The heart of rural communities
Hardware stores were lifeblood of small farms
By Jim Nicewander
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, hardware stores were the heart of rural communities like Waupaca that supported area farms and farm families. Other commercial businesses were in the city, but hardware stores provided the parts and supplies that were the lifeblood of the farm.
Waupaca had two good hardware stores on Main Street – Firestone, down towards the Rosa Theater, and the Coast-to-Coast Store, on the east side of Main, a half block north of Fulton.
Firestone had rows of rough-cut wood table-top compartments and shelves and was dimly lit with dark, well-worn hardwood floors – everything fittingly bespoke decades of hard use.
The best part of Firestone was their back shop – it was open to customers, unlike such shops today which are typically off-limits to everybody but employees.
In Waupaca, if you needed a tire or inner tube fixed (this was before tubeless tires were commonplace), you went to Firestone. They handled all kinds – for cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and even tractors. We were regular customers for getting bicycle tires and tubes patched. Remember, this was back when folks repaired things, unlike nowadays in our “disposable” culture, where when things get damaged, they are too often just thrown out and replaced. It was a wondrous opportunity, watching the Firestone fellow fix a flat – adroitly displaying the elegance and skill of a master craftsman.
Firestone’s back shop was an almost mystical place for a wide-eyed farm kid, watching the expert work his magic. It was dark (they used portable shop lights to illuminate just what they needed to see) and emanating a nearly overpowering smell of tire rubber and used motor oil.
In addition to tires, automotive things and regular hardware stuff, Firestone also sold sporting goods. Indeed, a much-awaited annual rite of spring was Pa taking us kids to Firestone to get new fishing poles. They had an enormous selection of bamboo cane poles – the plain kind we used to fish for chubs and trout in the creek on our farm.
Another annual spring occurrence was even more excitedly anticipated than getting new cane poles. As soon as the snow melted, we’d go uptown for new ball-playing gear, using the allowance money we saved over the winter. We always bought a fresh ball to start the new season, and we learned on that annual baseball quest all we needed to know about the hardware stores uptown.
Firestone didn’t have a lot of baseball stuff other than their rubber-covered, Voit brand balls. But because those were not official, we didn’t get one very often. In our search for a new ball, we’d quickly peruse that meager Firestone inventory and then go up the street a few doors to Gambles, on the southwest corner of Main and Union.
Gambles had mostly off-brand baseball gear, stuff of unknown quality. So after looking there for just a bit, we’d continue North on Main to The Dime Store, which had nearly everything a kid could want, from comics and candy to cap pistols and other toys.
Unfortunately, the baseball equipment at the Dime Store was mostly cheap stuff – low-priced (49 cents to 69 cents for a baseball), but low quality as well. Their baseballs quickly got out-of-round, the stitching tore, and the cover would fly off in mid-game.
Waupaca’s best baseball gear was at Coast-to-Coast, our other good hardware store. They had Spalding official Major League baseballs, which held their shape through lots of hard-hitting. At a couple bucks each, they were considerably more expensive than a ball from the Dime Store, but it lasted eight or 10 times longer – a kid’s real-world lesson in the economic principle of price versus value.