Musings of a Local Hardware Store Owner

A town institution, this Iowa hardware store has been a mainstay for more than 100 years.

| January 2013

Hardware Storefront

The storefront of McNeill Hardware in Monticello, Iowa

Grace H. Zimmerman

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.”

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