters. Besides the enormous material facilities the personnel of the Duluth organization has increased from forty-four employes of 1893 to a small army of upwards of 1,000 in the wholesale hardware business.

One of the individuals in this great organization, writing from personal knowledge and facts known to the personnel of the Marshall- Wells Company, has given this interesting tribute: “It is not in anything but the leadership of its founder, its captain-general, Mr. A. M. Marshall, who better realized and appreciated the resources of this great northwest, and had the courage, the confidence, and the ability to invade the far west and develop that business at a time when other jobbers were deserting the territory-that accounts for the real secret of Marshall-Wells success.

“His counsel and guidance have pervaded every department-the lines of goods, the contracts made, the catalogue, the advertising, the extension of territory and of credit; the selection of his staff, their training, the principles inculcated in them, and the constant personal watchfulness over the activities of every factor in the business-his broad knowledge of finance, manufacturing and merchandising in general; his deep insight into human nature and his happy methods of treating each, have been the fundamentals-his technique.

“As to his business tactics and broader strategy, they might easily be compared with the successful campaigning of a military organization, for surely merchandising is warfare; peaceful battles are trade gains, trade victories, won by the training, the co-ordination, the resources, reserves, the initiative, the attack, the consolidation, and the follow-up.” A great business from ordinary commercial standards, it is also great as an exemplification of the human element in business. The company provides many forms of profit-sharing, insurance, pension funds, and other advanced programs of welfare.

It was after he had seen his business reach the full tide of success and influence that Mr. Marshall in 1918 took the chairmanship of the Board of Directors and named his older son, Seth Marshall, as president and general manager. At that time one of his old associates said: “In my opinion no other merchant in the great northwest has been the equal of Mr. Marshall in the vision and the optimism which so benefited this great area of expansion, or has the ability, energy, courage and devotion to a great work which he has had, and no other has accomplished so much as he.”


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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