Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Pelhamite William T. Grant, Founder of Grant's Dime Stores, Donated Land for Our Lady of Perpetual Help - St. Catharine Parish in 1939

The name “William Thomas Grant, Jr.” may sound like a common name, but it once belonged to an uncommon man who lived in Pelham Manor. He was the founder and Chairman of W.T. Grant Co. 

I have written a number of times about W. T. Grant and his company.  See, e.g. William Thomas Grant Jr. and His Estate in Pelham Manor, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 33, Aug. 20, 2004, p. 6, col. 1.

For many decades W.T. Grant Co. was one of the most successful retail chains in the United States. William T. Grant’s success enabled him to build a lovely estate on the north side of Boston Post Road where Our Lady of the Perpetual Help stands today. Grant donated this 4-1/2 acre estate to St. Catharine's for construction of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  Today's Historic Pelham article provides a brief account of W.T. Grant, his company, his ties to Pelham, and the donation of his estate to St. Catharine's.

William Thomas Grant, Jr. was born on June 27, 1876 in Stevensville, Pa. His father bounced happily from failed venture to failed venture including a flour mill in Stevensville that flopped and an unsuccessful tea-store in Fall River, Massachusetts. Yet, as Grant stated in his autobiography published in 1954, his father was “always the optimist” seeing the possibility for “a great business success” in every venture. W.T. Grant’s father never found great business success, but his radiant optimism and desire to create a successful retail establishment passed to his son. 

William Thomas Grant, Jr.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

W.T. Grant had a happy childhood, but remembered in his biography that “there was never a time when the family income was sufficient to give my mother any sense of security” and that “many times” the family “had to move to a home where rent was lower.” 

As a youngster, to help his family, Grant became a hustler in the positive sense. He ran errands for neighbors and friends. He sold flower seeds. He delivered newspapers. He helped the owner of a butter-and-egg wagon. He worked at a drugstore fountain. During this time, he learned one important thing about himself. As he put it, he learned that: “I liked to sell.” 

Unfortunately, Grant liked to sell so much that he failed to focus on his education. He dropped out of high school during the second year. As he put it, he was “fascinated with selling” and his string of jobs after quitting high school reflected that fact. According to one biographer: 

“Grant became an errand boy for a group of Boston lawyers and then worked for a wholesale shoe house in that city and in a warehouse for a whetstone manufacturer in Pike’s Station, N.H. In 1895, he returned to Boston and entered retailing as a clerk in a boot and shoe company, followed by jobs selling shoes in a department store and managing a shoe store in Amesbury, Mass. As a sideline, he promoted prizefights.” 

While working as the manager of the shoe department for Almy, Bigelow and Washburn, a large department store in Salem, Massachusetts, Grant experienced an epiphany. He observed that department store customers bought twenty-five cent items on impulse. His 1954 biography, THE STORY OF W.T. GRANT AND THE EARLY DAYS OF THE BUSINESS HE FOUNDED, says: 

“One Saturday morning I had worked in the shoe department nearly an hour, trying to help a customer to come to a decision, finally making the sale after a dozen fittings. To cool my own exasperation after this chore, I took a turn through the accessories section of the store. Around the jewelry counter, covered with 25-cent items, were five or six women. I saw each one pick up a hat pin, or a brooch or bracelet and put down her quarter. No problem. No sizes. No fitting. No selling effort. Every purchase was an impulse purchase. The salesgirl had only to answer questions and make change. Suddenly I realized that this was the kind of selling I had been looking for! This was merchandise in motion!” 

Grant had observed the popularity of five and ten cent stores. He seemed to believe that there was a niche to be filled: the “25 Cent Store”. In 1906, at the age of 30, he opened his first “25 Cent Store” in Lynn, Massachusetts. By the time he died in 1972 (at the age of 96) his nationwide retailing empire included nearly 1,200 W.T. Grant Co. Stores. Grant’s Years in Pelham During the first year of the operation of his first store in Lynn, Massachusetts, Grant traveled to New York City so frequently on buying trips that he opened a tiny office in the City at 395 Broadway. That tiny office eventually grew to the behemoth national headquarters of the W.T. Grant Co. 

In the early years of his company, Grant worked long hours and opened more stores in the northeast. He handled his own buying for the stores and negotiated leases for each store that he opened.  Within ten years, he had opened thirty-six stores. By 1918 he raised the 25-cent price limit on the retail chain’s merchandise to $1. 

By about this time, W.T. Grant and his wife, Lena Blanche Brownell Grant (whom he married in 1907), were residents of Pelham Manor where they lived for many years. The couple, who adopted two children, built a lovely estate on the north side of Boston Post Road. The estate consisted of about six acres of property on which stood a large Manor House and two smaller houses. Records in the possession of the Library of Congress indicate that work on the estate continued for many years and that the beautifully landscaped grounds were designed by “Lundquist, L., landscape architect.”

W. T. Grant Home That Once Stood in Pelham Manor.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Fountain of the W. T. Grant Estate that Once
Stood in Pelham Manor.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Grant and his first wife divorced and, on September 3, 1930, he married Beth Bradshaw. The couple adopted one child in addition to Grant’s two other adopted children. Grant had homes in Pelham Manor, Cape Cod and Miami but he eventually moved to Greenwich, Connecticut where he lived until his death. 

In about 1937, St. Catharine’s Parish served Catholics throughout the entire Town of Pelham and was experiencing a “rising number of standees at all Masses.” Grant, a Protestant, offered to give his estate to the Archdiocese of New York. According to a history of the church, the initial offer was refused because the diocesan office already had arranged an option on a piece of property at Hazen Street and the Esplanade for a proposed new parish. But, “[d]uring ensuing meetings with the village board of Pelham Manor, the idea met strong opposition, zoning permission was not granted, and eventually the option was dropped.”

St. Catharine’s arranged an intermediary to approach W.T. Grant about his previously offered gift. The approach was successful and on May 27, 1939 a portion of the estate containing the Manor House and the land on which it stood was deeded for $1.00 to St. Catharine’s Parish as the gift of “Wm. T. and Beth B. Grant”. Approvals and legal technicalities required months of effort, but on December 8, 1939, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, at 11:00 a.m., worshipers celebrated the first Mass in a tiny chapel created within the Manor House. 

William and Beth Grant deeded a gift of the remainder of the estate on December 31, 1940. According to a history of the parish, the second gift included: 

“the area now used for parking near the school and two additional houses one of which remains standing today as the parish rectory . . . The second house, which for several years was occupied by [New York Supreme Court Justice Ernest E.L.] Hammer, was later razed for the parking lot.” 

The parish was established as an Out Mission for St. Catharine’s Parish. On November 22, 1954, however, all the property of the Out Mission was transferred from St. Catharine’s Parish to the recently created Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. 

The parish quickly remodeled the tiny little chapel. According to a history of the parish published in 1968, the remodeled chapel “became 71 feet long, able to seat 200 people. The Manor House [was] occupied by Monsignor McCormick and his first assistants.” 

The parish expanded its physical plant rapidly. In 1955, Mr. and Mrs. Abdala Barsa gave the parish a half-block piece of property on Fowler Avenue facing Boston Post Road. This became a parking area. In 1956 the Parish purchased a nearby home from Evans Dawson to serve as a convent. In 1958, the parish completed and opened a building designed by Edward Flaegle to serve as a parochial school for children of the parish. 

Today, the Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a vibrant and successful part of the Pelham Community celebrating its fiftieth anniversary year. At least part of its success, as the parish has recognized in one of its publications, is due to “Mr. William T. Grant, a Protestant merchant prince of Scotch ancestry.” 

W.T. Grant served as President of his company until 1924. Thereafter he served as chairman of the board. After the company went public in 1928 he controlled about 25 percent of the stock. In 1966 he retired as chairman at the age of 90, but remained as honorary chairman until his death on August 6, 1972. 

Only three years later, W.T. Grant Co. declared bankruptcy – the largest retailing bankruptcy in history up to that point. According to one biographer “[t]he company, which had so successfully found a retailing niche during the early twentieth century, was unable to do so in the 1970’s. Caught between the rapidly expanding Sears and Penney chains and several new discount houses, W.T. Grant was unable to decide on a retailing focus.”

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"Grant Property In Manor Is Accepted By Church; To Install Chapel There
Consent of Majority of Adjacent Property Owners Required In New Program for Catholic Parish.

The Rev. Henry F. Hammer, Administrator of St. Catherine's [sic] Church in North Pelham announced yesterday that negotiations have been completed for the transfer of the William T. Grant estate in Pelham Manor to the church.  Mr. Grant, president of the William T. Grant Stores, Inc., and former resident of Pelham Manor, has given the 4 1/2 acre piece of property on the Boston Post Road at Fowler avenue and the large colonial manor thereon, to the church.  The property which was for many years occupied by Mr. Grant, is one of the show places of Pelham Manor. 

Father Hammer intends to remodel the mansion at once into a chapel of convenience to take care of the spiritual needs of the Catholics in Pelham Manor and vicinity.  There has been a distinct need, he said, for such a chapel.  The parish church of St. Catherine's [sic] in North Pelham is taxed to capacity at the Sunday services and many of the communicants have been forced to stand in the aisle during devotions, because of the limited facilities of the present church edifice.  The Sunday attendance of the Catholics of Pelham Manor at the new chapel will ease greatly the congestion at St. Catherine's.  

Father Hammer explained that there is no intention of establishing a new parish in Pelham Manor.  The new chapel, when completed, will be operated as a mission of St. Catherine's, under his administratorship, and will be attended by the priests of St. Catherine's with such additions to the staff as may be necessary.

The site of the new chapel is in a highly restricted residential zone in Pelham Manor, but Father Hammer has been assured that there will be no opposition on the part of neighboring property owners, and that the necessary consent of two-thirds of the property owners within 1,000 feet of the property can be obtained.  Committees of women and men of the parish have already been organized to gather the signatures.

Work will begin immediately on the remodeling of the mansion and it is hoped that services will be held in the new chapel on the first Sunday in September."

Source:  Grant Property In Manor Is Accepted By Church; To Install Chapel There -- Consent of Majority of Adjacent Property Owners Required In New Program for Catholic Parish, The Pelham Sun, Jun. 2, 1939, Vol. 29, No. 9, p. 1, col. 3.

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