Where was the First Shopping Center in La Crosse?

Posted by Anita on January 16, 2017

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives Staff)

After World War II ended and the baby boomer generation began, Clarence B. Smith envisioned growth and planned the first shopping center at 1908-1920 Campbell Road between what is now the UWL campus and Emerson Elementary School.  One major distinction between a shopping center and a group of retail stores is that it is planned, developed, owned and managed as a single property.


The first retail occupants of the Smith Shopping Center looking east on Campbell Road, 1947; photograph taken by the Trane Company

The first occupants of the center included four stores which are represented in these photographs: Smith's Pharmacy, Cram Brothers Super Market, Larson's Home Appliance and Miss Greene's Campus Shop.  The photos, taken by the Trane Company, date from the time the grand opening occurred April 18-19, 1947.


The interior of Smith's Pharmacy, 1947; photograph taken by the Trane Company

Emerson School, located north and just to the east of this shopping center on Campbell Road, was opened in 1940 as an orthopedic school, helping children in the La Crosse School District stricken with polio.  Shortly after World War II, the residential Crowley Addition was developed and young couples with families began to fill this neighborhood.  With the dreaded polio disease at bay and a the beginning of the baby boom hitting the schools, an addition to Emerson School in 1952 allowed the former Washington School to the west of the UWL campus to close.


The soda fountain portion of the store, 1947; photograph taken by the Trane Company

Clarence Smith envisioned this growth and planned the first shopping center on Campbell Road between the campus and the elementary school.  He carefully planted his drug store/soda fountain in a double spot and made sure that a grocery store, clothing and appliance store would help round out the different types of shopping as a destination east of downtown.  Smith's Pharmacy occupied that spot at least until 1953 but sold it by 1955 to Degen-Berglund Pharmacy.  Smith began to focus on another location in what became the Smith's Boulevard Store and later the Village Shop at the Village Shopping Center, another Smith owned enterprise. Smith cleft the pharmacy and retail business to become a realtor and developer.


Cram's Grocery took a double store front, 1947; photograph taken by the Trane Company

At the time this shopping center opened in 1947, it was located across the street from the Fairgrounds area.  Shortly after, the former harness race track area became Veterans' Memorial Stadium and was dedicated in 1948.  The eastern edge of the Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) was bordered by East Avenue until 1956 when the Board of Regents and the La Crosse City Council came to agreement on the former Fairgrounds land. Once this happened, the Smith Shopping Center was squarely across the street from the campus.


Miss Greene's Campus Shop sold more than women's clothes -- it focused on children as well, 1947; photograph taken by the Trane Company

Today (2016) the original building still exists and continues to serve retail needs. Gracie’s Gyros and Wraps is located where Smith’s drugstore was located, Secret Sun Salon where Cram’s Grocery was located, and finally the Eagle’s Nest restaurant was toward the eastern end of the strip mall in space formerly occupied by the appliance and clothing store.