Beyond the standard nuts and bolts
Ellis Hardware Inc., founded by Joel Wallace Ellis in 1872 in the rural community of Seneca, Ill., is the oldest family-owned hardware store in Illinois. The store, which once served as the town’s post office, sold turpentine in wooden barrels, along with horse collars and agricultural implements. Today, says fifth-generation manager Michael Ellis, 33, the business is akin to a general store. “We have pretty much anything from candles and dip mixes, to standard nuts and bolts,” he says. “We really have a little bit of everything.”
Indeed. Among the store’s offerings is Trü Pickles, a gourmet brand. “You would never think someone would buy a jar of pickles at a hardware store, but we have more repeat customers coming and getting those than you would ever believe,” Michael says.
Michael, who has worked in the store since his college graduation in 2001, has been working on a store history project; he’s collecting and scanning old photos and developing a timeline. The store received the Centennial Award from the Illinois State Historical Society in 2009.
The store passed to Joel’s son, Elmer, and then to Elmer’s son, Norbert, upon Elmer’s death in 1947. Norbert died unexpectedly in 1953, leaving behind a 36-year-old widow, Frieda, who had two young boys, ages two and eight.
One of those boys was Michael’s father, Dave, 61, who has been president of the corporation since 2011. “She didn’t know a nut from a bolt, and never worked in the store in her life,” Dave says of his mother.
Frieda, now 95, recalls that she asked a friend of the family, who was an attorney, what she should do. “He said, ‘You’re going to put the key in the lock and unlock the door and go in and run it,’” she remembers. Cutting glass and manually threading pipe were her biggest challenges, she says.
Frieda learned fast, aided by a longtime employee and her brother. Wholesalers gave her guidance with ordering. “They kept the business going and it prospered,” says her eldest son, John Ellis, 67, now the vice president. As her sons grew older, they were often enlisted to help assemble bicycles and wagons. Dave recalls being paid $1 to wash windows on Saturday mornings.
Six family members now work at the store: brothers John and Dave Ellis; their wives, Sandra and Jenny; Dave and Jenny’s son Michael; and John and Sandra’s granddaughter Anna Baker. There are about 15 employees, including family.
The family built a 10,000-square-foot store in 1977 and later expanded it by another 6,600 square feet to allow more merchandise to be stocked on the sales floor. This translated into more sales volume.
“We’re probably three times the size of store you would expect to see in a town of 2,300 people,” Michael says.
Like other hardware store owners, the Ellises must win customers away from big-box stores. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to compete,” says Dave. “We try to offset with service, and [customers] know they can come in here and there’s somebody knowledgeable that can guide them the right way.” Dave says the competition has made the staff more vigilant about their offerings.
In 2001, when Ellis Hardware became an Ace affiliate, the store was remodeled. One thing that didn’t change was the rental program. The store rents and services homeowner and contractor equipment, which generates extra income and foot traffic, Dave says.
In 2007, the Ellises added a full-size RadioShack to their store. The electronics boosted lagging Christmas sales, and enticed customers to stay in town instead of traveling 15 miles to the big-box stores. “We sell a ton of cell phones,” says Dave.
Frieda semi-retired ten years ago but continued to balance the drawers until she was 90. Ace gave her a golden hammer when she’d been at the store for 50 years, and the family celebrated her 95th birthday with cake and punch at the store. “She’s a great lady and hard worker,” says Dave. “We have the most respect for her.”
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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