New Providence Hardware, Oldest Hardware Store in Iowa,
Celebrates 150th Anniversary
September 27 and 28, 2013
New Providence Hardware will celebrate 150 years of business beginning with a 2:00 PM 150th Recognition Ceremony with guest Governor Terry Branstad, Friday, September 27 followed by an Ice Cream Social. Festivities continue Saturday with an Antique Car and Tractor Showcase from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM and live music and free lunch from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM as well as prizes and a spectacular 150th Anniversary Sale. Additional information may be obtained at www.newprovidencehardware.com or 641-497-5213.
The ring of bass bell atop the door, the creak of the gleaming hardwood floors, the smell of nails and hand tools envelope you as you cross the threshold of New Providence Hardware. Nostalgia and a sense of familiarity wash over you and you know you are standing in special place. For 150 years New Providence Hardware has been the beating heart of the community, supplying their neighbors with the heat in their homes and a cool drink on a hot summer day. Six days a week you will find the friendly faces of the current owners Tom and Marlene McDonald presiding over the store. Lending the customers their helpful knowledge and listening ear as they strike keys of their antique cash register, stamping out each sale with a chime and a ring. The sound instantly transforms you back in time to a time when the strength of a town’s hardware store was the sources of its vitality.
Life in a budding prairie town was not for the faint of heart. New Providence was known for it’s “honest, thrifty, industrious, God-fearing people”, according to the 1930’s Times Republican. Among them where the Mulford brothers, shortly after the Providence Township incorporated J.B. Mulford established the hardware store in the fall of 1863, after all to build a town one must have a hardware store. While J.B. Mulford was the visionary, seeing the potential for new business, it was his brother S.S. Mulford that partnered with him to grow a business for 22 years alongside the newly established community. And grow it did, the History of Hardin County boasts of the store and his owner, “His stock is large and complete in all the various lines demanded in the neighborhood and he has an excellent trade, with the confidence of the community in which he resides.”
The 1880’s brought the boom of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The railroad was the center of business and commerce for the day, any town along its tracks was sure to flourish. New Providence community was maturing and with growing businesses along Main Street, the town was poised to accept the railroad and all of the commerce it would bring. But catastrophe struck as the rail line skirted north 1 mile to settled in Lawn Hill. Rather than accept the sure demise of the community the prominent business leaders organized to build ‘The Pike’ a well worn road between New Providence and Lawn Hill to accommodate the transportation of goods that the daily East West trains would bring.
The hardware’s surviving business ledger from 1906-07 shows a community rising up around them, sales to the school board, county bridge project, reconstruction of the church and countless transactions with the area’s best farmers. One nail at a time New Providence hardware aided in building the fine community you still see today.
Devastation struck again in December of 1910 as a fire roared down Main Street engulfing the lumber clad business district. By the morning the hardware store, butcher shop, grocery store along with all of their stock lay in ashes. While the town regrouped the hardware store kept its doors open by moving its operation to their warehouse until a verdict could be reached on how and where to rebuild. Comfort could be had in knowing what while their town lay in ashes and even in the midst of their own tragedy New Providence Hardware store would find a way to remain open to aid the community in their rebuilding effort.
In an era before insurance claims and disaster relief communities were forced to rely upon one another for support. The industrious, God fearing people of New Providence were no exception. The fire damages were estimated at $70,000 over $170,000 by today’s standards. Influential leaders in the community gathered together to form the New Providence Building Association, chartered with task of rebuilding Main Street. The association offered shares to community members at $50 a share. When trading began March 4th, the local farmers, teachers, mechanics, and merchants had already raised 45% of what was needed to begin construction. As bricks began to be laid New Providence Hardware was one of the first buildings to be erected.
Like many small town businesses New Providence Hardware struggled to find its footing in the early half of the 20th century. Agricultural innovation and machinery brought changes to the rural economy, and with it a string of ownership changes for the hardware. However, the doors stayed open as the store weathered turbulent times both locally and nationally. The store persevered through drought, financial collapse of the Great Depression, a series of ownership changes, and two world wars.
It was the steady hand of a World War II veteran that would bring powerful Iowa business partnerships to New Providence Hardware. Burt McCown returned from serving in World War II and set out to purchase the business with his young bride, Flo. The hardware was owned by the local farm co-op and some board members were reluctant to sell. However, once the board discovered that Flo, a teacher by trade, and could be utilized at the consolidated school the sale of the Hardware was complete, of course contingent on Flo’s teaching contract. The young couple happily accepted the terms and settled in to mercantile life.
Through the 27 years Burt operated the business; they secured partnerships with quality Iowa products like Maytag laundry appliances, Ritchie livestock fountains, and Lennox furnaces and provided electrical, heating, and plumbing service to the community.
Current owner, Tom McDonald, purchased the business and buildings on Main Street in 1975 and was later joined by his wife Marlene in the operations of the store. They have managed to bring the business into the 21st century with state of the art heating and air conditioning services and an active presence on the web, yet they haven’t lost sight of the historic treasure they hold. Antique tools and signage adorn the walls, long plank wood floors and tin ceilings tell the story of years gone by. Over the last decade the McDonalds have taken on extensive renovations to return the hardware store to its turn of the century glory. The buildings have been nominated for the National Registry of historic buildings. In 2002 the Hardware store was honored as a Century Business by the Iowa Department of Economic Development and is believed to be the oldest hardware store in Iowa.
For 38 years the McDonalds have conducted business on the core value of honest old-fashioned integrity and know it is just as important in the modern world as it was in the 1800s. They continue to maintain a fully stocked hardware store with current inventory, and serve New Providence and the surrounding communities with comprehensive heating and air conditioning services.
In spite of many ownership changes, New Providence Hardware has demonstrated durability without the support of being a railroad center, surviving a fire that destroyed most of the Main Street businesses, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the mass merchant and home center push that systematically dismantled many of small businesses in rural America. It has been able to continue with the community’s support and their valued customer base. New Providence Hardware is proud to be an icon of the anchor that small businesses are for their communities. It holds a special place in the history of the town and Iowa for being the oldest hardware store in the state.
Story by Laura Johnson
1929 - Inside hardware store
1910 - Day after the fire
Rebuilding the foundations on Main Street
Owners - Tom and Marlene McDonald