(First published in the May 17, 2018 issue of City Pages)
The franchise store marks the end of an era for a family that has been in the Wausau furniture business since 1874
Sara Helke, with a photo of the original Helke Fine Furniture store and of her great-grandfather Charles Helke. The family’s business has operated as an Ethan Allen franchise since 1971.
Sara Helke has been preparing for the final weeks her Ethan Allen furniture store in Rib Mountain will be open. Helke has made her peace with the store’s recently announced closing but she’s a little sad, understandably.
The Ethan Allen store is the latest incarnation of a family business started by Sara Helke’s great-grandfather, Charles. Helke Fine Furniture opened in 1874, in a storefront at 319 Fourth St. in downtown Wausau. The operation eventually became an Ethan Allen franchise store, and is believed to be the longest running business owned by a single family in Marathon County, Sara Helke says.
Charles Helke and his father, who emigrated from the Pomerania region of Germany in 1871, were carpenters, and built coffins as well as furniture. That led to the family opening Wausau’s first funeral home in 1939. (The funeral home was sold, but has retained the Helke name ever since).
Helke Furniture started selling Ethan Allen furniture in the 1960s. In 1971 Sara’s father bought into the Ethan Allen franchise and opened the Rib Mountain store—one of only three Ethan Allen stores in Wisconsin.
Ethan Allen’s popularity peaked in the 1990s, says Sara Helke, who is part owner with four other siblings. Customers took advantage of the design services to create an entire room, picking from 1,500 fabrics or 50 different leathers. The high quality furniture is all custom-built by Ethan Allen, and takes between 10-12 weeks for delivery. “Basically this store is not like other furniture stores,” Sara Helke says. “It’s a design center.”
Business was still pretty good in the 2000s, Sara Helke says. But Ethan Allen stores nationwide took a hit with the recession starting in 2008 and never really recovered.
The economy bounced back, but by then the market had changed, she says. Furniture shoppers took to a more eclectic style rather than paying someone to design a room from top to bottom. Today’s customers who buy one or two items can’t replace the type of clientele who would buy an entire room full of furniture and décor. “People used to come in here for everything,” Sara Helke says. “Now they have Pinterest, and they can come up with their own ideas of how they want their house to look.”
Ethan Allen will take special orders for another two weeks. The store is starting to clear out merchandise and will stay open until the display furniture sells, Helke says, likely through mid-July.