top of page

Surviving, then thriving

Roger Perry and his wife, Wilma, are survivors. At age 93 and 92 respectively, they live independently in their home on the shore of Lake Le Homme Dieu near Alexandria.  If tempted to envy the view out of their living room window, don’t, they’ve earned it.     Roger was born in Marshall Town, Iowa, in 1916.  He went to school there, grade school, middle school and high school.  Upon graduation, unlike the majority of his generation, he went to junior college for one year and then attended William Penn on a football scholarship.     Roger’s dad worked for the railroad, and for a while, Roger did, too. He always had been more interested in business, so after the war, he went to work for Montgomery Ward, and they sent him to Fort Dodge, Iowa, to manage the appliance department.   He worked strictly on commission, and that was tough because no one had much money to buy things.  He tried starting his own appliance store, but “that didn’t go”, so he went to work for a furniture store. There he found that he enjoyed the furniture business, but he really wanted to have a business of his own. Not having much money, the easiest thing he could get into was a small sandwich shop in St. Cloud. The owner had only had the business three months before he gave it up, but Roger had it eight years. Roger admitted that he really didn’t mean to be there that long, but it was a means to an end.  He saved his money until he was able to move to Alexandria where he rented a little store on Nokomis; it was only 28’ by 65 feet.  Later, he was able to buy the store, and as the business grew through the years, it was enlarged five times.     One thing that Roger is really proud of is that “although sometimes it was close” he always managed to pay cash for his inventory.  That meant that the cost of the new inventory was discounted.  The discount would vary from company to company.  Carpet was 5% for 60 days, 4% for 90 days, because buying carpet meant investing a large amount of money.      Wilma was his bookkeeper, and sometimes they had to count on the time that it took the check to actually clear the bank (not like the instant cash transfers of today) before they actually had the cash in the store, but they never had a check returned for insufficient funds.     Roger was always a strong believer in advertising. When he came to Alexandria, he had $14,000.  He invested $10,000 to stock his store and $4,000 to advertise it.      “That was a lot of money set aside for advertising, and Wilma wasn’t too happy about it, but it worked!” he said. “We came here in ’56, and TV came in ’58, and I made it a point to advertise on TV the very first day.  I spent quite a bit, maybe more than I should have for the size of our building, but I believed it was worth it.   We were successful, and later were able to add on to our building, so I guess we can’t cry too much. It was fun.”     We sold a lot of bedding, mattresses, box springs, then sofas and carpet; carpet may have been number one because at that time carpet was strong.  Everyone had hard wood floors that they were proud of, so when they bought carpet, they would leave a little margin around the edges so people could still see their hard wood floors. Then carpet took off, not so much in the homes because not many new homes were being built, but when they would change, they would buy carpet  The other thing was downtown commercial, dress shops, photography, offices; everybody wanted carpet. I remember when we started out we just had samples, later, we would buy the whole roll. I really understood the carpet business.  I was 62 when I retired, but, I enjoyed every minute of it!. Great Depression left a mark     Roger Perry claims that living through the Great Depression left a mark on him that influenced his decisions and his attitudes for the rest of his life, and that everyone that lived through that time was left with a mark on them, somewhere.     The first “mark” that the Great Depression made on Roger was during his grade school years. During those years an emphasis was put on setting aside money in a saving account. He remembers that each child in his school was encouraged to bring a quarter to school each week. The quarters were deposited in the child’s saving account.  He was just ten years old when in October, 1929, the stock market crashed and along with it, the bank that held his saving account.  His quarters were gone! When he finally did get his money back, he only got 10 cents on a dollar, and not all at once in a lump sum, but over several years.  Roger remarked that it wasn’t a very good lesson, or on the other hand it was a good lesson, just depends on your point of view.     He always attended city schools, grade school, middle school and high school. No modern facilities, just old wooden building with many stairs to climb.  There were no extra-curricular activities, and as for music, one teacher came around once a month and went from classroom to classroom.”     “She had an old Victrolla  that she would wind up and then play music,” said Roger. “We actually got to looking forward to that. There never was anything but a dirt playground and no play ground equipment.  During my high school years a hoop with a back-board was put up, and that was the extent of playground equipment, but that didn’t keep the boys from going out and playing baseball, football and basketball.”      In spite of the lack of recreational facilities that were available to him during his growing-up years, he did acquire some skills that would serve him well. After attending junior college for a year, he was awarded a football scholarship at William-Penn College, that, in spite of the fact that he had injured his back and didn’t play any football during his senior year of high school.  Roger chuckled as he remarked that the scholarships were “easy  to come by” because colleges were hurting,  It was a time when many didn’t go on to complete high school, let alone attend college.     Roger recalls that when FDR became president, he created all kinds of programs, not just for the money, but so people could keep their pride and not “be on the dole”.     “Everyone was poor and pretty much in the same boat, different from now,” he said. “Expectations were different, too. I remember one incident, a kid came to school in jeans; he was called to the principles office and suspended for three days.  Now teachers wear jeans.”     Roger’s dad was a brakeman on the  railroad and had to move around to different towns just to keep seniority.     “It was called ‘extra board, first in first out.’ If you didn’t have so many miles in, your job was eliminated, and jobs were hard to come by,” he said.      Roger also worked for the railroad as a young man, and when during World War II when he tried to enlist for officer training, they wouldn’t take him.  They felt that he was more needed working on the railroad.     Roger went on to become the founder of Perry’s Furniture, and a successful business man.  Although he expanded his store five times, only once did he go to a bank for a loan, another lesson the Great Depression taught him.     The writer of this story, Dori Otterson, is a volunteer at the Douglas County Historical Society. This article had been previously run a DCHS newsletter in 2009. Thanks to the DCHS for allowing us to re-run the story.

5 views0 comments


bottom of page