An end of an era in Ely

J.D. Mills Company to close in July after 120 years in business

by Tom Coombe
Ely’s oldest business will soon no longer be in business.
The J.D. Mills Company, a clothing store that has outfitted generations of Elyites and has been in the Mills family for three generations, will close its doors July 31 and after a 120-year run.
A changing retail landscape, an opportunity to retire and an offer for the Sheridan Street building the store calls home, made for a perfect storm - and current owner John Mills made the decision to close.
The store will liquidate its inventory and be open for just over two more months.
Standing next to a vintage cash register that has been a mainstay at the store, Mills said Wednesday that the timing was right.
“Sales have been dropping for a number of years,” said Mills. “There’s competition with the internet, with regional shopping, big box retail. It’s changed the environment of doing business so much. Plus, I’m at retirement age. I had a party come in and ask if I was selling the building and I’m taking the opportunity to get out.”
The decision brings an end to a business that has been an Ely mainstay for more than a century, and closes the last link to a long-gone era when clothing stores were prevalent downtown.
“When I was a kid there were still two other men’s clothing stores in town, plus Tauzell’s was still going, which was a men’s and women’s department store,” said Mills. “There were four women’s apparel stores at that time.”
J.D. Mills was the last survivor, and the business transitioned over time.
Started by Abe Bloomenson in 1901, the store was located on Central Avenue, at a location that now houses part of Piragis Northwoods Company.
The business was purchased by Mills’ grandfather in 1922, and he ran it at the Central Avenue location until a mid-1950s move to Chapman Street, in the building that now houses Serena’s Carpet Shop.
That’s where the clothing store stayed for nearly 40 years, and began to adapt to changing times.
“We were a traditional men’s clothing store up until the late-1960s,” said Mills. “We did suits and dress clothing for guys, plus sold work clothing to the miners and loggers, whatever those guys needed. Then we did outdoor clothing, for sportsmen, fisherman, hunters. We always sold that too.”
The store sold suits and sports coats into the 1990s.
“The last time I ordered suits was the year before I moved the business, so 1993,” said Mills. “The town was becoming so casual. Outdoor clothing and casual sportswear was becoming more and more the thing that people wanted.”
J.D. Mills also moved into women’s clothing in the late-1960s, transitioning when the Lee Company added women’s jeans.
“By the early 70s we were more established in women’s casual apparel,” said Mills.
Opportunity knocked in the 1990s, and Mills took advantage of a chance to move his business to Ely’s main thoroughfare. He bought the building that housed Barbara Ann Bakery and J.D. Mills moved to Sheridan Street, where it has stayed since 1994.
But changing times and a chance to retire beckoned this year.
And rather than bittersweet, Mills said “I’m much more happy to be able to get out from under the building. Just in the last couple years, it seemed like the only things selling were what John Ott was buying off the tax rolls. Now for whatever reasons, commercial buildings have been sold for the last year-and-a-half, and I’m added to that list.”
Mills did not identify who is purchasing the building or their plans for the structure, but the clothing business is not part of the sale.
Instead, J.D. Mills customers have just over two months to make a final stop and purchase.
Other than Mills, the store has just one current employee and even at its peak, Mills employed no more than two primary and two part-time workers.
Yet it will be very different, not only for Mills, but Ely’s business landscape, come August.
J.D. Mills has been Ely’s longest-running business ever since James Drug was sold to Pamida more than a decade ago.
Mills said he would particularly miss regular customers, including visitors from outside the area who would make a planned stop at the store each year.
“The saddest thing about leaving is the relationships that you build,” said Mills. “The relationships with all of my customers and good friends, and also the relationships with my sources. That’s what I will miss.”