LeeWard Mills and Lee Wards Story

Book 7

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL

History of LeeWard Mills and LeeWards


General Mills Years (1969 –1985)


 LeeWards was an art-hobby and needlecraft catalog operation with one retail store and sales of roughly $10 to $12 million when General Mills, Inc. purchased the company in 1969.49  Twenty-seven year old General Mills, Inc. employee Lee C. Anderson, an MBA Carnegie-Mellon graduate, stepped in as assistant General Manager of LeeWards and became President of this Division of General Mills, Inc. (50) After the sale, both Sidney C. Fink and Ralph A. Fried stayed on with LeeWards for awhile to help with the switch-over. Lee Anderson remembers, “Both men stayed to help. Sidney left within the first year, but Ralph stayed a little longer and was a real treasure trove of information for me in making the transition.” (51) 

Lee Anderson - Permission Granted in Writing to

                                                      Use this Image

One of Lee Anderson’s first duties was to create a budget for the LeeWards Division, so a study was done and they discovered there was approximately an $8 million (mail order) and $2 million (retail store) split in the divisions within the company.   Mr. Anderson explains, “The business was primarily mail order at the time (the catalog was produced in-house), but the 2 million dollar retail store was growing faster and was slightly more profitable than the mail order business.” (52)   

Study completed, Lee Anderson called a staff meeting with Charles Eaker and other company executives to discuss plans for the future of the division.  There was general agreement among those in attendance that LeeWards should be expanding the retail portion of the business.  Some suggested setting up the first store in California, but that idea was nixed for a short time in favor of communities closer to home.  Key executives were assigned to research one or two larger cities within overnight trucking distance of Elgin, Illinois.(53)   “We went to St. Louis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Kansas City, and Columbus, Ohio scouting possible sites, studied the demographics, and took a good look at our mail order numbers from those communities to find the best possible locations.  We found an old J.C. Penney’s store in Columbus, Ohio and made a deal, purchasing the 50,000 square foot store for $1.00 a square foot,” reports Lee Anderson. “We opened the store in Columbus, Ohio and it did over a million dollars by the end of the first year. Then about a year later we opened the store in Minneapolis and the retail section of the company began driving the business.” (54)  

  Alica Prusa Chief Demonstrator and Instructor

                                                             for LeeWards  - Permission Granted in

                                                             Writing to Use This Image

LeeWards employee Alicia (Prusa) Moorehead remembers, “When I came to work for the company, there were only the Elgin and Columbus stores and the Catalog Division, but more stores were planned.  Once LeeWards began opening the other stores, I spent much of the time ‘on the road’ when very few women traveled for business.  My responsibilities included store setups, merchandising, training, and being there at store openings.” (55)   

LeeWards Store - Interior Shot

Note the Demonstration Design Station

Authors Collection of Photos

Alicia wrote the first training manual for staff of demonstrators that comprised the core/center of every store, she taught the first class ever given at many of the new stores, wrote class plans used in the stores, and wrote many of the project instruction leaflets that were printed and distributed in the stores. Alicia spent several weeks in a store before it opened; then did follow-ups afterward.  She eventually had four regional coordinators working with her.  Her office stayed at the corporate national headquarters in Elgin near the computer room, “My office was one of those adjacent to the “mainframe computer” which was so big in those days it needed its own sealed room with an elevated floor because of the heat it gave out!” (56)   


Above -Demonstration Hours Sign

Creative Signing - A LeeWards Sales Technique

Below  -  Creative Sign for Crewel -- The sign would be placed above all the

products that pertain to Crewel Work. 


Ms Moorhead adds, “I worked with every department of the company from advertising and promotion, design and development, buying, and research.  I was not alone; most of us who worked for LeeWards during that time period multi-tasked like this, and we loved it because we were also allowed, encouraged to do ANY project that would contribute to the company sales.  It was a very exciting time in the creative crafts industry and a very good company to work for.” (57)   

LeeWards Employee Stitching Vest

Authors Collection of Photos

By 1974 LeeWards chain of retail stores were a rousing success.  Why?  LeeWards strived to give their customers the best selection of product at the lowest possible prices.  Then Elgin store manager Mike Greenwood explains in a 1974 newspaper article,  “The aisles of the Elgin store are filled with something for everyone; art needlework kits, craft kits, fashion fabrics, holiday decorations, candles, lamps, dolls, leather goods, art supplies, the list is endless.  In addition the store has the most complete selection of ‘how to start from scratch’ in every type of craft imaginable. Many of the craft kits are finished by LeeWards experts and attractively displayed throughout the store showing the customer how their handiwork will look finished.” (58)

LeeWards Back Room

Creative Souls and Worker Bees and Happy Employees

Authors Collection of Photos

 The retail stores worked in partnership with the mail order division, which was not the main focus of the company anymore, but catalog sales were still a good moneymaker.  The catalogs were also used as a testing ground for new products, to measure how the public would react to them before they were offered across the country in the stores. 

LeeWards Interior Store Shot - Yarn Rainbow

Authors Collecton of Photos

 Like Fink and Fried before them, General Mills, Inc.’s biggest seller was yarn.  Mr. Anderson notes, “When I joined the business back in March 1968, these off-white large crocheted, large loop vests were popular.   4-ply Orlon Sayelle yarn made with 100% DuPont Orlon was our customers’ favorite thread to make kitchen towels with crocheted “drawer knob” handles, afghans, shawls, and those “loop” vests.” (59)  

Large Loop Vest - Who didn't have one of these?

Authors Collecton of Photos

LeeWards pricing system also helped make their yarn line a success. Lee Anderson explains, “We sold yarn for $1.29 a skein, but if you bought 12 or more skeins the price went down to 88 cents a skein. LeeWards made it so worthwhile to buy huge quantities that women would leave the store with sacks full of yarn.  We rarely sold a single skein. Volume selling and a reasonable price made it a win-win situation for both the company and the customer.” (60)

Yarn LeeWards Biggest Seller - This brand and others.

Authors Collection