What to buy? A store or a farm. . . There was a dilemma facing young David Wilson (D.W.) Proffitt as he rode home from North Carolina with his parents, Mary Alice and Nicolas W. Proffitt.
He was 6 years old and had a brand new silver dollar in his pocket, given to him by the uncle for whom he was named while the family was visiting relatives in North Carolina.
All the way home to Blount County, young D.W. must have pondered the choice. Being newly ‘’rich’ and never having had any “big” money of his own before and now to have a dollar - a silver dollar at that - of his very own presented the quandary.
The idea of owning a store stocked with many wonderful things intrigued him, even as a 6 year old, but seeing wooly sheep for the very first time while on this trip gave him a hankering for a farm as well.
As it turned out, he got both.
The store came first, and then the farm, which did, indeed, have a few sheep. Success may have been inspired by the shiny silver dollar, but it came about because of the character, integrity and diligence of the man the little boy grew to be.
Mary Alice and Nicholas Proffitt were farmers in North Carolina who made the move to Maryville in 1889 to give their children a better education. They wanted them to have an opportunity to go to Maryville College.
That dream came true for all of them.
D.W., the youngest, was the only one of their children born in Maryville. Biographical information and interviews with D.W. tell how he worked his way through Maryville College, where room and board were $5.20 a month. Hauling cinders for the campus walkways for a nickel an hour, sweeping out dormitory rooms, hawking flowers to guys for their dates and selling tailor-made clothes to fellow students were the route to a college degree for him. He was enterprising and a good salesman. When Carnegie Hall on campus burned to the ground, D.W. was so successfully in raising money to assist with the rebuilding that he was exempted from taking final exams.
It was at Maryville Preparatory School that he first met Lillian Gray Webb. She later became his college sweetheart, and they were married after both were graduated from Maryville College.
Lillian Gray’s father owned Webb Store, located on Market Square in Knoxville, but it was Oscar Handly, president of Miller’s Department Store on Gay Street just around the corner from Webb Store, who gave D.W. a job in 1916. He soon got his big break when Handly named him manager of the firm’s store in Cleveland.
But thoughts of his own store stayed with the hard-working young man. In 1919, he fulfilled the dream of store ownership by buying part interest in Maryville’s Ellis-Chandler Store. Several months later, D.W. acquired the J. N. Badgett Store and named his new firm Ellis-Proffitt.
Two years later, D.W. bought Ellis out, and the name of the store located in Maryville was changed to Proffitt’s Department Store.
At that time Maryville was essentially a small farming community, and D.W.’s insight kept the store in sync with the customer, said Fred Proffitt, a grandson of D.W. and the last family member to be president and CEO of Proffitt’s.
“D.W. always had a finger on the pulse of the community and saw that the store’s merchandise reflected the customer base,” Fred said in an interview. “In those early years, Proffitt’s carried work clothes, women’s ready-to-wear, millinery, piece goods, men’s shoes, appliances, furniture and the like. At the time the store quit carrying large appliances, Proffitt’s was the oldest General Electric dealer in the United States.”
As Maryville and the surrounding community grew and became more sophisticated over the coming years, Proffitt’s merchandise changed with it, becoming more diverse, specialized and fashion-conscious.
Back in the Big Depression, when many businesses failed, including his father-in-law’s store Webb’s, Proffitt’s survived. D.W. had ingenuity and drive, but just as important was a genuine love for the community, the people he served and those on his team. He saw the Proffitt’s employees and management team as family. For himself, he said he had one rule - the Golden Rule - that he applied to all he met.
One of the stories of Proffitt’s came about because of hard times from neighbors in the Maryville community. During the hard times of the 1930s, D.W. began a pre-Thanksgiving fowl give-away promotion. From the second floor windows of the store on Broadway, he tossed live chickens, turkeys and geese to the big crowd that filled the street below. He bought the fowl from his brother Harry Proffitt, who was a farmer. Family lore says that sometimes the geese would get away and fly back to the farm, and Harry would sell them to D.W. a second, maybe a third time, said Fred, with a laugh.
D.W. and his wife Lillian Gray had four children, sons Jack, Harwell and Neil, and daughter Lillian Lyle, the one child who is still living today. Lillian was human resources manager for Proffitt’s and now lives at Shannondale. Neil, the youngest son, managed a showroom for a major furniture company in New York. Jack and Harwell ran the company.
After returning home from the service during WWII, Harwell was made manager of the store in Athens that had been opened in 1936, and Jack became operations manager of the Maryville store.
In 1951, D.W. was satisfied the stores were in capable hands. A long-time leader in New Providence Presbyterian Church and a former president of the National Council of Presbyterian Men, of which he was a founder, D.W. left with his wife, Mary Gray, for a year traveling the world. It was a mission trip on behalf of One Great Hour of Sharing, the Protestant worldwide relief offering. Mary Gray, who was active in the community and church, did her share, often as a speaker.
In 1956, D.W. was named moderator of the United Presbyterian Church, USA, one the few laymen and the first businessman to hold that position. That role brought him an introduction to President Dwight David Eisenhower. Two years later, D.W. was named vice-president of the Presbyterian Foundation and a member of the General Board of National Council of Churches.
Believing strongly in personal and corporate responsibility to one’s community, D.W.’s leadership roles including being a founder of the Maryville Kiwanis Club, the City’s first civic club; a founder and president of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the finance committee for building Blount Memorial Hospital. He was conferred two honorary doctorates, one from Maryville College for his avid and longtime support and the other from Hanover College for his church work.
The store he founded also continued to be a vital part of the Maryville landscape. In 1958 there was a merging of management of the Athens and Maryville stores with Jack as president and Harwell, executive vice president in charge of merchandising.
In 1962, D.W., believing the downtown location was not the best for Proffitt’s, moved the store to the Midland Shopping Center in Alcoa. In 1983, the store was moved again, this time to the new Foothills Mall.
The West Town store was opened in 1972, and two years later Proffitt’s management bought out The Knox in Oak Ridge. It was not until 1984 that a Proffitt’s store was opened in East Towne Mall, which is now Knoxville Center Mall.
Jack Proffitt left the store in 1980 to be help with the development of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. Harwell became president and CEO of Proffitt’s at that time.
By 1984, Proffitt’s five stores had annual sales of $43 million. At that time, Brad Martin, a mall developer and venture capitalist, entered the picture. He and his partners made an offer to buy the Proffitt’s stores with the understanding the name and the management would remain the same, which meant employees would keep their jobs. The corporate offices would also remain in Alcoa. With those stipulations agreed to, the deal was sealed.
Fred Proffitt became president and CEO of Proffitt’s on the retirement of his father, Harwell Proffitt, in 1984. He remained at the helm of the store until 1989. When he left, he ended 65 years of family management.
Looking back, Fred said, “Brad found he loved merchandising. It had gotten into his blood, and the upward move was on.”
Proffitt’s went public in 1987. From there began a meteoric rise to corporate ownership, a fast-paced acquisition spree of department stores that finally numbered 175, including a posh pinnacle, Saks Fifth Avenue.
With time and cultural change, Proffitt’s literally went from sturdy work clothes to luxurious designer originals, not something D.W. ever aspired to, but the farmer in him would have been proud of its success knowing that in its beginning, he sowed the seed.
The Proffitt’s Department Store exhibit at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center will be on display through the end of 2011.
The GSMHC is located in Townsend between the Townsend traffic light and the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Scenic Hwy. 73. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
Admission is $6 for adults, ages 18 to 59; $4 for Seniors, ages 60-plus; and $4 for children ages 6 to 17. Admission is free to members of the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.
For information, call 865-448-0044.