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One-hundred-thirty-two-year-old Sears was one of the world's most successful retailers, building a mail order catalog empire that brought the world to rural America, and later transformed the suburban landscape with department stores that often anchored malls.

Now in bankruptcy and facing an uncertain future, Sears gave the world Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, DieHard car batteries and cheap Silvertone guitars, which musicians like Bob Dylan and Jack White first learned to play on. Sears created Allstate Insurance and Discover credit cards, and sold countless staples of middle-class American life, like lawn mowers and khaki pants. And of course, it gave Chicago the long shadow of the Sears Tower. 

In 2012, Sears and subsidiary Kmart had 4,000 stores nationwide that employed more than 350,000 workers.

The company was the largest American retailer until 1989, but times and tastes changed. Sears has failed to turn an annual profit since 2010, and it plans to close its Michigan City store at the Marquette Mall and the Kmart at Griffith Park Plaza as part of a bankruptcy reorganization.

The faltering giant of American commerce had roots in the Region. Co-founder Alvah Roebuck worked as a watch repairman in Hammond when he answered a fateful newspaper ad from Minnesota businessman Richard Warren Sears, who had just set up shop in Chicago.

According to the Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame, Roebuck, a Lafayette native, had worked at a Hammond jewelry store since the age of 12. His big break came suddenly and serendipitously.

"On March 1, 1887, (Sears) set up a shop on Dearborn Street in Chicago with a staff of three people, one to handle bookkeeping and correspondence and two stenographers," according to the Hammond High School Class of 1959's Hammond history website. "Soon after the opening of his new shop, he found a need for a watchmaker to repair watches returned by customers.

"On April 1, 1887, Sears ran an ad in the Chicago Daily News which caught the eye of a young man from Hammond, Indiana. This watchmaker responded to the ad and took samples of his work to his interview with Sears. He was hired on the spot. This young man from Hammond was named Alvah Curtis Roebuck."

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The late Region historian Archibald McKinlay wrote in his Calumet Roots column in The Times that Roebuck had been looking to quit his watch repair business in Hammond because he was frustrated in love.

"At 21, Peter (W. Meyn) aced out Alvah Roebuck, a Hammond watchmaker, for the hand of Magdalena Dunsing, a Lutheran pastor's daughter. Roebuck left Hammond in despair and partnered with Richard Sears in a little enterprise you may have heard of," McKinlay wrote. "Peter, with a partner, established a furniture store, which failed."

The mail-order operation Roebuck and Sears founded, originally named the A.C. Roebuck and Company, took off rapidly as they sold watches and other sundries to farmers across rural America.

In 1895, Roebuck asked Sears for $20,000 for his share of the company, which would go on to rake in $59 billion in revenue in 1992.

He was later brought back to the company to run a division that sold watches, jewelry and optical goods, eventually adding photographs, motion picture machines and magic lanterns, according to the Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame.

Roebuck retired to Florida but came back to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Chicago a second time after suffering significant financial losses during the stock market crash in 1929. He worked on compiling a company history and toured Sears stores across the county before dying at the age of 84 in 1948.

When asked if he regretted selling his stake in the company so early, since Sears went on to become much wealthier, Roebuck reportedly responded, "He's dead. Me, I never felt better."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.