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Uniquely Medfield: Goodbye to a Landmark and a Piece of Medfield

A weekly column by Town Historian Richard DeSorgher. This week focuses on the closing of Lords and its colorful 73 year history in Medfield.

It is a landmark that is clearly identified with Medfield. It has been a part of the town’s heart and soul for just shy of 73 years. It is one of the last remaining Mom and Pop holdouts in this age of the big box stores. It is testimony to a family business that loved their hometown, operated on loyalty and the handshake, and taught their employees the values of hard work by example.  

It is, of course, Lord's Department Store and it is about to be sold and become a colorful part of Medfield’s very rich history.

While the name of the store is Lord's, it is clearly the Kelly family that has made the store the institution that it is. Started first by Raymond Lord, a New York businessman who was passing through Medfield in 1940 and noted the absence of any real retail stores. Being the businessman that he was, he inquired about the town’s population which he saw was just over 4,300.

“Business here would be a gold mine,” he thought. He opened 'Lords 5 and 10 Cent Store' at 485 Main Street, site of today’s Royal Pizza. He waited for the customers to pour in, and he waited, and waited, finally asked locals, “Where are all the people?”

The population of Medfield State Hospital is counted on town census totals and contained over 2,000 residents thus leaving Medfield itself with only 2,000 people in the general population. Half of the people Lord thought would be customers would not be able to shop at his store -- a fact that, if he had known at the time, would have had him continue riding through Medfield and no Lord's would have ever opened.

The rest is history, and for almost 73 years that first tiny 5 and 10 Cent Store grew to become a major town institution.

Opening Day, March 29, 1940, Raymond Lord hired local youths to go about the town delivering “Opening Day” flyers. One was 17-year old Bill Kelly. Not only did Bill deliver more flyers than the other boys that day by using his ingenuity and peddling on his bicycle, but Kelly's strong work ethic impressed Lord who hired him on the spot.  

When Bill left and went into World War II the following year, Lord promised Bill would have his job waiting for him when he returned. And, true to his word, it was.

Bill Kelly would become the driving force behind Lord's for the next 67 years.

In 1945, Lord's moved from 485 Main Street to its current location at the corner of Main and South Streets, then located in a large 18th century wooden building that housed Dick Lincoln’s general store, known for their homemade ice cream.

After a short time, Lord and Kelly decided to each operate their own store, side-by-side. Ray Lord had “Lord's Village Shop” specializing in clothing and dry goods, and Bill Kelly had "Lord's 5 and 10 Cent Store," the general store we recognize today. Soon, the more consumer-friendly Bill Kelly’s store was doing a booming business while the sterner Ray Lord was losing money. In 1953, with Ray Lord the owner of the building, he offered Bill Kelly partnership and they combined the two stores and opened what we still know today as Lord's Department Store.

In 1957, the old wooden building was torn down and the current Lord's was built.

Lord's continued to become an important part of the make up of the town. It sold just about everything, was always open, and with the swivel stools and fountain lunch counter in the back, Lords became a social hangout of local lore. The locals had their own stools each morning for coffee. Here, talk itself was a primary form of amusement. Town gossip would spread, political arguments would erupt, and town news would circulate.

By now, Bill Kelly’s passion was Lord's as he was putting in 75-100-hour work weeks. He sacrificed these hours and lived the American dream for his family, for his wife June and children Tom and Nancy. The long hours did not get Bill down. He always made the best of it; his personality, smile, the way he made you feel welcome to the store, drew people to him. His upbeat ways were contagious to all he met.

No one served the public more than Bill Kelly. There are great stories of how he would go out of his way to find an item wanted by a customer if Lord's didn’t sell it. Shortly before his death a senior citizen came into Lords looking for type-writer ribbon, a relic that probably the high school student working in Lords didn’t even know what it was. Bill spent most of the day driving around looking for someone who did sell it. He finally found some, returned to Lords, called the lady and sold it to her for what it cost him, not factoring in his time or gas costs.

Lord's became the place of employment for generations of Medfield High School students. According to many students, both Ray Lord and Bill Kelly were very unique where they took great interest in the kids working there and were incredible role models, parents and teachers. Many life lessons were learned working at Lord's including social skills and how to interact with people.

In 1981, Bill Kelly bought out Lord and became the store’s sole owner, although Ray Lord continued to be responsible for the financial books.  By now Bill’s two children, Tom and Nancy, were working full-time at the store, having started early on selling newspapers and as youngsters, being in the store so often that at times, it seemed like they were being cared for by the staff. 

It was the year 1981 that Bill Kelly had his worst and best day at Lords.

A fire broke out in the basement and soon black smoke was billowing throughout the building. Quick work by the Medfield Fire Department, including firemen Ed Hinkley and Tom Seeley, locals who knew the layout of Lords’ basement by heart, who were able to navigate through the smoke and get to the root of the flames. But major damage had been done and Bill Kelly’s record of never having to close Lords was about to come to an end. Then the people came, from all walks of life; the minister from the Baptist Church next door, off duty police officers, friends and neighbors, local Medfield customers and those from out-of-town. They brought buckets and mops, rags and cleaners of all kinds. A sea of humanity descended upon Lords wanting to know what they could do to help. All day long and into the night they worked. And while much of the store was ordered off limits by the Board of Health due to the smoke damage, by 5 a.m., Lord's fountain and front cash register area were open for business. Lords’ record of never having to close was intact, thanks to an outpouring of kindness by local citizens as an appreciation for all Lords had become to the  town and the friendship it had developed with the Kelly family; something, up to his death, Bill Kelly never forget.

By now, Lord's was a quasi-town hall as well as a store. Tickets to the Medfield High School musicals and plays were sold at Lord's, along with tickets to the Medfield History Day Trolley Tours, concerts and just about every other town event requiring tickets. Medfield High School Sports banners announcing championships or winning seasons were plastered all over the windows. Signs telling of high school basketball, soccer, lacrosse and hockey games were on its very visible Main and South Street wall. Midnight Madness became a town tradition every December to start the Christmas season. Bunting and American Flags decorated the store during all the holidays.

Tom and Nancy, as local townies themselves, continued the love fest between the town and Lord's. Local sports jerseys, hats, jackets, etc., along with Medfield memorabilia, were sold, clearly giving the store a hometown flavor. Tom and Nancy were covering the 75-100 hour work weeks, keeping the old fashion soda fountain going but now renting it out to places like the current Ruthie’s Dinner.  They both worked with the schools and had back-to-school kits waiting for students to pick up in time for the first day of school in September. They kept their father's love of patriotism alive each Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day with displays and fundraising drives to help everything from equipment for our fire department to the war memorials now in our town schools.  Tom and Nancy, each with their own families to think about, were always aware of the real possibility of a chain store or big box store one day opening in Medfield, making the survival of their small town Mom and Pop Store, one of the last holdouts, harder and harder.

Lord's, its orange glow sign, its homespun nature, its public service efforts, its swivel stools and local soda fountain, its place of employment for so many kids, its social networking, its location anchoring Medfield Center, has become a factor of who we are in Medfield, giving us uniqueness. It is a piece of the town that is imbedded in our memory. It is that sight, when students return home from college or people returning after moving away, recognize and identify with their time in Medfield.  It gives a feeling of stability and identity for all living in the town.

Today, no one loves their hometown more than Nancy Kelly-Lavin and Tom Kelly. The Kelly family has given Medfield almost 73 years of something way more than just a general store. While both Tom and Nancy say “Thank You” to Medfield for all those years of its citizens being loyal customers, Medfield clearly is losing something that will be hard to replace -- a special piece of our past, something that has disappeared in most of America, but that we were able to hold on to. 

But time moves on and both Tom and Nancy feel the time is right for change, for themselves and their families.

Lord's will close on February 28, 2013, a new owner will take over and new stores will move into what was a family business, a tradition, a landmark and a special piece of Medfield, so much more than just a store; all that will be hard to really explain to new people who move here after February 28.

Kim Caruso January 05, 2013 at 04:12 PM
It's hard to let go of the past! I have so many memories of Lords,most of my weekly allowances were spent there.
Nancy Cushman January 05, 2013 at 07:38 PM
What a nice story, Richard. A walk down memory lane. Thank you.
Mary Finlay January 05, 2013 at 11:02 PM
Wonderful story, Richard. I learned so much. Thank you
Annette Wells January 06, 2013 at 06:33 PM
Wonderful story Richard. Thanks for writing and sharing this with all of us.
Roberta January 07, 2013 at 05:26 AM
Great story, thanks Richard

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