There’s a steadiness and continuity that comes with traditional ways of life in the Midwest. It’s these customs, in part, that have helped Mike and Lisa Pribyl, co-owners of Keokuk, Iowa-based Cahill-Pribyl Jewelry & Gifts, celebrate 90 years in business.
The couple are third-generation jewelers currently transitioning to the fourth generation of family jewelers with a centennial celebration a short decade away. Amy Mefford, the fourth generation and the Pribyl’s daughter, went to New Approach Jewelry School in Franklin, Tennessee. Amy is currently doing all repairs and custom jewelry work. She takes breaks from the bench trying to learn all of the various tasks required to run a jewelry store successfully.
Ninety years in retail jewelry encapsulates a lot of not just personal accounts, but business and township history as well. Since the store opening in 1930, the family jewelry store has moved five times and survived a devastating fire that took out their store and four other businesses in the weeks before Christmas in 1985. Bouncing back from this kind of adversity is another Midwestern quality that brings about hard-earned longevity.
Keokuk, Iowa, is known for its history of rugged souls. For the uninitiated, Keokuk was a key point in the Midwest for those looking to form wagon trains to venture westward toward the coast.
“Keokuk is still called the Gate City because in the very early days it was a gateway to the west,” says Mike. “People would come up the Mississippi to Keokuk and get off, purchase wagons and get outfitted to go west. The old paddle wheelers and steamers couldn’t go farther north because of the rapids in the Mississippi north of Keokuk – unless there was high water, or later after the lock and dam were built in 1913.”
In 1930, when Burke and Annie Cahill started their watchmaking business, the population of Keokuk continued to grow. The industrious couple started with modest means working out of the corner of a friend’s appliance store on the 700 block of Main Street. It didn’t take long for them to outgrow their corner space and move to a venue of their own on the 500 block of Main Street.
Mike’s father, Hubert Pribyl, has a very familiar post-World War II entrance into jewelry retail. After returning home from World War II he became a certified watchmaker for the railroads. The same was true for Burke Cahill. In 1949, Hubert Pribyl opened his store Pribyl’s Jewelry.
“My father opened his store with a lot of costume jewelry, watches and his first big sale was a strand of pearls,” says Mike. The two watchmakers-turned-jewelers enjoyed a “friendly” competition.
The cordialness of that “friendly competition” was proved out in the 1960s. Burke Cahill died of a heart attack. His wife Annie asked Hubert to take over the store. Burke Cahill was a native son to Keokuk. His family’s longstanding history with the township afforded the Cahills with a sizable customer base. Hubert worked both stores in the early 1960s before he closed Pribyl’s and kept Cahill’s concern going.
“The store has had the regular staples you’d expect in a jewelry store – like diamonds, watches, pearls, solid gold and gold filled jewelry,” says Mike. “But Cahills often branched out and sold things you wouldn’t expect [in the giftware category]. This often brought people back in because they never knew what we’d be featuring.”
In the transition years, the Cahills and the Pribyls were “credit jewelers,” to accommodate many GIs returning to civilian life. “Many, many couples have told me that my dad got them started out with their set of rings, paying $5 per week to pay them off,” says Mike. “I had a customer in today that said he worked on the side and all his extra money went to pay off his wedding rings. He said proudly that he paid them off early.”
A jewelry store’s livelihood is only as large and active as its market. Keokuk’s population topped out in the 1960s. When Hubert was taking the reins of the store he had to be all things to all people. By the time Mike and Lisa took control of the store in the 1980s, the population changed and so did the store’s range of products and services.
“We’re a full service store,” says Mike. “We’ve done whatever it takes to make it through the years. We are big into engraving and personalization. There is literally nothing were afraid of doing or offering.”
That “no-fear” attitude is what helped Mike and Lisa make their mark as second generation jewelers; it also gave them the temerity to survive some challenging years in the family business. The mid-1980s was still dealing with the high interest rates of the Carter years. “I remember one pay period where I had to go to the bank and refinance my paid-off Oldsmobile to get money to make payroll,” says Mike.
As if financial and banking matters weren’t tough enough, in 1985 a fire burned their store and four other neighboring retail businesses to the ground on December 2. Nine days later they found a temporary location to finish out the holiday season.
In the store’s past, the Cahills benefited from being a native son. But the Pribyls discovered their neighborly equity in the community when disaster struck on that fateful night in 1985. “With the help of family and friends we were able to pull it off,” says Mike. “We rebuilt like a Phoenix coming out of the flames. Our new building has been a Godsend. It was truly like a scene from the movie It’s A Wonderful Life.”
While Mike and Lisa were outfitting the temporary location in the Knights of Columbus building, Mike’s parents were able to secure $60,000 worth of inventory. The negotiations with Bill Hammen, a trusted salesman with S. H. Clausin, were inked over the Pribyl’s dining room table with glasses of peppermint schnapps.
Disastrous events of the past have a way of shaping future business decisions. Mike and Lisa knew they could never duplicate the inventory breaks their family received in the mid-1980s. In 1994, they decided to join the Retail Jewelers Organization (RJO). It has been a “saving grace” to their business ever since. Mike is president of the RJO Foundation and their daughter Amy is also on the RJO Foundation Board.
COVID lockdowns put a damper on the Pribyl’s 90th anniversary celebration. Mike and Lisa, as well as fourth-generation jewelers Amy and her husband Jeremy, plan on making up for it with a “big blowout” in 2030.