Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 17, 2021

Stories by the yard

On our latest visit to Wisconsin to clean out husband Art's family home, I found several wooden yardsticks by the back door. One, well-used, had nicks and black stains, making some words hard to read. In good light, I could see: "A Yard Of Good Advice - Go to SCHLAFER'S for Good Hardware, 815-819 College Ave., Appleton, Wis."

The other side was marked in 1/4-yard, 1/2-yard and 3/4-yard increments and advertised auto supplies, Presto-O-Lite batteries and Federal Cord and Fabric Tires.

"Hey, do you know anything about this company?" I asked Art.

Inspecting the stick, he said, "Sure! I remeber it well, but I can't say I've ever seen a yardstick with 1/4-yard, 1/2-yard and 3/4-yard marks. And that address seems wrong - unless it dates from before 1925 when they renumbered the east-west streets."

A little research revealed Otto P. Schlafer moved to Wisconsin from Germany in 1858 and worked in a general store in Sussex County a few years. He moved to Appleton in 1876, where he worked for several hardware firms. He bought out the owners of those stores and began his own in 1885.

In 1893, he took his family to the Chicago World's Fair, where he bought son Wilmer a Kodak camera, an invention only 5-years-old. From 1893-1920, during his time away from working in his dad's store, Wilmer took more than 3,000 photos of city events: a Ringling Brothers circus parade, men working on the inter-urban electric streetcar tracks, the first airplane flight in Appleton by celebrity pilot Cal Rodgers, as well as photos of local businesses. Wilmer later took over his dad's business and ran it for many years. Those pictures are now a prized possession of the local historical society. The address and products advertised on the stick dates it to about 1920.

An interesting little story prompted by a yardstick!

Another said: "SCHUETTE BUILDERS CO. - S. 11th Ave. - Phones 2-2196 - 8-0275 - 'KING' OF BUILDING BUYS." It advertised lumber, insulation, sheet rock, paint, hardware and metal roofing.

Art was unaware of any business with that name, so once more we turned to the internet. The Schuette Brothers - Earl, Cliff and Marv - had a dairy route in rural Marathon County, Wisconsin. Looking for afternoon work, they used profits from the milk service to purchase a sawmill in Wausau, processing raw timber into framing lumber. After World War II, they left the dairy business and the sawmill evolved into a one-stop building center. The company is today Wausau Homes, Inc., a maker of prefabricated components that can be put together to make a home of the owner's design.

Art surmises that his brother Tommy obtained the Schuette stick when he lived in Wausau in the late 1950s.

GRIMWOOD & SON is printed on both sides of a yardstick I have from the hardware store in my hometown of Burns, Kansas. Friend Tom explained its history.

The store was started by my great-grandpa [William] and his brother [Frank] in Cedar Point just about the year 190l. Was called Grimwood Brothers. Then was turned over to my grandpa [Graham] and he changed the name to Grimwood & Son. ... He and his friends used to play poker upstairs, but whoever was down below would keep a lookout for my grandma, and if he saw her, the guy would tap the upstairs floor with a broomstick to let them know to come back down! Story is she always knew what was going on, though.

Graham's son Ed finished high school in 1935 and attended business college in Hutchinson. In 1938, Graham bought a hardware store in Burns for Ed to run. Another man managed the store while Ed was in the Navy during World War II. Tom added:

The store was owned by my dad until about 1993, so over 50 years. Sold International Harvester farm machinery, machinery parts, had a shop in back for machinery repair, would usually have one new IH pickup for sale, ... also sold windmills, pipe, plumbing supplies, paint, glass, housewares, kitchen appliances, gardening tools, big supply of bolts etc. ... electrical supplies, rifles & shotguns and ammunition, sporting goods like fishing stuff, fishing and hunting licenses, baseball bats, gloves, baseballs, basketballs, Dekalb seed, stock tanks, fencing, toys like little tractors, sleds, keys, chain, rope, ...

Tom and his older brother Charlie helped when they were young.

One of our jobs was to put nuts on bolts. Of course a hardware store has quite a variety of bolt/nut sizes, ... For example a box of 1/8" X 1" bolts might come 50 to a box. Well, usually a farmer would want both the bolt and nut. So to make it easier to sell, my dad would have us screw the nuts on the bolts and then toss them into the appropriate open-faced bin of the wooden cabinet that was up against the wall. When the farmer came in and wanted a dozen or so, it wouldn't take long to grab them, count out a dozen bolts with the nuts already attached. ... Great idea. And dad paid us a nickel a box to screw the nuts on the bolts. Problem is, Charlie being older and more clever, he would choose the boxes with the large-size bolts/nuts that had maybe 10 to a box and stick me with the small ones that had a hundred to a box!! An easy nickel for him and tedious nickel for me. Lol. Charlie and I still like to recall those days. ...

Tom's nuts-and-bolts recollection made me realize that hardware stores are somewhat special. Farmers and town folks alike frequently visit when they are facing a unique problem or are in the middle of some project. This requires the store to carry a wide variety of items and employees who know more than how to take the customer's money. These are places where problems are solved and projects completed, thanks to people who love what they are doing.

The fronts - top - and the backsides - bottom - of the Schlafer, Schuette and Grimwood yardsticks.

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