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Franchise

There are very few topics that don’t interest me. And war is probably at the top of that list.

When I came to NDSU, Archer Jones was on the history faculty. Jones was a Southern gentleman, always conservatively dressed—I never saw him in anything but a suit, light-colored for sultry nights on the Charleston battery—and groomed to a level beyond “manscaping.” AH-chuh, as his wife called him (even when he was standing next to her), was a Civil War scholar. 

For me there is nothing more tedious than second guessing the battlefield strategies of third-string generals, but this was mother’s milk for Dr Jones. So as a novice faculty member at the university, I attended some of his presentations—though I suspect being seen in the audience did me neither harm nor good. I did, however, observe a very characteristic faculty type.

My historical preferences and predilections are catholic. And some of them are probably as noxious to you as the Battle of Sunken Heights would be to me. I’m inordinately fond of the Social Gospel, for example, and the Progressive Movement. And I can develop a real lather over the Etruscans, as well. But the Agincourt Project has pushed me in often uncomfortable and sometimes unexpected ways—like the history of franchising.

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Franchising, I was surprised to learn, began in the Middle Ages, though its modern form (Pita Pit, etc.) began in the 19th century. Drug companies may have been among the earliest nationwide corporations to offer local companies the benefit of volume buying and a brand name. Van Kannel’s Sanitary Drug could hardly buy aspirin in quantities large enough to compete with the price of an identical bottle at the Rexall. So, many Agincourt businesses affiliated with gusto to enjoy the franchise advantage.

But there is a big difference between a home-owned business (Theo Van Kannel lived three blocks from the Broad Street storefront he owned) and the Big Box retailers of our time. His profits (minus the franchise fee, of course) were plowed back into the community he served—on the board of the Presbyterian church, as a depositor at the FM&M bank, and a regular customer at many local shops. Wally World does employ local people and it does pay local taxes (unless, of course it’s been given a five year tax holiday to encourage its very presence in the community!). But Wally’s profits vanish into corporate coffers connected with a post office box in Delaware.

So (he inquired with a pregnant pause) what has been Agincourt’s experience with business franchising? When did the Dairy Queen beat the hell out of Tastee Freeze? How have Adams’ Restaurant and the Bon Ton held their own against Highway Host and Micky D? Then there is the matter of automobile dealerships? Even the YMCA is a franchise of sorts. Uncomfortable as these questions may be, this is why I get the proverbial big bucks.

Any thoughts on the franchise phenomenon during the 20th century will be most welcome.


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