Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My appreciation for small town hardware stores January 13, 2017

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

Hardware Hank, photographed in Pine Island in October.

IF YOU GREW UP in rural Minnesota like I did, you likely hold fond memories of the local hardware store.

Two hardware stores once served my hometown of Vesta, a farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. While I remember Joe Engel’s Hardware store as the place to buy rolls of perforated caps for my cap gun, my father shopped there, or a few doors down at Marquardt’s Hardware, for all his hardware needs. Like bulk nails and screws stashed in cubbies, the merchandise weighed and parceled into brown paper bags.

I remember, too, the worn wood floors, the narrow aisles, the old fashioned screen doors that banged shut.

To this day, I find myself drawn to the hardware stores that still exist in many small towns. They represent a connection to my past, to simpler days, to outstanding customer service, to a Main Street necessity. So I photograph them, usually the exteriors.

Nothing says "small town" like a hardware store, including this Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha.

Nothing says “small town” like a hardware store, including Hill’s Hardware Hank in downtown Wabasha. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

One of my hardware store images—that of Hill’s Hardware Hank in Wabasha—will soon become part of a renovated “Our World” gallery at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul. The photo will grace signage for a mini town that includes a hardware store. Hill’s inspired the facade of the replica hardware store in which children can play. The updated exhibit opens this spring.

I am honored to have my photo displayed at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. I hope it inspires others to appreciate the value of hardware stores in rural Minnesota. They are as important today as they were when I was growing up in the 1960s. In Owatonna, Arrow Ace Hardware plans to relocate into a new and much larger space by next Christmas, more than doubling its size to some 11,000 square feet. That’s encouraging. There’s still great value in local hardware stores.

TELL ME: Do you shop in hardware stores? If yes, why? Are they still of value in today’s marketplace?  Or what are your hardware store memories? Let’s talk hardware stores.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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34 Responses to “My appreciation for small town hardware stores”

  1. Ruth Says:

    I love your hardware store post today. I need to shop in them more so we don’t lose the ones left.

  2. I still have fond memories of the local hardware store in the small town I grew up in – the wooden floors, the jam packed aisles with all kinds of stuff, helping hold the paper bag to put the nails in, etc. I enjoy our local hardware store here and they offer customers free popcorn to eat while shopping (it has a post office inside of it too). Happy Weekend – Enjoy 🙂

  3. Almost Iowa Says:

    The two most asked questions in a small town hardware store.

    “You got one of these?”

    “How do I?”

  4. Littlesundog Says:

    There are a few old-time hardware stores still surviving in the rural areas of Oklahoma. There are also some old family-owned lumber and hardware businesses – one here in town that is barely hanging on. I recently ordered fence panels from a mom and pop lumber and hardware store up in the Oklahoma City area – they could get what I needed from a manufacturer up in Columbus, Nebraska – when no one else in the area was willing to mess with my small order (less than 1K). The gentleman running it was about my age, and had taken over running the business that his grandfather started, and his father had run for many years. I appreciated his willingness to get my order – and I did have to wait a while, but I really wanted that particular brand and type of panel. We will continue to give this guy our business, because to us, good customer service does matter. And keeping our fellow neighbor’s in business, and buying made in USA does matter. It should matter to everyone.

  5. I remember many childhood trips to our local hardware store/lumber yard. The smell of a such a store brings back many memories.

  6. Valerie Says:

    Hardware stores do instill memories of days gone by although they are still needed and I appreciate them. I do remember the hardwood floors, and the smells…somehow they all seem to have their own scent, but a similar scent so you know you are in a hardware store…is that my imagination?
    Congratulations on your photo being chosen for the Children’s Museum project. It is a great photo!

  7. piratepatty Says:

    I love hardware stores. My first year of college I worked at one in North Dakota. 1 4 way stop in the town and I loved it! I learned how to do a lot from those farmers.😊

  8. Virginia Updegrove Says:

    My dad worked in a hardware store back in the 50’s til I can’t remember. Actually he did the glass work of putting in store fronts. He did beautiful stain glass work in churches and even at Ringling Brothers in Florida. I remember helping count nails if you will for inventory. Such fond memories. There is a great little hardware store in Idaho that I love going to when there. I think it has been bought out by Ace and hopefully they won’t change it toooooooo much. Amazing what you can get there. Such a fun place to go and browse around. Brings back such wonderful childhood memories.

  9. Ken Wedding Says:

    I still shop in a tiny old-fashioned hardware store in Luck, Wisconsin. It’s a delight

  10. Don Says:

    Great post brings back so many memories! Jungas hardware (long since out of business) was the local hardware store in the hometown were I grew up. They really knew what good customer service was! When I was a boy of about 7 years old and a wheel on my electric train broke where did I go, Jungas hardware of course! A worker there (I still remember his name, Lee) took the time to fix the wheel and talk with me about trains. Of course there was no charge for the fixing or his time. A few years later at the ripe old age of 10 the store opened a charge account in my name so I could buy a BB gun and pay for it over time. This instilled in me the rudimentary knowledge of how the financial world worked and I made all the payment on time until it was paid in full. They explained to me how interest worked although it was very meager something like 5 cents a month and the penalties for late payments. As I grew older the store taught me about depreciation. I recall buying a bike from them and a couple of months later the store got some new model of bikes in and I thought I could trade my bike in on one of the newer models. When I went to make a deal Lee (what a great employee and overall person) once again was there and took the time to explain what depreciation was and while my bike was only a couple of months old it was worth less than what I originally paid for it. Too new is how Lee explained it. Why would someone pay the price for the used bike when for a few more dollars they could have a brand new one! This made sense to even a 12 year old! What a great store to have grown up with. When I went off to collage and needed a bike for transportation Jungas Hardware is where I went and bought a 10 speed bike (as you may recall Audrey it was yellow) and took it with me to Florida. Over the years I bought many items there but the education I received from that store was invaluable and carried on into my adult life! To this day I am happy to pay more to support my local businesses. I will not, nor never have, supported a big name online store A _ _ _ _ _ I feel they are not good for local economies and offer absolutely no service.

    Clap, Clap, Clap

    Congratulations on your photo being selected for the Minnesota Children’s Museum, way to go!

  11. Jackie Says:

    I have always loved the building that houses Hills hardware! Congrats on having your photo chosen, thats quite an honor! One of our Ace Hardware stores is closing soon here in Rochester, it’s been there as long as I can remember! Rick and I bought out Weber grill from them about 5 years ago. We will miss this store!

  12. Marilyn Says:

    Trips to the hardware store were rare but highly treasured. It usually meant that I was the only child with Dad that day. Once we stopped by Dairy Queen (just the two of us) and had a cone. This was long before the idea of ‘parent-child dates’ was invented.

  13. Mostly, we still use the local store a. because of its location b. its familiarity c. Its more convenient size and c. It’s been family owned and operated for a long, long time. Oh yeah, and it’s where I get my propane for the BBQ side of my grill!

  14. Sue Ready Says:

    I live near two small towns and make it a point to give each one of them my business. Customer service is their mantra-and if they don’t have it they’ll get it. Our hardware stores are also more like a Ben Franklin store with a wide range of items. It is convenient even if price a little higher since its an hour drive to a bigger city with big box stores and more choices. Congratulations on getting your photo chosen.

  15. Lisa Says:

    Hill’s here in Wabasha is actually expanding their floor space into the building next door. They recently purchased it and are excited for the updates and new store layout. They are also adding and expanding products! Their customer service is top notch and they are always there to help you find what you need. Great family-owned business!

  16. I agree that hardware stores do tend to connect us to simpler days. It’s important to know where to find stores like these since they are often customer friendly and carry many of the more difficult items to find when people are working on a project. It helps to know where you can go for those little things that can ultimately help you be successful when working on a project.


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