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Reuben Kunnes helped Thomson businesses flourish in early 1900s

B efore there was Forward McDuffie and the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce, there was Reuben Kunnes.

Mr. Kunnes moved to Thomson in 1895 at the age of 16 to work at a dry goods store. Ten years later, he was able to buy that store he was working in. As the owner of Kunnes Department Store, Mr. Kunnes helped others in Thomson by loaning them money to start their own businesses. He also was instrumental in bringing the Thomson Company and the Box Factory to Thomson.

"Reuben Kunnes was the chamber of commerce before there was a chamber of commerce," said Thomson historian Rusty Lovelace. "He was known as Mr. Thomson."

Kay Podem, Mr. Kunnes' eldest granddaughter who now lives in Alabama, said her grandfather always had the best interest of the town and the people at heart, and was very generous in loaning them money.

"We have a couple of beautiful chairs. I have no idea who he loaned the money to, but they paid him back with these beautiful, mahogany, carved rocking chairs," said Susan Goldstein, Mr. Kunnes' youngest granddaughter, who also lives in Alabama. "I have one in my house and one of my sisters has the other one."

Mr. Kunnes moved to America from Kiev, Ukrain in 1892. He first lived in Philadelphia with his grandfather, then moved down South three years later, according to Ms. Podem. Reuben Kunnes went into the dry good business with a man named Elias Kunnes, who was not related to him. When he bought his partner out and became the sole owner of the business, the store was located in the old J.E. Wilson Building on Main Street, which later became Brannon's Drug Store.

"We had a ledger that he kept in 1899, but that ledger is now a part of the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta," Ms. Podem said. "He had a lot of interesting entries in that."

Entries included rent to J.E. Wilson for $25.15, stamps for 25 cents, Turner Hardware for $1.05, and a personal entry to "charity."

"So, even at the very beginning, he was being charitable," Ms. Podem said.

In 1906, Mr. Kunnes married Annie, and the honeymooners lived in a house on White Oak Street. Ms. Podem said the mayor of Thomson at that time was Ira Farmer.

Ms. Podem wrote and self-published a book about her grandmother entitled Annie's October Sky.

"I wrote this book about my grandmother because my grandfather was such an outstanding man, that I felt she kind of got left in the shadows," Ms. Podem said. "She was so cute and had this fun personality. So, that's how this book came about."

According to a full page ad that ran in an August, 1911 edition of The McDuffie Progress, Kunnes Department Store needed room to expand and moved from the J.E. Wilson Building across the street to a new building by T.A. Scott Company. Ironically, that building now is occupied by The Wilson Company.

According to the ad, Mr. Kunnes also purchased the lot behind the store, "for a commodious warehouse." Employees at the store at that time were: Charley Wall (assistant manager), Mamie Lou Lassiter (bookkeeper), O.M. Gerald (dry goods), B.A. Anchors (clothing), Bennie Thompson (notions) and Sam Kunnes (shoes).

Ms. Goldstein described the store as "the friendly store on the corner, a full department store," and she remembers stools in the back where ladies would sit and look at McCall's patterns.

"It's where I would buy my Levi jeans, Dingo boots and khaki-colored work shirts," said Billy Hobbs.

"The quality was exceptional. You can't find quality like that anymore. I loved my Levi's and I loved my boots."

Although she was very young when he died, Ms. Goldstein remembers her grandfather always wearing seersucker suits. When he wasn't waiting on customers, she said he would take off his jacket and push the sleeves up.

"And he had beautiful white hair and blue eyes," she said. "He was wonderful, very sweet and loving to everybody."

And although he grew up in another country, Mr. Kunnes apparently was made to live in the Camellia City of the South. Ms. Podem said her grandfather loved to grow camellias, and he had many growing in the center of the circular driveway behind their large, red brick house on the corner of Lee and Milledge streets.

"Professor Sergeant was his favorite camellia," she said. "And he had a big, black Packard that the whole family would pile into on Sundays and go for a ride."

Mr. Kunnes also sat on the Board of Directors of First National Bank, which is now SunTrust Bank in Thomson.

When he died in 1948, the local radio station broadcast that all merchants of Thomson close on the day of his funeral out of respect for Mr. Kunnes, according to a newspaper announcement.

"I think that says a lot about him," Ms. Podem said.

"He was a wonderful husband, a wonderful father and a really wonderful grandfather. ... If anybody needed help, they could come to him and he would do what he could to help them."

Mr. Kunnes' son-in-law, Isadore Itzkow, and daughter, Pearl Kunnes, took over the business after Mr. Kunnes' death. Pearl also sat on the Board of Directors of First National Bank.

Mr. Itzkow was a photography buff who added cameras to the store. He also set up a place in the store for local Boy Scout equipment.

The store closed in the late 1970's.

Web posted on Thursday, July 29, 2010

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