Backstory: Remember the monkeys at Volk’s?

The Volk Brothers’ original 25-foot storefront on Elm Street, which opened in 1890. (Photo courtesy of the Texas/Dallas history and archives division, Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News historical archives)
The Volk Brothers’ original 25-foot storefront on Elm Street, which opened in 1890. (Photo courtesy of the Texas/Dallas history and archives division, Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News historical archives)

Volk’s was a pioneer in the American department store business

When Volk’s department store opened an outpost at Wynnewood Village Shopping Center in 1951, it carried “tot-to-teen” girls clothing, as well as jewelry, shoes, furniture and more.

There was a huge tropical aquarium in the children’s section, but the main attraction was a glass cage with three woolly monkeys.

The tiled cage had a drinking fountain, a revolving seesaw, a trapeze and a tree so that the monkeys could exercise.

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While it’s hard to imagine nowadays that a department store would keep wild animals in a cage, just about anyone who grew up in Oak Cliff during that era will remember those monkeys.

The popularity of a huge cage for tropical birds in their Lakewood store gave Volk’s the idea for the monkeys.

Volk’s lasted almost a century in Dallas. The Volk brothers, Leonard and George, moved from Baltimore to Dallas in 1889. They were shoemakers, the sons of a shoemaker who claimed to be the son of a shoemaker who crafted footwear for Bavarian royalty.

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The Volks initially lived in Oak Cliff, although they would later buy homes in Highland Park.

The brothers started their shoe store, Volk Brothers, on Elm Street in 1890. It would go on to become one of the largest shoe retailers in the United States.

Harold F. Volk (Photo courtesy of the Texas/Dallas history and archives division, Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News historical archives)
Harold F. Volk (Photo courtesy of the Texas/Dallas history and archives division, Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News historical archives)

Volk’s occupied a couple of locations on Elm Street before moving into a six-story building they constructed on Elm at St. Paul. Built in 1930, it was reported to be the first air-conditioned department store in the United States. The building was designed by Herbert M. Greene, LaRoche & Dahl architects. The first-floor façade was covered in black and gold marble. The five upper stories were built of limestone, with windows cased in cast iron and bronze, all topped by a copper roof.

By that time, the 40-year-old Volk’s company had expanded to include everything — furniture, toys, fur coats, hats, dresses and on and on.

Leonard Volk died in 1935, and his brother had passed away years earlier. But Leonard’s son, Oak Cliff-born Harold F. Volk, already had taken over the business.

Under the younger Volk’s leadership, the store expanded into the “suburb” of Highland Park. Volk’s was one of the first department stores to expand out of the central business district — Sears wouldn’t begin making a push for suburban stores until the 1950s.

Volk’s opened a third store, on Live Oak at Skillman/La Vista in Lakewood in 1949.

Between 1959 and 1965, they opened stores at Big Town Mall in Mesquite, Plymouth Park Shopping Center in Irving and Preston Royal Shopping Center in Dallas.

Harold F. Volk also developed the 1950 Statler Hotel in Downtown. He was president of the Dallas Community Chest Trust Fund for many years and sat on the Board of Development for Southern Methodist University.

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Besides that, he’d had a career as a spy during World War II.

Educated at East coast boarding schools, Yale University and The Sorbonne, Harold Volk was fluent in French and German and had served as an officer in World War I.

He was asked to join the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime intelligence agency that was a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to the Dallas Historical Society, Volk headed up a team of 500 people who worked on “psychological warfare operations.” Their feats included spreading disinformation among German troops and taking over radio transmissions for the French underground.

He also interviewed French civilians after the war and collected stories of Nazi atrocities that were used during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.

After the war, he grew Volk’s to include half a dozen stores. And in 1970, Volk’s was sold to Colbert’s Inc. The Downtown Volk’s store closed in 1973.

In 1980, a wrecking crew tore down the magnificent Downtown Volk’s building in the middle of the night.

We don’t know whatever happened to those monkeys.

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