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Ira Edwards' Hardware Store

"H is for Hardware store: I'd rather go to the hardware store than the opera. And I like the opera."

- from Marlene Dietrich's ABC by Marlene Dietrich, 1962 

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Some years ago, Gary Roberts of Toolemera Press emailed the OldTools group asking, "I received this Chapin-Stephens billhead this week. There is a bunch of retail short-hand on it that I seem to vaguely remember has something to do with payment terms. Does anyone know the the translation of 60-10-10-10 and the other notes on the billhead?" To which I replied, "...these cumulative discounts (not payment terms) are common even today. 60/10/10/10 is 60% off, then 10% off that number, etc. If you do the math all work out within a penny. From my experience 10/10/10 or 10/10/5 is typical today. I don't know about these large discounts - perhaps the prices are suggested retail."

This simple exchange turned into a massive thread, with Gary and I joined by fellow galoot, Gary Katsanis. For the next few months we searched the Internet and local records, sent letters, made phone calls, and visited local sites. In the end, we learned more about Mr. Edwards, his family, and business than we ever imagined. It is a story that spans more than a century, starting with a small town entrepreneur and ending in an object lesson in excessive taxation.

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Ira Edwards

 

Ira Edwards, son of Edward Edwards and Eliza Vrooman, was born in Shelby, New York on October 6, 1834. His boyhood was typical of 19th Century rural America - attending school and helping on the family farm. At the age of twenty he began working as a teacher and later attended the State Normal School in Albany to improve his skills. He worked in education for over fifteen years, not only as a teacher but also principal of the Holley (1865-66) and Medina (1867-69) schools. He married Jane Smith on October 27, 1852. They had five children: Lillian, Frank, Fred, Ella, and Jennie.

 

In March of 1870 Mr. Edwards gave up teaching, moved to the village of Holley and established a general hardware business in partnership  with Sidney Godley, who he bought out a few months later. The firm initially occupied a rented building on the Robb block which burned down on July 23, 1874. He operated in another rental property until 1886, when he built his own building on the town square.

In addition to being a prime location within the community, a loop of the Erie Canal ran behind the building, allowing reliable transportation of goods. The business remained at that location for 110 years.

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Town Square of Holley, New York c1900
Ira Edwards' Hardware is the rightmost storefront where the wagon is parked.

(From a postcard published by A.H. Fisk and mailed to Miss Lillian McClure of Lexington, Mass on Oct. 26, 1906)

The store carried a wide range of goods - early purchasing records list farm supplies, floor coverings, stoves, buggies, sporting goods and "remedies" in addition to general hardware items. There is little doubt the business was successful as an 1890 census shows the Edwards family enjoyed a live-in servant and that two children were "away at school."

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Outside of Ira Edwards' Hardware

(View obstructed by street construction)

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Inside of Ira Edwards' Hardware

(From an article published by the Albion Advertiser on May 19, 1982)

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Ira Edwards was undoubtedly well-respected by the community as they bestowed a number of honors upon him. He was elected supervisor of nearby Murray, president of Holley village, and to the New York State Assembly. In 1896 Governor Morton appointed him to the Board of the Western House of Refuge, a correctional facility for women. He was a member of the Board of Education and active in the local Methodist Church, serving as superintendent of the Sunday School and president of the Board of Trustees. He was also an active member of the AOUW (Ancient Order of United Workmen), a fraternal organization that existed from 1868 to the early 20th Century.

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Purchasing Records

In a stroke of great luck, Gary Roberts was able to obtain copies of store purchasing records for over 20 calendar years between 1874 and 1922. This information provides an interesting insight into the operations of a rural American store during a period that included the electrification of America, automobiles for the masses, World War 1 and more. When analyzing this information, the most challenging aspect was determining how to present it. Some items were purchased once or twice a year; others, dozens of times. I ultimately settled on establishing an average number of orders for each category and plotting years against it. While this does present challenges such as four transactions appearing as 200% against an average of two, it seemed the simplest point of reference.

As noted above, the store carried a core set of goods typical to the business type. Except for a few minor blips, orders remained fairly static throughout, running between 70 and 130 percent of average.

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But these were also years of great transition, and other categories followed new technologies. Consider, for example, the effect a growing automotive industry had on inventory purchases.

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Note that carriages and wagons peaked in the 1890s and began a marked decline as the automotive industry came of age. Livestock supplies, which were primarily horse-related, follow almost the same line, as to some extent did leather goods (harnesses and saddles). Leather goods, however, made a marked comeback around 1920 - a phenomenon easily explained as those leather goods were "car tops" instead of saddlery.

 

There were similar increases for developments like washing machines and insecticides, which began in crude form after the Civil War and made huge advancements around 1915.

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Some items were stocked based on local instead of national trends. For example, a number of quarries opened in the area beginning in the 1880s, bringing a need for explosives and a local building boom. Note: the spike in construction supply orders after 1916 is related to lumber, for which no early activity was found.

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Other goods, although not graphed, reflect changing social attitudes. For example, while orders for "notions and sundries" are fairly level throughout, early purchases were primarily packaging and household items, while those following World War 1 are mostly school and art supplies. This is indicative of the increasing focus on education as America's agrarian economy continued to fade.

While this analysis covers only a portion of the goods purchased, I feel it provides an excellent snapshot of the time period and demonstrates a business adapting to an evolving marketplace.

Ira Edwards' Sons

 

The store continued to thrive for many years and Ira remained active until his retirement in 1916, at which time he was over 80 years old.

 

The business was then taken over by his sons. Of the two, it appears Frank (the elder) was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. His name is missing from an 1892 census because he was living in Kansas  and working for a hardware house. Fred, on the other hand, is identified as the local Postmaster on 1900 and 1915 census records.

 

Ira Edwards died on March 8, 1925 and is buried in Hillside Cemetery in nearby Clarendon.

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The store prospered for many more years with the brothers at the helm. Frank passed away in 1938; Fred continued to operate the business until 1942 when he sold the inventory to the Six and One Ladder Company of Rochester. It is not known why Fred closed the store, but he was nearly 80 years old at the time. He had one son who died at age ten and a daughter who would have been well past 50. There simply may not have been anyone to take over.

The Later Years

In the Spring of 1944, a local farmer named Earl Gordis and his wife, Fannie, purchased the building and fixtures from Fred Edwards and reopened as Gordis Hardware. They enjoyed a loyal customer following, and once again built the store into a thriving enterprise. They were joined by Mrs. Gordis' son, Orren Van Orden in 1946. His son, Orren Jr. became a partner in 1959, but Mr. Gordis remained involved in day-to-day operations until he retired in 1973. In an article about the store in the December 4, 1974 edition of the Erie Canal News, the full-time employees were identified as the Orren Jr., Irene Kemmerick, and Paul Karpenko. Mr. Van Orden's children, Orren (III) and Lynn helped part-time. Orren (III) purchased the store from his father in 1976 and operated it until 1991, when he sold out to Richard Bray, a Kodak retiree.

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Mr. Bray worked hard to build on the past, and actually experienced an increase in business. Unfortunately, by early 1995 he was faced with two challenges: a key employee who wished to retire and a State burdening him with increasing taxes, fees and paperwork. “It’s very, very difficult to find someone who can run a hardware store, that you can trust, and pay them very little”, he told The Albion Advertiser in February. “Those are hard requirements. I decided that I didn’t want to work six days a week and the cost of doing business was just ridiculous.” Bray’s final decision came the day he received a fuel oil bill with a 17 ½ percent business petroleum tax plus 8 percent sales tax. “I got $209 worth of oil and $53 in taxes, and said the state’s out of their mind.” While a few parties expressed interest in the business, it could not make enough to support a family, and quietly closed later that month, ending 125 years of service to the community.

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The inside of Holley Hardware, formerly Ira Edwards Hardware, stands empty.

(From an article published by the Albion Advertiser on March 8, 1995)

Epilogue

 

The building that housed Ira Edwards' store still stands on the Public Square of Holley, New York. Dr. Daniel Shiavone, the current owner and occupant, found many artifacts from the store including old tools, papers, Ira Edwards' checkbook, and the remains of a tinsmith shop on the second floor. The tools and papers were turned over to the local historical society; the store's old Warsaw freight elevator remains and is operational. Dr. Schiavone reports the floor behind the  counters had a smooth depression worn by over 100 years of use and nails were pounded in every foot to facilitate measuring of rope and chain.

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Town Square of Holley, New York, 2009 (population 1,802)
Ira Edwards' Hardware occupied the second storefront from the right.

(Photo courtesy of Gary Katsanis)

When Ira Edwards died in 1925, he left an estate valued at over $40,000. This was a substantial sum, being the equivalent of about $625,000 as of 2020, based on the Consumer Price Index. More telling, the average annual income in 1925 was $1236, meaning his cash, real estate and other holdings represented 32 years of earnings for the average laborer.

 

Of sons Frank and Fred we know. Daughters Lillian, Ella, and Jennie all became teachers. Lillian never married and cared for Ira in his old age. Ella married Dancy Ledbetter and moved to Cleveland, where she was important to local history. Jennie wed James McCrillis and is listed as a resident of Holley on Ira’s will.

Contributions to this page are highly encouraged. Please contact me about any information you have on Mr. Edwards and his store.

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Sources: Gary Roberts, owner of the Toolemera.com web site; Marsha DeFilipps, Holley historian; Gary Katsanis; Daniel W. Schiavone, DDS; The New York Times; The Erie Canal News; The Albion Advertiser ; Landmarks of Orleans County, Isaac S. Signor and H.P. Smith; Federal and State Census Records (1850-1930); Surrogate's Office of Orleans County, New York;   PoliticalGraveyard.com; Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western University; Village of Holley web site; MeasuringWorth.com; About.com; Clemson University Pesticide Information Program.

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