CASPER, Wyo. – The decision to wind down one of Casper’s oldest continuously operating businesses wasn’t easy.
It was, however, becoming inevitable.
“It was time,” said Kelly Kerr, “probably past time.”
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Wardrobe Cleaners has operated on the same spot on Second and Fenway since 1916. The building received three additions over the years, leading up to its current space-age 1950s look and familiar rocket ship sign.
Kelly, 55, took his first job at Wardrobe Cleaners as a delivery boy. Ten years later he was co-owner.
“The business of dry cleaning is going by the wayside, but we kept it alive as long as we can,” he said.
Bodies and equipment wear out. Health issues among Wardrobe’s owners, particularly the business’ 83-year-old patriarch, Jerry Kelly, were hard to ignore.
The building and its systems, especially the heaving, ancient boiler that pumps steam to all essential equipment, have reached the end of their usable lives.
“We’re no longer taking clothes, I imagine the first part of next week we should reach the end of production,” said Kelly.
The dry cleaning business is hard work.
Kelly worked 11-hour days, six days a week. During the coldest winter nights he’d show up to keep pipes from freezing. On hotter summer days the building became a sauna.
But it’s been a good career.
“Since age 17 I’ve had a paycheck,” said Kelly.
In 1953, Wardrobe Cleaners was already decades-old when Jerry Kelly first walked in. He too started as a delivery boy and wound up buying into the business.
“I was a junior in high school,” recalls Jerry. “I’d learn one job and then another, so I became pretty familiar with the operation.”
He’s watched styles and attitudes on dress change over the years.
“People now aren’t wanting to look so nice,” said Jerry. He recalls many regular customers who worked in the oil and gas business.
“The women who worked in those offices made good money and wanted to dress up when they went to work,” he said. “Then the weekend comes and there was a lot of partying going on, so you got to work on a lot of really nice clothes.”
“Nowadays all the clothes on the market I consider to be junk, it’s very limited what you can do with it,” he said.
Employee Prebble Perea wipes away tears as she recalls her 26-years at the business.
“(Jerry) has taught me a lot of lifelong lessons. It’s a family,” she said. “It’s been an honor to work for him all these years.”
Jerry moves slowly but still lives on his own. His wife passed away, his kids live in other states. He used to have a dog, but it died a while back. “I’d love to have another dog but I don’t know if I could take care of him,” he said.
Just a few months ago he gave up driving and now gets rides from one of the store’s two longtime employees.
“As many years as I’ve been in here I’d probably be lost by not coming in every morning,” he said, but he’s ready to let go of Wardrobe Cleaners.
“It’s time to shut her down.
“I feel very blessed,” said Kelly. “My customers aren’t customers, they’re friends.”
“It’s been a good career.”