Dear Mister Ward, I’ve got a complaint: Montague man offers a slice of U.S. history with book, staged reading about famous mail-order business

  • Letters sent to the complaints department of the Montgomery Ward company in St. Paul, Minnesota, circa 1932-1942, were preserved by Evan H. Gregg’s grandmother, who worked there. CONTRIBUTED/EVAN GREGG

  • A letter sent to the complaints department of the Montgomery Ward company in St. Paul, Minnesota, circa 1932-1942, this time about a missing payment. COURTESY EVAN GREGG

  • Evan Gregg’s book offers a snapshot into rural Midwestern life in the 1930s and 1940s. CONTRIBUTED/EVAN GREGG

  • A very young Evan Gregg, circa 1980, with his late grandmother, Verna Gregg, in Amherst. Verna Gregg worked in the complaints department of Montgomery Ward from 1932 to 1942. CONTRIBUTED/EVAN GREGG

  • Amherst native Evan Gregg, seen here outside the Jones Library, has published “Dear Mister Ward,” a collection of complaint letters to Montgomery Ward that his late grandmother Verna Gregg saved when she worked for the mail-order business in 1932-1942. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Evan H. Gregg spent the COVID lockdown days organizing the letters his grandmother saved from the Montgomery Ward complaints department. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • At left, in “Dear Mister Ward,” Gregg has collected the letters his grandmother once fielded. It will get a “staged reading” at the Shea Theater on July 23.

  • Amherst native Evan Gregg, seen here outside the Jones Library, has published “Dear Mister Ward,” a collection of complaint letters to Montgomery Ward that his late grandmother Verna Gregg saved when she worked for the mail-order business in 1932-1942. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • VIA WIKIMEDIA VIA WIKIMEDIA

  • Montgomery Ward & Co.’s Northwestern Catalog House in St. Paul, Minnesota is seen in an image taken before 1933 as part of a survey. VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2022 4:53:31 PM
Modified: 7/21/2022 4:53:07 PM

Out on the windswept prairie in the depths of the Great Depression, on isolated farms and in small towns, you could get a little lonely.

One way to combat that loneliness was to write to the venerable mail-order business Montgomery Ward, even if it was to complain about a product you’d bought from them — because the company would always respond with a personal letter.

And write to Montgomery Ward people did, about all sorts of quirky subjects: a lack of toilet paper, love gone wrong, birth control, ice buckets that arrived without ice and much more.

Now Montague resident Evan H. Gregg has put together a charming book, “Dear Mister Ward,” based on some of those letters, offering a window to a distant chapter of U.S. social history and a snapshot of the Midwest in the run-up to World War II, before the advent of postwar changes that would reshape the country and speed up the pace of life.

And Gregg, an Amherst native, is now bringing some of this material to a July 23 staged reading at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, believing there’s some real entertainment value to sharing some of these anecdotes with a larger audience by having local actors read the letters aloud.

“To me, this is a really interesting snapshot of a time and place in history, a time before people wrote complaints online, on Facebook or Yelp,” Gregg, 42, said during a recent phone call. He initially created a website and posted some of the letters online.

“When I did a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first print run of my book,” he added, “some friends and other people told me they’d had a lot of fun reading the letters aloud to each other. That’s partly where I got the idea” for a staged reading.

Gregg began his project a few years ago after he discovered a large cache of customer letters that his late grandmother, Verna Gregg, had saved from the years 1932-1942, when she had worked in the complaints department of Montgomery Ward in the company’s St. Paul, Minnesota office after finishing high school.

Montgomery Ward, named after founder Aaron Montgomery Ward, began in 1872 as a catalog business aimed at supplying rural customers with a variety of hard-to-get goods. Working initially from a small Chicago office, Ward, who died in 1913, built strong ties to farmers and small-town residents, based on dedicated customer service and money-back guarantees, creating one of the nation’s biggest mail-order businesses alongside Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Montgomery Ward opened many retail outlets in the 20th century that later closed; today a different company that uses the original name operates strictly as an online business, Gregg says.

Verna Gregg, who died in 1990, saved some of the funnier and more poignant letters — most of them typed, some hand-written, and predominantly from customers in the upper Midwest — that she responded to. She later retyped them, complete with the spelling mistakes and crossed-over characters from the originals.

Her collection ended up with an uncle and was then passed to Evan Gregg’s father, the late Harrison Gregg, a former Amherst town moderator who died in 2018. His son found the letters when going through his father’s papers.

During the worst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Gregg says he immersed himself in organizing the material, researching the history of Montgomery Ward, and starting a Kickstarter campaign. He’s now done two print runs of “Dear Mister Ward” and says he’s sold copies to customers in 39 states, following an interview with a St. Paul TV station about the project.

 

‘What can a fellow with a lot of cream do with a lawn mower?’

 

There’s plenty of humor, unintentional and sometimes self-directed, in these letters, as well as some more serious — and sometimes sad — content. A South Dakota woman wrote to ask if the company had a product to help her get out of being “in a family way,” as she was not in a position to have a child.

One man lamented that an overcoat he’d ordered ended up being far too big, badly accentuating his thinness: “Honestly one would think I had just hobbled in from the cornfield after frightening a band of crows half to death.”

He also said a poor-fitting pair of pants from the company prompted his wife to tell him his “rear view” reminded her of “the back end of a bull without a tail. Now can you imagine how that hurts my sensitive nature.”

Writers sometimes shared matters of the heart. One man wrote to say he was returning a diamond ring he had bought for his engagement: “The diamond is satisfactory in every way, but the girl is’nt.” A Miss Martha Medford asked if Montgomery Ward could ship her a man who was modeling a coat in the catalog (page 257) because “Mother and I have decided … [he] could make me a good husband. I know he would be good to me.”

“How can I get him?” Miss Medford added. “If you can send him to me, I would be glad to send the postage.”

Some of these letters would make pretty good fodder for today’s late-night comics.

“Please cancel my order for toilet paper,” said one. “Time wont allow me to pay for it.” A farmer complained the company had sent him the wrong item: “I ordered a 32 [volt] electric churn and what do I get — a lawn mower. Now what can a fellow with a lot of cream do with a lawn mower?”

Laughs aside, many of these plain-spoken missives illuminate what seems a more innocent time. There’s very little of the snark and vitriol that mark so much of today’s online discussions, and the letters are often more chatty than irritable. Gregg notes that many Montgomery Ward customers in isolated communities likely had a genuine desire to connect with the company, one whose products had a big impact on their lives.

“In a way, it was someone to talk to,” he said. “People were very isolated. It was the Depression, most people didn’t have cars … and there weren’t many department stores outside of big cities. A lot of people bought products through the mail.”

At the reading Saturday at the Shea Theater, which begins at 8 p.m., Gregg will also present a video that includes a short history of Montgomery Ward — his book includes some company history as well — and some background information on a few of the people who wrote the letters his grandmother fielded.

He’s hoping he might next be able to make a documentary on the subject; he’s done some initial research into descendants of some of the letter writers and hopes to build on that.

Gregg, in fact, has some experience in the movie business, having previously handled a number of jobs for the location departments of a dozen feature films. In an afterword in his book, he also notes that he’s dealt with many customer complaints at previous jobs at “4 convenience stores, 3 landfills, [and] 2 retail stores.”

“He is a renowned complainer in his own right and likes the old ways best,” Gregg writes.

More information on “Dear Mister Ward” and the July 23 reading can be found at dearmisterward.com.


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