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A history of the Wadena Hardware Company

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A history of the Wadena Hardware Company
Wadena Minnesota 314 S. Jefferson 56482

Hardware stores were among the first merchants in the growing town of Wadena, the first being Miller & Foss in 1878 who changed their name to the Wadena Hardware Store in 1879 and were located first at about where the Little Hollywood Video store is today and a short time later moved to the site of Brink's Jewelry store in 1880. The following year they dissolved the partnership.

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The next Wadena Hardware Company came about in 1886 under the ownership of John Weeks and was on Aldrich Avenue SE in the location of the original Wadena Hardware. This only lasted about a year.

The name next appeared in 1905 when William Dower and his brothers in law, James and Peter Boyd, bought out the W. H. Williams Hardware at 103 South Jefferson, present day location of Lynk's True Value Hardware, south section. With this purchase they changed the name to Wadena Hardware Company.

In 1914, Dower and Peter Boyd, with James having withdrawn from the company, bought a lot at 109 South Jefferson and built the building which houses the Wadena Hardware to this day.

In 1920, Dower, who had acquired a seat in the state legislature which demanded some away time, had left the management of the store in the hands of his partner to be helped by Will's two sons, Bert and Bill. It seems that his sons were more interested in other activities than the hardware business and had neglected the business. So Dower went to August Zosel, who had a hardware store in the next block, and asked him if he would like to buy a hardware store. It was an opportune moment for both as Zosel had just been notified that the building in which he had been located had been sold to Ole Stevens for the use of his daughter and son-in-law, Joseph Finney, to be used as a restaurant housing Finney's Café.

So August Zosel and his son Robert (my father) were the owners of the Wadena Hardware Company at 109 Jefferson South which in those days was Third Street.

The hardware business in those days was quite a bit different than in present times. The merchandise offered has changed over the years. In the early years horse harnesses, horse collars and collar pads were great sellers. Also horse shoes, horse shoe nails and caulks for shoes for winter ice. Along with dynamite, caps and fuses and the usual builders hardware in a much reduced form. Housewares consisted of dish pans, commode pails, cooking utensils in blue and gray granite finishes, cast iron frying pans and dutch ovens and a fairly complete line of knives and cutlery. Shaving supplies, straight razors, safety razors, blades and razor strops were good sellers. A few guns and ammunition, an assortment of fishing tackle, primarily lines, rods and a few spoon baits and a line of house paints and Muresco or Kalsomine which were a powder you mixed with water. Their main draw being that they were cheap. In my early store days the Kalsomine sold for 39 cents for a 5 pound box and Muresco which was supposedly better sold for about 50 cents for a 5 pound box.

Farm tools such as hay and pitch forks, shovels, rakes, hoes and axes have not changed materially except for the fact that in those times everything was steel and nowadays you have a choice in many items of steel which many feel is too heavy and aluminum and plastic. Steel chains were also sold. Hand tools of all types were offered and of course no electric power tools.

Galvanized ware, tubs, pails and wash boilers were common along with milk pails, cream cans and setter cans; however, not too many years earlier many firms made their own pails.

Of course there were no electrical or plumbing departments other than force and cistern water pumps, pump leathers and cylinders and pipe and pipe fittings.

Stove pipe, dampers and collars, hard and soft coal heaters and wood burning kitchen ranges were in demand. Also wooden ice boxes which entailed the putting up of ice in the winter.

Other items in demand in those years were shoe repair materials. Leather soles, shoe nails and lasts to work the shoes on.

Alarm clocks and pocket watches were good sellers.

As I said earlier, in 1920 my Grandfather August and my father Robert bought out Dower & Boyd which began the ownership of the Wadena hardware for 72 years.

At that time their main sources of merchandise were Farwell, Ozmun Kirk and Company of St. Paul, Janney, Semple Hill & Company of Minneapolis and Kelly, Howe & Thompson of Duluth.

Shortly after purchasing the store they became affiliated with the Hall Hardware Company of Minneapolis, George E. Hall, president, which was a dealer-owned cooperative with a unique operating system in that they had no salesmen on the road taking orders, as most firms did. Each store wrote their own orders from a catalog furnished by the company. The main drawback at that time was that the old line houses such as Janney put pressure on the manufacturers not to sell to this co-op group, and for the first years the variety of items was limited. My dad told me that when they got Winchester and Remington guns and ammunition and Westclox clocks it was quite an advancement. The distributor's name was changed to Our Own Hardware in the 1960s.

When they purchased the store from Dower they borrowed $50,000 from Jesse Aldrich which they thought they would have paid off in 10 years, but between the collapse of the potato market in 1920 an the depression of 1929 they didn't get this paid off until 1940.

I started in the store in 1941 after my graduation from high school, as this was the only thing I ever wanted to do. At that time the store was a partnership between my father and grandfather. It was also a family affair as one of my dad's sisters was the bookkeeper until her marriage and each of the boys, Ray, Lee and Harold, all grew up working in the store. Roy, the oldest son, never worked in the store, taking up the blacksmith trade before the first store was established in 1915.

Lee left the store in 1936 to go into the John Deere Implement business, Ray left in 1943 to take over a Hamm's beer distributorship and Harold came back into the business in 1943 after Ray left.

I left in 1942 when I joined the Army Air Force to return in 1946.

Those were tough years in the hardware business between shortages of merchandise due to the war effort and rationing of many items. However, they weathered the storm.

Over the years we had many employees, too numerous to mention. Most of them top notch people and very talented and dedicated. However, I must mention one who was known to every kid in town that had a bicycle. Bill Breid came out of the Army and went to work in the fall of 1945. Bill was an all-around employee, well liked by people and he could fix anything. In the late years he worked primarily as a repair man and a bicycle repair expert. He was a gem and a real gentleman. He worked at the store until his death in 2005.

When I got back in February 1946, my father, Harold and I bought out my grandfather's interest. Because of pent up demand from the war years, business was good when we finally started to get merchandise.

The greatest incentive we had was when the Rural Electrification program came into being and the Todd Wadena REA, which started in 1940, got into high gear. Everyone wanted refrigerators, stoves, water pumps, electric irons, mixers. Also farmers wanted modern homes with plumbing and central heat. Thus our entry into the plumbing and heating business which was handled by my uncle Harold. The appliance business of course grew over the next years.

Also these years saw the expansion of house wares. Not only items, but also all of a sudden color became very important.

Sporting goods with new items being introduced showed a great growth along with lawn care products and plumbing and electrical items for do-it-yourself people.

In 1967, Harold decided he wanted to retire so my father and I bought him out. However, after a few months, he decided that retirement wasn't for him, and he and his son John purchased a family owned store at Benson, Minn., much like our store. This remains in their family at this time. With Harold's departure we got out of the plumbing and heating business.

In 1970, the name of the store was changed to Zosel's Wadena Hardware.

In 1975, I hired a young man named Tom Weber as a part time school trainee boy. I guess he must have liked it as he is still at it.

In 1975, we purchased the 25 foot adjoining building to the north, the former Ben Franklin store, and added and expanded many lines--primarily sporting goods, camping and recreational merchandise.

In 1978, my son and I bought out my father's interest. In 1982, my son decided he wanted to be in something else so I bought out his interest. Seems like I spent most of my life buying people out.

In 1992, I sold the store to Michael Pitzel and James Bretz who owned a hardware store in Perham and who wanted to expand. However, this didn't work out, and in 1996 they sold to Gordon Macklem and Tom Weber. Thus it became Tom and Gordy's Hardware.

In 2000, Tom Weber bought Gordon Macklem out and it became Weber's Wadena Hardware which it remains to this day.

The hardware business has changed radically in the past years -- not only the merchandise mix but the competition. Years ago Wadena was the shopping hub of a large area. No larger towns within 50 miles in any direction. People shopped primarily in their home towns and agriculture was the driving force. Nowadays it is nothing for people to drive 50 to 100 miles to shop plus the shifting of the business section of the town to the north and the advent of Wal-mart.

I guess this is progress.

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