Duke & Ayres, Inc., was a Texas-based “five-and-dime” (also known as “racket” or “variety”) general merchandise retail store chain established in the late nineteenth century and in business during much of the twentieth century. At its peak, the closely-held corporation owned stores in more than fifty locations throughout Texas and several others in Oklahoma. Corporate headquarters were located in Dallas. Local newspapers reported new or remodeled store openings into the early 1970s, but the company evidently was in decline by then and acquired by Ben Franklin Stores. Some Duke & Ayres stores persisted into the 1980s, but all of them appear to have closed by the 1990s and were victims of the disruptive success of large discount centers such as Walmart.
The first store, named The Nickel Store, opened in Bowie, Texas, on October 15, 1894, only fifteen years after Frank W. Woolworth opened Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store, the original five-and-dime store, in Utica, New York, in 1879. Subsequently, while The Nickel Store name remained in use for several years, the company and its stores became known, according to the biennial report of the Texas Secretary of State, as Duke, Teal & Ayres in February 1907, before incorporating as Duke & Ayres in February 1909 with capital stock valued at $75,000.
The company’s founders were Hardie (often spelled Hardy) Zebulon Duke, Duke’s nephew Olin Allison Teal, and son-in-law Newton Ayres. Duke was the company’s president from 1907 until his death in 1918. He was succeeded by Ayres, who led the company until 1925, when he retired due to illness. Teal quit the partnership by 1910 and became a successful real estate developer. Throughout the company’s existence, leadership succession typically resulted from internal promotions, with leadership positions assumed either by men who had worked their way up from store management or to family members or, in some instances, both. Ezra Smith Fudge, who succeeded Ayres as company president and served until his death in 1939, and Edgar Durward Mikel, who was president and chairman of the board until 1980, exemplify the former; Robert Rodriguez Rickard, another of Duke’s nephews and president in the 1940s and 1950s, is a case of the latter. Although many women were employed as sales clerks in individual stores or as administrative assistants in corporate offices, and some may have served as store managers, none appear to have advanced into the upper echelons of management.
Duke & Ayres expanded rapidly to become a familiar presence in the downtown business districts of dozens of small and mid-sized Texas cities, with stores located in Bonham, Dallas, Denton, Ennis, Kaufman, Longview, Marshall, Paris, Sherman, Taylor, Terrell, and Waxahachie by 1910. Like competitors such as the Lufkin-based Perry Brothers Stores, Duke & Ayres stocked its approximately 5,000 to 10,000-square-foot stores with thousands of sundries such as candies, housewares, school supplies, toiletries and toys, all of which could be bought and sold quickly at deeply discounted prices, originally with no item priced higher than five cents. With regard to inventory and marketing strategy, five-and-dime stores were precursors to today’s dollar stores. At the time of Duke’s death in 1918, his obituary reported a chain of twenty-seven Duke & Ayres stores in Texas and Oklahoma. The chain’s consistent success was reflected by its motto, “Courtesy, Quality and Low Prices,” as reported in the Athens Weekly Review on June 11, 1925, with the opening of a new store in Athens, Texas.
Early on, Duke & Ayres adhered to a policy of corporate stewardship that reflected the strongly-held religious convictions of Hardie Duke, who was, along with co-founder Olin Teal, a longtime member and deacon of Dallas' First Baptist Church. Duke was born near Buchanan, Haralson County, Georgia, in 1852 and spent his childhood in Carroll County. His father, Thomas F. Duke, a Confederate soldier, was killed during the Civil War in the first battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), when Duke was only nine years old. Soon after his marriage to Nancy Florence Moseley in 1874, Duke and several other relatives, including members of the Teal family, migrated from Georgia to Texas and settled first in Eastland County before moving to Montague County where he opened his first Nickel Store in Bowie. Beginning in 1895, despite having only $700 in capital, he decided to tithe his income and continued doing so for the rest of his life. He and his wife also agreed that when they had obtained a net worth of $100,000, they would use all of their profits from Duke & Ayres to support church and charitable work, retaining only enough for themselves to sustain a modest standard of living. They reached this threshold by 1913. Duke became well-known traveling across the country to give addresses in churches and other religious venues on the virtues of tithing, to which he attributed much of his success as a businessman. When he died on February 16, 1918, he was remembered both for his business acumen and his generous philanthropic work. One published tribute noted that “he had three elements of a successful business man; he knew how to make money, how to save it, and how to give it.” Duke’s example resonated company-wide with numerous instances of store managers and corporate officers assuming leadership roles and engaging in acts of benevolence in their churches and communities, as well as serving on numerous corporate boards.
Several of the founders’ heirs gained prominence in their chosen professions or continued the legacy of becoming benefactors to their communities. Ayres’s daughter and Duke’s granddaughter Marion Ayres Guion bequeathed to the Dallas Public Library $144,456, which at the time was the largest gift to that institution. She was married for a short time to composer David Wendell Guion, who famously wrote an adaptation of the cowboy song “Home on the Range.” Olin Teal’s sons Gordon and Edwin became distinguished scientists, with the former making important contributions to the development of transistors.