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When Downtown Was Hardware Heaven

Grace Shackman

For over a century, a bevy of stores served the farmer and the fixer-upper

Downtown Ann Arbor was once a mecca for hardware shoppers. From the town's early days, there were always at least four hardware stores, which drew customers from the entire city and from all the small towns and farms in the area. During the week, the stores served the area's tradespeople--plumbers, painters, carpenters, plasterers, contractors, and builders. On weekends, farmers came into town to buy supplies--pitch-forks or baling twine for the harvest, axes or mauls for chopping wood, and all the myriad bits of hardware they needed to repair their farm machinery and to fix their barns and fences.

As the farmers' ranks dwindled in this century, they were replaced by growing numbers of home owners and do-it-yourselfers. If the part needed wasn't made, the hardware store could make one. And if it needed installation, they had work crews they would send out.

By 1835, just eleven years after promoters John Allen and Elisha Rumsey began selling lots in the village of "Annarbour," William Dennis and Hierome Goodspeed were advertising a hardware store on the corner of Main and Huron. Along with farm supplies like cowbells and horseshoes, their inventory included knives, scissors, coffee mills, waffle irons, razors, and latches. By the 1870's and 1880's, the early competitors had sorted themselves out into four major stores, all of which survived well into this century: Schumacher's, 1870-1940; Schuh's (later Schuh and Muehlig, Muehlig and Schmid, Muehlig and Lanphear), 1872-1962; Eberbach's (later Fischer's) 1880-1981; and downtown's sole surviving hardware store, Schlenker's, founded in 1886.

Hardware was big business back then. Schumacher's, located where Kline's is now, grew to fill three storefronts. Schuh's occupied all three floors of a building on the southeast corner of Main and Washington. Hardware stores were valuable assets that were passed on from generation to generation: after founder John Schumacher's death, his business was taken over by his sons, Bert, Philip, and Robert. Jacob Schuh took a younger clerk, Andrew Muehlig, as a partner and eventual successor. When Schuh's original store was torn down to make room for the First National Building in 1929, Muehlig's nephew, Edward Muehlig, and partner Don Lanphear moved to a new building at 311 South Main (now the Full Moon).

Eberbach's, on the northeast corner of Main and Washington, was started by Christian Eberbach as a business for his two younger sons, Ernest and Edward, since his oldest son, Ottmar, was getting the pharmacy. Later, the State Savings Bank, which had an interest in the store, moved into the very corner, nestled in much like the Del Rio fits into the corner of the Old German. Bob Eberbach remembers that as a boy he could enter his great uncles' store from either Washington or Main. By 1892 the store was taken over by John Fischer, who had been a clerk there, although the Eberbachs continued to work there and kept an interest in it. In 1937 the store moved two blocks east, to 219-223 East Washington.

Schlenker's was first located on West Liberty in the building that is now Rider's Hobby Shop, then across the street in the store now owned by Ehnis & Son. In 1906 they built the present store a block west with room upstairs for the family to live.

The hardware stores sold all the small, practical items that other stores didn't want to bother with--tools, nails, fittings, and utensils. The owners were all tinsmiths, and before the days of mass production and easy transportation, they made much of what they stocked--gutters, furnace parts, funnels, coffeepots, pitchers, and pans. The tinning complemented the other stock in the store, and it also helped keep the employees busy during the slower winter months.

Each store also developed its own specialty. Schuh and Muehlig's was sewing machines: they sold and repaired all the major brands. They also sold such house finishing items as tiles, grates, mantels, and pressed tin ceilings. (Edward Muehlig put a tin ceiling in the house he built in 1909 at 801 West Liberty.) Later, Muehlig and Lanphear put in furnaces and made a specialty of installing locks. Schumacher had plumbing crews and later spun off Schumacher and Backus Plumbing and Heating. Fischer's and Schlenker's both had roofing crews. (Schlenker's put the slate roofs on the First Methodist Church and on many U-M sorority and fraternity houses.)

Until central heating became widespread in the 1920's, wood and coal stoves were a big part of the hardware business--Risdon's, one of the pre-Civil War stores, put stoves above hardware on their sign. Eberbach's sold Round Oak heating stoves and Adams and Westlank Monarch cooking stoves. Marty Schlenker remembers that in the 1920's his father's store had a row of stoves all along one wall from front to back.

Often newly developed products were first sold in hardware stores before being spun off to a store dedicated to them. Schumacher's sold washing machines as early as 1916 ("My neighbors can't understand how my washing can be on the line by 8 o'clock," said one ad). They also had a niche in sports equipment. Doris Schumacher Dixon, daughter of Robert Schumacher, remembers that as a girl she always had the newest in sports equipment from her family's inventory--bicycles, footballs, baseballs, tennis rackets, ice skates, roller skates, hockey equipment, and golf clubs.

Fischer's was the first area hardware store to specialize in housewares. It also was known as the store with the most university trade, maybe because it was closest to campus. Schlenker's sold the first refrigerators in town and was also a pioneer radio dealer, selling Atwater Kents. When Marty Schlenker's uncle Paul was involved in the store, he sold all kinds of fishing equipment--outboard motors, tackles, rods. And, as today, Schlenker's was known as the store where you could get anything: if you couldn't find what you were looking for anywhere else, you would go to Schlenker's.

A store's proprietors set the tone of their store, not only with what they sold, but with their personalities. John Schumacher was a leader of the temperance movement, and during his lifetime his store was known as a center for like-minded idealists, just as Eberbach's pharmacy had been a center for early Republicans. Muehlig and Lanphear contributed to the community by furnishing supplies for Albert Warhnoff, Ann Arbor's Santa Claus, who made toys for needy and sick children in the 1930's and 1940's.

When there were numerous hardware stores within a few blocks, the owners cooperated as much as possible, honoring their specialties and sending customers to each other. Mary Cruse, a stockholder of Fischer's and co-owner of East Ann Arbor Hardware, says they even traded inventory when something moved in one store and not another. Marty Schlenker remembers running joint ads with Fischer's, Ann Arbor Implement, and Herder's, figuring they were appealing to a similar crowd while offering different merchandise. They also sometimes ordered together, going in on train lots to reduce costs.

After World War II, a new generation of hardware stores opened on the commercial strips on Washtenaw, Stadium, and Packard. With easy access and ample parking, they gradually took over most of the business that had previously come downtown. Schlenker's singular survival was thanks in part to a 1950's decision to tear down the old tin and roofing shops to build its own parking lot.

With appliances and other mechanical products getting cheaper, fewer people repair broken appliances and the like, so there is less demand for traditional hardware services. Many stores now sell other merchandise, such as Christmas decorations, office supplies, table linens, and toys, to fill the gap.

Some of today's nonfixers give their broken or worn-out appliances to the Kiwanis sale instead of the landfill. On Kiwanis sale days, Marty Schlenker is reminded of the old days, when people flocked in to buy small parts to make their bargains work again.

[Photo caption from original print edition: Employees watch a parade on Main Street from Schumacher's upstairs windows. In its heyday, the store filled three storefronts in the spot where Kline's is today.]

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Grace Shackman