It began with nothing, really, except dreams developing in a ramshackle old building. Ideas and strong wills nurtured it, awkwardly at first and then downright brilliantly, until inside the four walls grew a business now recognized even by people living in the far stretches of America. The Three Sons, the quirky yet quintessential clothier, is the story of three young men who built an empire on their father’s hunch.
You know the building, the one on the corner of 10th St. and ‘P’ Avenue in Milford, the exterior walls plastered with signs bearing brand names of the goods sold within. Back in the day the signage boasted then popular names like Haggar, Hush Puppies, Converse and U. S. Keds. Today those signboards convey contemporary trademarks like Patagonia, Oakley, Tommy Bahama and Under Armour. The evolution is the story of perseverance. Take one step inside the threshold and you have entered a temple to the past, present and future – and one of the most revered retailers in the history of the Iowa Great Lakes.
Segue to 1960, when Matt Richter, Sr., bought the former coal warehouse and Allis-Chalmers dealership for his sons Emil, Herman and Jimmy to house the business of their dreams. What exactly to do with the historic old structure remained an enigma. The three young budding entrepreneurs named the building the Future Glass Block, after the very successful Glass Block business that had flourished in Spencer for decades.
“We were going to be the future, whatever that was and whatever it took,” said Emil.
Even without a business plan in place, the trio found that selling salvaged auto parts turned a tiny profit, and early black and white photos show the young men beaming in front of their Valhalla, used tires – for sale, of course – lined up behind them. The signs over the stoop said it all: Future Glass Block – Furniture, Tires, Parts, Tubes, Shoes. Emil, 20, Herman, 16, and Jimmy, 12, had no idea what an odd and spectacular journey laid ahead of them.
Their first mini-step into the clothier universe came when they began selling second-hand socks – six pairs for a buck – to railroad workers. That glimpse into the retail world widened when, during a trip to Sioux City in the summer of 1961, the brothers purchased several pairs of rubber pull-on, four-buckle Tingley overshoes from Harbeck Footwear, displaying a half dozen pairs for resale on imaginative homemade shelves inside the front room of the Future Glass Block.
“I remember thinking we might be moving too fast,” laughed Emil.
Meanwhile, other funky things were going down inside the 20 by 142-foot edifice. Seems the boys’ father, Matt, Sr., had discovered a discarded couch-and-chair set in a Milford alley, covered in ice and snow.
“Somehow, we saw an opportunity there,” remembered Herman. “Had to thaw the darned things out, of course, but sold the pair for $35.”
Then when Smith Furniture needed a place to warehouse an overflowing inventory of mattresses, the middle section of the Future Glass Block seemed a logical choice. Thus the furniture part of the business was begot.
Oh, and by the way, if you needed a good fusion, Floyd Sporrer had set up a weld shop in the back end of the building.
“There was often a blue haze that made its way to the front door of the store,” Herman said.
So let’s see if we have this right so far. By 1961 a person could enter the Future Glass Block and score a pair of overshoes and socks in the front room, enter through a second door to buy a used dinette set, and then look up Floyd in the back to get a trailer fender welded. An eccentric ambience, indeed, but one that strangely enough – because it was in the hands of three defiantly optimistic young men – had future success written all over it.
The Future Glass Block also became an unofficial youth center, a cool place for the young people of Milford to gather, playing cards or cribbage or basketball. “It helped cultivate our customer base,” Emil said.
Having sniffed a small scent of success from the sale of over-boots and socks, the brothers took a plunge and began purchasing work slacks and Cedar Crest shoes from Ace Dry Goods in Sioux City. The budding clothiers were beginning to spread their wings.
One summer day in 1961 the trio was perusing the inventory at the Sioux City General Store, which featured Army Surplus goods, hot items at the time. What caught their eyes were white canvas Army ski jackets, worn by World War II paratroopers. Emil, Herman and Jimmy bought a few to sell at their burgeoning Milford business, and the move would shape their careers.
Sensing something special, the brothers bought every jacket they could get their hands on – roughly 5,000 pieces, 500 from the General Store and another 4,500 from Nelson’s in Kansas City – and set forth on a marketing campaign that would change their lives. The ‘blast’ jackets – so called because people ‘had a blast wearing them’ – sold well in the front end of the Richter’s store. However, it was when the trio, joined now by older sister Georgia, packed the family’s seven-passenger 1951 Dodge to the roof with the jackets and sold them at the grade, or parking area, between East and West Lakes Okoboji – ‘the Iowa Great Lakes Mall,’ Herman quipped – that business erupted.
Picture this, on a warm Okoboji summer evening at the high traffic grade: Emil, rail thin and handsome and Herman, with toothy grin and crew cut, peddling blast jackets at two bucks a pop from their car to throngs of young rockers who had just come from a concert at the Roof Garden, maybe The Beach Boys or Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. It was Iowa’s version of American Graffiti.
“We were a one-stop-shop at the time,” Herman remembered. “You could buy a blast jacket from us, have it air-brushed with a cool theme by an artist from Worthington, and have your hot rod hood louvered by another artisan.”
These hipster congregations would often last until 2 a.m. They didn’t know it, but the foundation for The Three Sons was being laid.
In 1962, armed with a new confidence and some operating capital, and stepping further in the direction as fulltime clothiers, Emil, Herman and Jimmy made another bold purchase that would bolster their coffers. From Determine Productions in San Francisco, they purchased 5,000 Snoopy nightshirts. The garments struck a chord with the Richter’s growing clientele and the brothers sold out the inventory in a blink.
As the Richters grew the business – always with the caution and conservatism that their parents, Matt and Mildred had instilled in them, but also with a sense of daring when the time was right – the confines of the Future Glass Block grew more and more into a clothier, and was christened The Three Sons in 1964. By 1968, needing more room for inventory that included brands like Wrangler jeans and Hush Puppies footwear, the entire building was dedicated to clothing, and a year later The Three Sons became incorporated. Sorry, no more used auto parts or furniture. The Richters had found their way.
It was a slow growth, however. Matt, Sr., and Mildred had taught their sons Emil, Herman and Jimmy to be cautious in their enthusiasm. The parents were musicians – Matt was a drummer and Mildred, or ‘Jim’ as everyone called her, a pianist – and they traveled to nightclub venues in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota as the Jim Luchtel Trio with a saxophonist.
“Our parents taught us core values,” Herman said. “Part of that was to proceed with prudence.”
As the clothing store expanded, for instance, the only part of the business that was heated was the cozy front room. On frigid winter days, the brothers would warm blue jeans over the front room heater for patrons to carry back to the chilly dressing rooms for fitting.
The brothers began to discover new brand names to add to their inventory, and eventually salesmen came calling. And customers, too, in numbers the Richters could hardly believe. Because they were situated uniquely in small town Iowa – but also in the heart of Iowa’s premier vacationland – the business became a buzzword to visitors of the Iowa Great Lakes. A trip to The Three Sons in Milford became part of the whole Okoboji experience.
Tragedy befell Emil and Herman in 1969 when their beloved brother Jimmy passed away, a victim of the diabetes that had plagued him since childhood. The Three Sons moniker held strong, however, with Jimmy’s indefatigable spirit always held dear.
Perhaps nothing vaulted The Three Sons into notoriety more than the creation of the University of Okoboji in 1971. Active sports enthusiasts, Emil and Herman had long been involved in tennis, softball and other community competitions when they decided to print some t-shirts with U of O promotions as ‘a fantasy summer camp.’ The fictitious university idea thrived, and with bumper stickers, pennants,sweatshirts, jackets and caps soon emblazoned with its logo, the U of O found widespread enthusiasm. Early proceeds from U of O sponsored events funded civic causes, and today sports tournaments and other events have a large trickle down effect on the lakes area economy. The U of O has become a symbol of positive attitudes, an expression of Okoboji pride.
The sign out front could just as well have read The Three Sons and a Daughter, in tribute to Emil’s and Herman’s older sister, Georgia, who had flown under the radar as the siblings’ protector since their childhood days while their parents were often on musical tours. She remains in ‘upper level management.’
The business became more of a family affair, in fact, when Emil’s wife, Sue, and Herman’s spouse, Paula, became invested in the company in the 1970s.
As the store’s popularity grew so, too, did its ever expanding inventory, until it was necessary to construct a large addition on the west side of the existing structure in 1974.
Today, Emil and Sue’s son, Brian, and Herman and Paula’s sons, Matt and Mark, are everyday fixtures at the store. “The torch is beginning to be passed,” explained Herman.
But don’t plan on witnessing an early exit for the founders. After 55 years of fashioning the business into what it is today, they count their blessings and have a ball running the show.
“Heck, every morning I wake up and say ‘I get to go play store’,” reflected Emil.