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1885. Doesn’t it sound strange to say? One hundred thirty-two new years have born, gave what they had to offer, and having made their mark, gained way for their successor.
Back in 1885 we were a scant score of years past the War between the states. President Chester Arthur ceded the white house to Grover Cleveland. Our flag had 38 stars to her credit. AT&T promised instant communication, transferring voices over the wire! What next? The possibilities electricity had to offer were gaining the attention of a conclave of talented workers in New Jersey, headed by an insomniac, dyslexic renegade telegraph operator named Thomas Edison. A brain stimulant called Dr. Pepper made its debut in Waco, Texas. Meanwhile, in Forest City, Iowa, Nels P. Nelson assumed proprietorship of the former Lien’s jewelry store. By dint of long hours and a reputation for quality, he soon amassed a trade any business man would be proud of. The local residents frequently stopped round to compare their own timepieces with the beautiful walnut jeweller’s regulator clock kept by the Nelsons for that purpose. On the morning of January 17, 1915, with temperatures well below zero, a fire swept through the store building! The large regulator clock was such an important staple that it was rushed from the burning building, and photographs are extant that show it enjoying a brief respite out on the sidewalk. In short order, a new two story brick and stone store was designed by architect Thorwald Thorson and erected at a cost of about ten thousand dollars. Nels P. Nelson passed in 1916, and his sons Leo and later Paul R. Nelson operated the Forest City place of business for many years thereafter.
Another son of Nels, Ralph H. Nelson, turned his steps towards the west, landed in Spencer, Iowa, and in 1928 came to terms on the former Howe Brothers jewelry store, then located just south of the Farmers Savings Bank on the southwest corner of Fourth Street and Grand Avenue. The new firm operated at that location until the completion of the new Bjornsted block, following the great Spencer fire of 1931. At that time Mr. Nelson relocated three doors north to 403 Grand Avenue. The fact that Mr. Nelson was prosperous enough to commission the construction of a brand-new brick home, complete with oil heat and all of the extras, in the midst of a national depression testifies to his industry and attention to business.
During the war, new watches and clocks could not be procured for love or money (family records indicate that one year only one each gent’s and lady’s Gruen watch were shipped to the store to sell), and much of Nelson’s business consisted of keeping what everybody had running until peacetime again became sight. Many wartime engagements were sealed with diamonds supplied by Nelson Jewelry before the groom had to ship out. As soon as he was old enough, Ralph’s son R. Tom Nelson assumed his place in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him, only taking leave to attend the college necessary to work at his trade, and serve his country during the Korean conflict. In 1975, the third move took place when R. T. Nelson and his then business partner Mr. Tom Otis relocated three doors north to 409 Grand Avenue. Messrs. Nelson and Otis extensively remodeled the building to suit their purposes, finishing the interior with built-in cabinets, custom-built display cases, and a generous quantity of hand made cherry woodwork. When moving day came, the giant wheeled safe, which weighs in at a couple thousand pounds, was reportedly locked up tight and rolled right up the sidewalk to its new home.
About a quarter to four in the afternoon of Friday, December 2nd, 1977, the regulator failed on a propane tank used for torchwork, and in short order the store was engulfed in flames. The store was gutted, but luckily Mr. Nelson had only moments before left the room to assist a customer up front, so there were no injuries or fatalities. Someone managed to close the doors of the safe on the way out, sparing enough merchandise to continue to operate in space generously lent out by a local bank. Several family members recall the long, dirty hours fanning giant bags of ashes through screens to recoup salvageable stones or bits of gold that could be recovered. A local cabinet shop let Mr. Nelson and Mr. Otis use their facilities after hours to remake the destroyed fixtures and woodwork, and Nelson Jewelry continued on stronger than ever. After Mr. Otis left the firm to pursue his other business interests, Mr. R. T. Nelson continued to usher the next generation into the family business.
In 1989, Tom R. Nelson, son of R. Thomas Nelson, joined the proud ranks of Nelsons and entered the family business. At R. T. Nelson’s retirement in 2005, Tom became the new face of Nelson Jewelry. That in addition to his strong community presence makes him a familiar sight in Spencer. An innovative businessman, Mr. Nelson is ever vigilant in his quest to carry the Nelson tradition to the next century. In 2014, he commissioned an extensive remodelling and update of the store’s interior, while carefully preserving the handcrafted cherry fittings. All sorts of changes and new things are constantly underway for the benefit and comfort of our customers. As a reminder of the quality for which Nelson Jewelry rightly takes pride, founder N.P. Nelson’s own pride and joy — the nearly eleven-feet-tall walnut jeweller’s regulator clock — stands watch over the showroom, the legend on its door just as relevant today as it was those many years ago: “Accuracy is our watchword.”
The staff of Nelson Jewelry are standing by, ready to assist in any capacity, and extend a heartfelt invitation to all to help us celebrate our past and build a successful future!
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