Mr. Bowers
... and his Historic Grocery Stores

 

 



Duke C. Bowers was a decent and true humanitarian.  His life is quite interesting but was cut tragically short at only 43 years.  Bowers was in the Grocery business and came to Memphis in 1903 with a unique idea and a dream:  He would sell his items at lower prices than his competitors and he would be able to do this because he would purchase his products for cash and would not sell on credit and would not provide free delivery.  In addition he would not sell tobacco or liquor in his stores.  He began with one store in Memphis and within 10 years there were thirty-nine "Mr. Bowers Stores."   His dream became reality.

 
 

 


Click on small photos to see an enlargement


 

 

 

Duke Cayce Bowers was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1874, the son of Calvin Thomas Bowers and Ida C. Cayce.  His mother died when he was  four and his father died in 1895.  By 1900 Duke is living with Enis and Lydia Bowers (aunt and uncle) in Hickman, Kentucky, working as a Grocer.  In 1900 he married Ethel C.  Gibbs of Weakley County, Kentucky.

 

 Mobile Ala ca. 1900

      Hickman, Ky

Bowers had been a grocer in Hickman but the business failed and by his reasoning it was because of "the system", where owners purchased their products on credit, sold the products on credit, and provided free delivery.  To offset the "deadbeats" in this system, prices were raised to cover all loses.  Thus in Bowers opinion everyone was a loser.  The Bowers moved to Memphis in 1903.   Memphis at the time was a thriving southern city and was growing tremendously.  It was perfect for Duke Bowser because it was the largest city in the Mid-South. 

      Memphis 1902  
   

1905 Memphis Brochure

1904Memphis

1902 Memphis

1900s

1908 book...


In 1893 the Memphis Directories show that Duke was actually living in Memphis prior to the date of his official bio.   He is listed as working at "Bowers & Company" in business with Walter E. Cayce as Cider and Vinegar Manufacturers.  John E. Bowers is also listed as a travel agent with the same company.  Duke would have been 15 years old and apparently Walter Cayce is his mother's brother?  This information is not mentioned in any of the "official" biographies.   There's no listing  in the 1894 - 95 directories.

 

1893 Directory

 

 



For a grocery business to succeed, Bowers  felt that if he paid manufacturers in cash for their products, sold the items for cash only and without free delivery, he would simply have to add a meager 12 1/2% mark up - which to him was a "reasonable amount."   Everyone said he was crazy, but he was anxious to expand and test his theory.

 

Duke C. Bowers

Memphis was the perfect testing grounds for Bowers theory where he would:  Do business strictly on a cash basis, giving absolutely no one credit.  Not sell alcohol or tobacco.  Make no deliveries of goods.   Make an average of 12 1/2% gross profit above the costs of the goods.  To practice these principles, he rented a small store at Polk and McKinley streets and spent $800 on stock.  He and Ethel lived at the back of the store.  And he  began a strong advertising campaign.  The "all cash" appeal worked and the store was a big success. 

     Interior, Store #1  

"I buy for cash and sell for cash.  And each night the empty spaces on my shelves represent dollars and cents in the cash drawer.  Using this method I save my clients money by eliminating the waste.  I add 12 1/2% over cost for net profit and that's enough.  This allows for a quick turn over of products, keeping my stock fresh and up-to-date."  Bowers sincerely felt that this was enough profit and that any profit above this was "extortion and injustice."  His worst enemies admitted that he held to that idea of "service and honesty of goods."

Store #27

 

The success of Store #1 led to the opening 6 months later of Store #2.  By 1905, there were 9 stores listed in the Memphis Directories. (Daughter Ida May Bowers was also born in 1905).  In 1907, there were 21 stores and in 1909, there were 27.  In 1914, there were 39.   The first stores were called "Little Grocery Stores" .  By 1907 they were all called "Mr. Bowers Store" - and with a trademark secondary name "Temples of Economy".  "Mr. Bowers" had become a highly respected businessman  and wealthy citizen.  His stores were considered the cleanest groceries in Memphis and his clerks the most courteous and patient.

 

Arrangement   

Bowers said "Everybody will be convinced that it pays to advertise.  I believe that the fruits of advertising yield so abundantly that it doesn't cost me a penny."  And he was so satisfied with the results that he ran extensive ad campaigns in the Memphis newspapers, increasing his budget each year.    Duke found the perfect second in command when he joined forces with J. M. Fly, who would eventually become President of the company.. 

1919 1919 1919 1919 1920 1910 J. M. Fly
        
     

 

  
"You won't get bit if you buy of Mr. Bowers"

Duke Bowers originated the company's trademark - a little muzzled dog in a circle.  He also trademarked the popular company slogan.  During the peak years of Mr. Bowers Stores, the Bowers name became a household word.

 

Button

Paperweight

Bowers had a special concern for children.  He provided all the funds to build a wading pool in Overton Park ... "...to the Children of Memphis, 1913".  And during a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, he took along thirty-nine orphans for a performance at the circus.  In addition, he was a boosted of Memphis, wherever he visited.  In London, he hired men to wear sandwich boards reading, "Memphis, Tennessee wants citizens."  Plus, he was political, being a delegate to the National Republican Convention 1916.

 

Wading Pool 1914

Wading Pool

Overton Poster

Wading Pool

Circus

1916 Convention

 

 

The major work of Duke Bowers life was his effort to abolish the death penalty in Tennessee.  His first attempt in 1913 failed.  But in 1915 he gathered the support of the clergy, educators, lawyers, businessmen and newspapers.  The bill substituted life imprisonment for the death penalty in cases of murder and retained capital punishment for rape.  The General Assembly passed the bill by a vote of 51 to 44 in the house and 20 to 11 in the Senate.  The bill was generally called "The Bowers Bill"

No Death Penalty

The Bowers Bill

 

J. M. Fly's modern outlook was the perfect compliment to Bowers and they got along beautifully.  Fly was inspired by the modern idea of "Service" and determined to furnish quality first at the lowest prices.  He and Bowers worked together and instituted that every store manager share one-half the profits of the store he operates.  And store managers were recruited only among the store clerks.  When Bowers health began to fail, Fly became President of the company and he was just 40 years old.
 

J. M. Fly

Below are a few of the many magazine articles about the Mr. Bowers stores.

1909 .. pages 1-2 1910 1911 ... pages 1-2-3 1911 1911 1911

1921

This is a  1914  interesting 5 page article about the overall organization and  operation of the Mr. Bowers stores.   >

1914   ... pages 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

 

 

   


Around 1913 Duke Bowers health had failed.  He was forced to turn the management of his stores over to a firm that expanded them even more.   Duke and Ethel left Memphis and moved to Dresden, Tennessee, 90 miles to the northeast.   The management team eventually sold out to Kroger in 1928.  There were 114 stores at the time.  In Dresden,  Duke bought real estate, at various times owning large portions of the town. 

 

       Aerial view of Dresden

Dresden Home

Dresden Home

Purchases...

Dresden Square

Dresden Square

He died from a stroke in 1917 at the age of 43.  His death was widely covered in the area's newspapers.  All businesses in Dresden were closed for the funeral.  Ethel continued her philanthropic works and eventually moved to her daughter's home in Memphis.  She died in 1958 and was buried next to Duke in the Dresden Sunset Cemetery.

Obituary

Dresden Cemetery

Bowers Grave

Philanthropy

1940 Census

 

 

Today...  If you check the locations of the Mr. Bowers stores, you'll find mostly empty lots.  A few of the actual buildings still exist, and one has been beautifully renovated.

Ghost Sign        

 

     Vance Av

Store #6

Store #46

Store #7

Store #8

The Memphis Directories...
      

1903 1905 1907 1909 1912 1914 1916

1918

1924

        

             
  
  

 
 

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