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First Department Store

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Apparently hoping to bolster its image as an up and coming city, Davenport, Iowa, built a golf course and a park on a large wooded island in the Mississippi just off River Drive, and named it Suburban Island.

A fancy name like that was bound to fail—we plain-spoken Rock Islanders took care of that nonsense. We soon gave the island back its historical name, a tribute to the fact that on this island, some two hundred years ago, there appeared the first department store on the Mississippi River.

The store was run by the American Fur Company, who arrived in the Mississippi Valley to trade with the Indians shortly after the Revolutionary War. Each September, company representatives arrived on the island loaded with merchandise to trade for furs: powder and bullets, kettles and knives, beads, trinkets, bolts of cloth, and horses. The island was the perfect place for a store: the horses could not run away, and the merchandise could be made more secure. And sitting just across from the mouth of the Rock River, it was accessible to many tribes.

Winnebago, Iowa, Sauk, and Fox canoed to the island to trade. Their fall harvest of corn, beans, and melon was safely stored, and they needed supplies to head for winter hunting grounds.

There would, of course, be no furs to trade for these goods until spring, when the winter hunt was over, and the Indians had no money to pay for the goods.

No matter. The fur company representatives had opened a department store genuine in every respect. "Buy now, pay later" said the sign. "Charge it," said the Indians loading up on their winter supplies. The systems worked amazingly well, perhaps because both sides used a device far superior to plastic: their words of honor.

That's why the island is doubly well named: Credit Island.

If trading went on there today, we might be calling it Overextended Credit Island.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.