The Man, The Business, The Building
William Doerflinger was born on April 13, 1857, in a log cabin at the foot of the bluffs, a mile north of the mouth of Mormon Coulee. The cabin was located on the family farm in La Crosse County, Wisconsin which had been homesteaded by his grandparents when they emigrated to the United States from Baden, Germany in the 1840s.
At age 14, Doerflinger got a job as a cash boy for Mons Anderson, who was considered the city’s first “merchant prince.” It is likely that young Doerflinger received much inspiration and many ideas about the dry goods and general merchandise business from Anderson.
In 1881, Doerflinger entered into a partnership with E. Bosshard, in order to run a small shop on 4th Street, opposite Market Square. The shop was nicknamed the Park Store because of its proximity to Cameron Park. In 1888, the partners relocated the store to the Funk Building on the corner of 4th and Pearl Streets.
In 1891, Doerflinger purchased Bosshard’s half of the business. Three years later, Doerflinger again moved his enterprise, this time to a building next the Trade Palace on 4th Street. Doerflinger took over the Trade Palace in 1898, and shortly thereafter took over the store on the corner of 4th and Main, which was occupied Joseph Gutman, clothier. This gave Doerflinger possession of the entire corner where the present building stands.
On the night of April 21, 1903, a fire completely destroyed the store. In just over a year, George Zeisler constructed the existing 4-story building on the site. On April 27, 1904, Doerflinger held a grand opening for the new building, and as part of the opening ceremony honored his former employer, Mons Anderson.
Doerflinger married Louise Bayer of La Crosse in 1885. They had two daughters, Viola Louise and Leona Clara. In addition to his business activities, Doerflinger was city treasurer in 1884 and 1885. He also was a member of the police and fire commission for many years. He was a member of the La Crosse Board of Trade and the Merchant’s Protective Association, a stockholder in the Batavian Bank and vice president of the Central Electric Company. Doerflinger was one of the men who contributed toward laying the foundation for a better and greater La Crosse.
William Doerflinger died of a stroke on February 1, 1926, at the age of 68. Alfred Langenbach and John Halik succeeded him until 1935, when Doerflinger’s daughter, Viola Doerflinger Fellows became president of the store. In 1939, the Doerflinger store underwent extensive remodeling and modernization.
After returning from the armed services in 1946, Samuel F. Fellows, Viola’s son, entered the business. He served as vice president until his mother’s death in 1954, when he took over as president of the firm. The Doerflinger store enjoyed its largest growth and prosperity under the guidance of Sam Fellows. The innovations he helped initiate allowed the store to be competitive and grow well into the 1970s, long after most family-owned department stores were closing.
The Doerflinger store eventually closed in 1984. The building had several owners since then, including the City of La Crosse. Doerflinger’s Second Century, Inc. purchased the building from the city on November 11, 2004.
The information in this article was obtained from several sources, including La Crosse Tribune articles (1960-1984),