If these buildings could talk: Cowing Robards has nearly 150 years of history

From shoeing horses to creating custom apparel, this Alexandria business has been a constant presence for the changing community for over a century.

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A sign in the back hallway of 512 Broadway St. reads, "Cowing Robards Business Family." The last names of the original owners are what inspired the store's name: John Cowing along with George and Oscar Robards. Oscar's son, Pat, took over as owner of the business, but since Pat never had a son of his own, he brought Ed Rooney in as an employee, business partner and eventual owner. (Jasmine Johnson / Echo Press)

Editor's note: Curious about the structures lining Broadway Street? Here’s an in-depth look at the buildings around downtown Alexandria, businesses who previously occupied the spaces and the purposes they’re being used for today.

If Dan Rooney could time travel, he would return to the year 1872 and stand across the street from Cowing Robards while people replaced horseshoes.

“It would be an absolute thrill to watch the service that went on back then that we still care about today,” he said.

The business has been a foundational piece of downtown Alexandria since 1872. Through nearly 150 years of changing times, the original stone foundation is still visible on the south wall of the store’s basement.

Over the years, the store’s owners, management and employees have helped the business transition through the Great Depression, World War I and II, the invention of the automobile, the implementation of the train crossing through Douglas County and the fluctuating tourism industry.


“Tourism probably affected us as a store in terms of our merchandise more than anything else,” Rooney said.

Alexandria started to highlight its resorts more in the 1950s, so that’s when Cowing Robards began shifting its merchandise toward a more recreational focus, including sporting goods, hunting gear and fishing supplies.

It’s also around the time when Dan’s father, Ed Rooney, “picked up the reigns” from Pat Robards, son of Cowing Robards’ founder.

Ed started working there as a senior in high school. After returning from two years in the Army, he was offered a full-time position running the gun and fishing tackle department.

Over the next 20 years, Robards taught Ed accounting, taxes and retail operations, presenting him with shares of stock in the business and leading to Ed’s eventual purchase of the store.

Cowing Robards narrowed in on serving the visitors at resorts and on vacations in the lakes area through the 1960s and 1970s but began to struggle in the 1980s once the Viking Plaza Mall opened.

Following the addition of the mall, more competition came from chain stores. Their presence made it more difficult for Cowing Robards to sell hardware supplies and sporting goods.

“That had a huge impact on us economically downtown,” Dan said, as there were 13 empty buildings downtown for a period of time. “We had to reposition and refigure what we were going to do.”


In response, Ed decided to alter the store’s focus and sell hockey equipment, since no other area business was doing so. Continuing to pursue unique services, Ed also helped expand Cowing Robards into screen printing and embroidery work, which are both major parts of the business today.

“We’ve continually been faced with fierce competition to the point where we’ve had to recategorize and re-departmentalize our store because of what happened in the Alexandria shopping community,” Dan said.

Through his time owning Cowing Robards, Ed launched other local businesses and positioned them in properties nearby in order to keep the downtown buildings occupied. Under his leadership, Cowing Robards has owned more than a dozen buildings in Alexandria.

“My dad is a big deal downtown. He doesn’t think what he did is a big deal, and that’s just the way he is,” Dan said. “His to-do downtown is so much more significant than mine at this point, but I hope to get there someday.”

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Dan Rooney points to a framed collage of photos from Cowing Robards' history. This visual collection, along with other pieces of the business' history, hang on the basement walls as well as the back entryway to the store. (Jasmine Johnson / Echo Press)

Dan has been with the business for the past 30 years, and he’s watched Cowing Robards continue to transition.

“Our community changed, and so did the store,” Dan said. “The adaptation piece is probably the biggest, single piece that’s kept us in business: The acceptance of change and the willingness to adapt to the needs of the community.”


Back in the store’s hardware era, Dan said that customers came for items they needed. Now, they come for products they want. From contractors, electricians and plumbers to reunion organizers, summer camp coordinators and festival directors, Cowing Robards sees a wide variety of clients.

“It’s such an honor to be part of this historical business and to have it survive with the idea that you have to accept change, and it has to be OK,” Dan said.

The key, he said, is to pay attention to what’s happening in the community and the subtleties of gradual change. Whether it be church, softball leagues or other pastimes, the employees’ presence around Alexandria helps them stay in touch with the times.

“We don’t just open the doors on a Monday and say, ‘Well, we hope it’s gonna work,’” Dan said. “We’re all involved in the community. We’re all involved with our own personal aspects of it.”

Currently, the store provides services in sporting goods, embroidery, screen printing, promotional products, trophies, awards and an online ordering center.

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Behind a stash of trophies, the original stone foundation for the Cowing Robards building is still visible on the south wall of the store’s basement. (Jasmine Johnson / Echo Press)

Cowing Robards has been a constant presence at 512 Broadway St. since the downtown Alexandria business area was established. Here are some highlights from the Douglas County Historical Society records:


  • 1867: John Cowing heads the business as a general store and meat market.

  • 1872: When the area hardware store was put up for sale, John Cowing partnered with George and Oscar Robards to purchase the business in 1872. The Cowings financed the store, while the Robards worked the store.

  • 1969: An advertisement in “The Tourist” described Cowing Robards as the headquarters for guns and ammunition, fishing tackle, buggies and wagons, gasoline stoves and ranges, bicycles, shelf hardware and farm implements.

  • 1986: When the business turned 114 years old, a birthday celebration was held to unveil a redecoration and remodeling project, which included repainted walls, new department signs and reconfigured aisles.

  • 1996: A trophy, plaque and awards division was added to the changing business. The store invested in a new laser engraver in order to provide these services.

  • 2005: Cowing Robards was recognized as the Business and Industrial Appreciation Day honoree in Alexandria. Sales manager Cletus Vickstrom discussed how the business began providing hockey equipment and jerseys. When they started selling jerseys with logos, that required screen printing. After outsourcing their screen printing projects for a few years, they decided it would be more productive to do it themselves. The same process happened with embroidery and later trophies. “And no matter what, we didn’t look at our competitors,” Vicktrom said. “We just forgot about what the others were doing and we just did what we had to do for our customers.”

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More than a century ago, Cowing Robards provided horseshoe replacements. Although the business' products and focus have evolved over time, the store continues to reflect the community's needs. (Contributed photo)

Jasmine Johnson joined the Echo Press staff in May 2020 as a general assignment reporter. She grew up in Becker, Minn., and later studied journalism and graphic design at Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn.
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