Next week, Caulkins Jewelers will close its doors for good, after 61 years of operations in downtown Leesburg.
Wednesday morning, a collection of other downtown business owners gathered at the store to reminisce with owner Stanley Caulkins, the World War II airman, former Town Council member and dean of the town’s business community.
Caulkins, 91, announced in March plans to close the store following the death of his brother, Roger, who had helped run the business since 1970.
The two were mainstays of the downtown area—for decades on South King Street and the past two years on Catoctin Circle after a fire forced them to relocate the store.
Among those gathered for the informal mentorship session Wednesday were organizer Paige Buscema, owner of Eyetopia; Leesburg Vice Mayor and owner of Weddings on Wirt Suzanne Fox; Butch Porter of IndED Academies; Kathy Gilman, manager of the Resourceful Woman; Mike Carroll, owner of Leesburg Vintner; graphic designer Stilson Greene; and Sola Pallotta of the Very Virginia Shop.
In an address peppered with his trademark salty humor, Caulkins recalled some of the highlights of his career.
After joining Mr. Lytle’s jewelry store as a watchmaker in the 1950s, Stanley Caulkins branched out on his own, buying a nearby gift store.
“I sold mechanical timepieces,” not the push-button digital mechanisms of today, he said scornfully.
“But the fine mechanical watchmaking business is dying,” Caulkins said, noting the store has diversified and turned more to the gift side of the business in recent years. The store was the first in Leesburg to offer Hallmark greetings cards.
Among his achievements, he cited his role in the push to build Leesburg Executive Airport as a founding member of the town’s Airport Commission in 1962.
Radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey, who lived west of Leesburg on his Beacon Hill estate, sold land to the town under the condition it would continue to be used as a public airport for 20 years.
“He wanted to have an airport in town, so he could get back to New York City on Sunday nights in time for his morning show,” Caulkins said.
But, as the town grew, the need for a larger site became evident. Godfrey allowed the town to sell the site, and the commissioners got a matching grant from the newly created Federal Aviation Agency to buy a larger tract along Sycolin Road.
“We built it—with blood, sweat and tears,” Caulkins recalled of that, at the time, divisive effort.
“I saw it as an economic tool for the town, the county and the region,” he said. “I was just a dumb watchmaker—but we built it.”
Today, the terminal building at the airport is named in Caulkin’s honor.
Caulkins also recalled the 1980s battle with the Lyndon LaRouche organization. Then a perennial presidential candidate, LaRouche spurred controversy when he moved his campaign headquarters and fundraising operations to South King Street in 1983.
The friction between the organization and other businesses came to a head when fraud charges were brought against it because of allegations that individuals, especially the elderly, were being scammed. LaRouche was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. He was released in 1994.
As one of the community critics of LaRouche and his associations, Caulkins came under threats during the period. “That was a fun thing,” Caulkins said, recalling that people would drop off donations at the store to support him.
Greene’s father, Marvin, was one of Caulkins’ best friends, classmates at Leesburg High School and members of the football team, coached by John Dietrich.
“For me, the store’s closing is the end of an era,” Greene said, noting the store was a true Leesburg institution. “You never said you were going to the jewelry store—you said you were going to Caulkins.”
Pangle thanked Caulkins “for all the encouragements you never knew you’ve given to all of us.”
Fox met Caulkins in 2014 and said she would never forget the “history lesson” he gave her on Leesburg. “I never thought his business was primarily about selling, it was more about people, getting to know them and how they connected. He’s had a huge impact,” she said.
Greene agreed: “Customer service was the basis, it was more about being honest and fair.”
Carroll echoed the thoughts of all present. “King Street is not the same since you left,” he told Caulkins.
The store, at 36-B Catoctin Circle will close June 30.