Samples Department Store - EHS1961

Samples: Building owners find history, memories in scrapbook

By Randal Curtman

This article was originally published June 27, 2016 in El Dorado News Times

Did you attend the Back-To-School and Fall Fashion Show at Samples Department Store in 1958? Apparently it was quite the event, with Miss Arkansas 1958 Sally Miller and Clifton Wilhite, owner of Wilhite Gowns of Dallas, in attendance. In case you missed the fashion show, then you can read all about it, thanks to a time capsule from 1958 — in the form of a promotional scrapbook.

The scrapbook was discovered recently by a customer of La Bella Gourmet Gifts & Delicatessen, owned by Jim and Beth Robinson. La Bella is located in the old Samples building on the corner of Washington and Main, where Samples once stood. “He found the book in a yard sale in Little Rock and bought it and brought it back to us,” Jim Robinson said on Tuesday. The promotional book is a peek into what was happening in the successful department store circa 1958.

The company was preparing to celebrate 60 years in business in 1959, and a renovation of the store was slated for that year as well. The book highlights all the promotional and community events happening at Sample's that year, and includes some amazing '50s-style advertising. “Samples was the Neiman Marcus of El Dorado,” Jim Robinson said.

The history of Samples Department Store begins in the spring of 1899, when John Fletcher Sample, a prominent El Dorado resident, founded a general store with Henry C. McKinney on the corner of Main and Washington Streets.

Sample and McKinney built their first brick building on that corner in downtown El Dorado for $2,000, then opened business with $7,000 in stock, consisting of dry goods, principally piece goods and notions, clothing, shoes, wagons, harnesses, feed, seed, fertilizer and staple groceries such as flour, dry salt meat, and crackers, according to an undated article, probably from the then-named El Dorado Daily News, (the name of the newspaper found on the clippings in the scrapbook).

In 1899, El Dorado and Union County were primarily agricultural areas, so in the Spring the company would sell feed, seed, fertilizer, clothing, which the farmers would pay off once their crops, mainly cotton, were harvested.

In 1921, things changed with the discovery of oil in Union County. A community of 300 people grew quickly to a population of more than 20,000, and agricultural pursuits were abandoned in favor of oil and timber activities. This was when Samples changed from being a general store to a modern department store, handling soft goods only.

Thirty-seven years later, Samples was a fully modern store, with an advertising department and an advertising manager, Jean Kelly. The scrapbook features sample ads from the year 1958, touting the plans for a remodel in 1959 as well as what seems to have been the event of the season, the Back To School Fall Fashion Show.

You learn fascinating facts about the 1950s world of business from the scrapbook — for example, who knew that April 25 was El Dorado's “Official Straw Hat Day”? From the advertising, it is clear that Sample's was similar to today's Dillard's or JC Penney, featuring name-brand clothing and accessories.

The highlight of 1958, from the scrapbook perspective, seemed to be the Samples Big Fall Fashion Show, featuring Miss Arkansas 1958 Sally Miller of Pine Bluff and Clifton Wilhite, president of Clifton Wilhite Inc. of Dallas. Miller was a semi-finalist in that year's Miss America contest, and Wilhite brought a collection of 12 of his newest gowns to exhibit in the fashion show. Ruth Reed of Heber Springs, an announcer for TV station KRBB, was on hand to serve as commentator. The fashion show was presented in conjunction with Seventeen Magazine.

Whatever became of Wilhite is a mystery, (or at least not readily available online), but a Google search reveals a number of his vintage gowns still for sale on eBay and Etsy. His handiwork has lasted for decades and is still apparently appreciated and sought after.

One of the gowns Wilhite brought to El Dorado, named the “Scarlet O'Hara,” received its own write-up in the newspaper. The gown would go on to be worn by Miss Arizona in the Miss America Pageant. Miss Arkansas also modeled the gown she wore in the Miss America Pageant, as well as sang two songs — “One Kiss” by Sigmon Romberg and “Tenderly,” according to the press clipping.

Sally Miller wouldn't win the Miss America pageant, but she would go on to become Sally Perdue, a Little Rock talk show host who, according to Wikipedia, walked the length of the Great Wall of China in 1990.

In all, the fashion show featured 50 models showing 100 outfits of the latest campus and back-to-school fashions, including outfits featured in the August edition of Seventeen Magazine. The show also featured a preview of fall and winter fashions.

In 1959, plans were for a $250,000 remodeling of the store, including an expansion to 23,000 square-feet of floor space with new fixtures throughout and even an elevator. The store also encompassed additional buildings for “electrical city” and boys and men's wear, and was predicted to be completed by August, 1959.

How did all that expansion turned out, and what did it look like? We'll have to wait until someone uncovers the 1960 Samples scrapbook to find out.