Musings of a Local Hardware Store Owner

A town institution, this Iowa hardware store has been a mainstay for more than 100 years.
By Grace H. Zimmerman
January 2013

Dave McNeill is the third-generation owner of McNeill Hardware.
Grace H. Zimmerman

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When the name McNeill Hardware enters into a conversation, the comment most often heard is, “When you're looking for a part for something you're fixing, not just screws and bolts, a gift for any occasion, modern, or maybe even antique, be sure to head for McNeill's.”

The present third generation owner, Dave McNeill, is proud to say, “In 1910, my grandfather Albert NcNeill, Sr., in partnership with Rudolph Ricklefs, purchased the hardware store in Monticello right on the corner of First and East Second Streets. In 1910, old Albert bought out his partner. The building has always been a hardware store.” When I ask him about the size of the imposing building, I was surprised by his response, “It's kinda' funny. It ran parallel to the railroad track. It's wide in the back, about 70 feet and only 30 foot narrow at the front. I've heard it was built that way because the city wanted it in line with the railroad tracks. The building across the street is just the opposite.” I hadn't noticed that, until Dave pointed out the ceiling where the lines were very evident, as was the peeling paint over the original tin ceiling. Dave laughingly informs me, “That ceiling caused a California visitor to make the following remark: 'Did you pay someone to do that ceiling?'” 

Dave goes on to tell me, “In 1902, there was a consuming fire, in mid-afternoon, heating with coal clinkers were taken out, and later, up it went. It's interesting to note that the ammunition started kicking off.”  When I questioned, ammunition, he reminded me, “All hardware stores sold ammunition,” where upon he went to a shelf and held out a small wooden box, labeled ammunition.” Charred timbers are still in the basement as well as in the turret on the third floor.”

“My father, Albert, Jr., started fixing things and we became an independent Schwinn dealer and really became a bicycle shop at the rear of the store. We fix all kinds of bikes, not caring what kind it is. I had been fixing bicycles for a long time as I grew up, got a teaching degree but I went to school to become certified. Americans used to make good bicycles. Now eastern Asian countries are in the business making cheaper bicycle and parts. We changed the components, which came out of foreign countries to satisfy our customers with better bicycles. Taiwan has the best bicycle components. Bicycles are the modern cars now! It's quite technical, not something to fix under the shade tree.”

“You might find it of interest that in the past there were three guys in the store who were fabricating metal for wood stoves, etc., by hand during the World War – never putting a name on it, so that their plans could never be copied. The patterns are still here, fastened on the back wall”. As Dave added, “I'll never know why they didn't start a fire.”  This led me to take pictures of the large assortment of the blow torches and other old-time equipment used by these guys as Dave  proudly stated that his dad also fabricated some strange stuff to make things work out.

“I have three brothers and sisters. We all grew up working here at one time or another. The store was fired by coal 'til 1974 so as kids we filled the coal stokers and took out the clinkers. We learned that everything had its place and that's why when customers wanted a certain part, maybe to match what they carried in, we all knew exactly where to find it.”

“We use all three floors; glass work and screens are in the basement while heavy plate glass is on the third floor.  Every inch of space is utilized for storage or repairs.

“There's lots of changes in the business. As an example when my dad died, paperwork considered me the new owner, which made a change in suppliers necessary. We had to go to a Southern supplier. Looking on the computer and catalogs , I couldn't find a simple 'duct cap'.  In southern terms, I discovered it was called a 'shanty cap'!   We have to think like they do.”

“Twelve years ago we started to computerize. Everyone's catalog is now on line, and credit cards are necessary. We make look old, but we are up-to-date.” Yet, “We are just one big working antique!” was his statement as he showed me the 1898 working cash register, which was bought from Sanford Supply in Cedar Rapids; a large assortment of old wooden drawers, still being utilized; a magnificent wooden octagon screw rack from the early 1900's; the large old metal haymow barn track near the ceiling which runs the length of the side of the building with an homemade ladder being used to get supplies reaching up to the ceiling; potbelly heating stove, no longer in use because of safety reasons; nail bin; hanging racks; small metal drawers in the back room; even the oily wooden floor, with its springy like effect, so it doesn't make your feet tired. There's probably more that I didn't see or observe working.

To add to it, Dave points out unique objects which the family has kept for sentimental reasons: His mother's significant painting on the east wall, the turkey given to them by a sportsman’s group, hanging from the ceiling, which Dave tells me, “It's lost some of its tail feathers in flight when it fell off the wire.” A real eye catcher is the print of “Tour de France” riders, which Dave says, “It tells the story of the guys sharing cigarettes as they ride uphill in the belief that it increased their lung power.”

It's so very evident that Dave McNeill enjoys carrying on the tradition of the McNeill Hardware, 102 years in business, as he concludes, “Let's put it this way. A good hardware store is crammed with supplies, old fashioned and modern, where it can easily be located, and where you can buy one or two, instead of a whole pack!”

It's worth a visit just to see for yourself how the new meets the old. As you discover that it's the perfect place for obtaining what you desire for any occasion whether it's presents for people of all ages, anniversary, wedding, Christmas, whatever, and at a price you can afford. It's my sincere hope that McNeill can survive, despite problems it may have to overcome, for many years to come for future generations to enjoy and learn lessons from the past. It's history come to light!

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