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Women’s History in Lansing: Agnes Smithgall and Rilla Zabel – They created a clothing store for kids

By Marlene Cook

LANSING, Ill. (March 28, 2022) – Agnes Smithgall worked in the business office of Illinois Bell Telephone Company in Hammond. Rilla Zabel worked as a buyer and clerk in a Hammond department store. They didn’t know each other until one day Smithgall approached the counter as a customer where Zabel was a clerk. The two professionals struck up a conversation and discovered they both had a dream of opening their own businesses.

Zabel had 25 years of experience as a buyer and seller, and Smithgall had experience in the business department. Their combined years of merchandising experience and talent gave them the incentive to make their dream come true, and they formed a partnership.

Clothing for kids

As mothers of growing children, Smithgall and Zabel realized that all moms faced the common problem of outfitting their children as comfortably and attractively as budget would allow. Smithgall had a daughter, and Zabel had two children. They decided they would hire only women with children to serve as sales personnel at their store.

Despite some discouragement from family and friends, Smithgall, 42, and Zabel, 37, put their money together. On March 15, 1947, they opened a children’s clothing shop at 3520 Ridge Road in Lansing. They chose the name Hansel and Gretel and went on to build a reputation of having the latest fashion in smart children’s wear at a moderate price.

When the two decided to go into business together, they said it was their husbands who did all the worrying. The women had planned that they would each work three days a week, but the growing business soon demanded more of their time. Zabel moved into the apartment above the store, and Smithgall hired a housekeeper to take care of routine chores at her home on 178th Street.

Although they had little time for hobbies, the women did make time for Lansing activities. Smithgall was a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Women’s Auxiliary, the American Legion, and the Calumet City Junior Woman’s Club. Zabel was a member of Emmanuel Evangelical Reformed Church in Hammond, Indiana. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Lansing Business Association and vice president of Sigma Alpha sorority.

In 1955, the female entrepreneurial pair opened a second store in Woodmar Shopping Center in Hammond. They advertised it as “the most unusual children’s apparel shop in the Calumet area.”

They continued their successful business until 1988.

This article ends The Lansing Journal’s Women’s History in Lansing series. To read all of Marlene Cook’s articles written during Women’s History Month, visit our Lansing History category page.

Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.