-by Kathy Hendricks, WCHS Museum Curator-
Alma, Kansas, known as the “City of Native Stone,” had its birthplace at what is today the intersection of Missouri and 3rd Streets. The county’s first courthouse, the town’s first store and its first hotel were all built near that intersection. The town itself is a mere 150 years old, as the courthouse and the Schmitz & Meyer store were both built in 1867.
The second oldest surviving building in the Alma Downtown Historic District is located at 300 Missouri Street, and, remarkably, for more than 135 years a hardware store has occupied the building! Now called Hendricks’ Hardware, the building was constructed in 1875 by Conrad Mueller. The first business that Mueller operated in his new building was a billiard hall and saloon. Less than ten years later, Mueller constructed a two-story stone building on the north side of his saloon, and initially, a furniture store occupied the first floor of that building while the Muellers resided on the second floor.
In the late 1870s the temperance movement had made considerable inroads in Kansas, marked by the election in 1878 of a prohibitionist governor, John St. John. In response to Governor St. John’s position on the legality of liquor in the state, the legislature passed a constitutional amendment “prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors”, and in November of 1880 the amendment was approved by the voters of Kansas.
The alcohol prohibition law took effect on January 1, 1881, but there were loopholes in the law and, initially, there was a widespread lack of enforcement. However, in 1884 the local law enforcement officials in Wabaunsee County decided to make a show of enforcement of the liquor laws. Five prominent Alma businessmen, Conrad Mueller, Herman Richter, X. Weiderman, R. A. Hochhaus, and Joseph Westend were all arrested for sales of intoxicating liquors, and all five men were convicted in the October 1884 term of the Wabaunsee County District Court.
The conviction was enough to convince Mueller to close his billiard hall and saloon and direct his business efforts entirely to the hardware line. He purchased some stock from Schmitz & Meyer, and shortly afterward, he bought the tin and hardware stock from J. O. Jouvenal, a prominent Alma tinner and heavy hardware dealer. In 1886 the Rock Island Railway began laying tracks across Wabaunsee County, and Mueller did considerable business with the railroad.
Conrad Mueller had one son, Gus, who was born in 1880. Once he started school, Gus was expected to come home after school and help in the store where he also worked on Saturdays. Sometimes, Gus would be the only one in the store, even at age seven or eight. In 1896 Gus enrolled in business school in Salina. After graduating he returned home to run the store with his father’s help. In 1920 Conrad Mueller passed away, leaving Gus as the sole proprietor of the hardware store. Gus ran the business until January 1, 1952, when he sold it to Marvin Hendricks. Gus operated the store for over 50 years!
Marvin and Gwen Hendricks had moved to the Alma area from Jewell County, where their parents and grandparents farmed. They bought a farm on South Branch, where they lived with their first two children. When Marvin had talked to Gus Mueller about buying the store, Gus insisted that Marvin should work in the store and make sure he wanted to own the business. Marvin spent about four months learning the trade before he and Gwen purchased the business. Even then, the local bank was reluctant to loan the young couple the money to complete the sale, so they found a bank in Atchison, Kansas that would do so. The sale was completed, and Gwen and Marvin were in the hardware business!
Hardware is a coverall term! When you consider all the “hardware” that it takes to build a house, it covers a lot of territory! Everything from door knobs to nails to light fixtures is part of the hardware business. That’s not all, though. Hardware stores might carry horseshoes and the farrier’s nails. Plumbing, faucet fixtures and toilets are part of the hardware business! However, the business itself was not enough to support a young family. Soon after the purchase, Marvin began his career in service work. His services included everything from changing a furnace filter to installing the entire furnace! He and his crew of as many as five men built houses or put on additions to existing houses. They installed dishwashers, fixed washing machines and even dug graves. Each part of the business supported the other.
After Marvin passed away in September of 2012, the hardware business passed to his two sons, Larry and Don. Gwen continues to work at the hardware store every day. In fact, she walks to and from work every day, rarely missing a single day.
In 2015 Gwen celebrated her 90th birthday with a party at the hardware store. A Blish-Mize Hardware Company representative at the event presented Gwen with a plaque honoring her for more than 50 years in the hardware business.
The hardware store still supplies everything from hammers to hand tools to cleaning supplies, and the service business is still going strong! At the conclusion of 2016, Hendricks Hardware completed 65 years of service!
(Thanks to Gus Mueller’s daughter, Augusta Helen, who shared some of this history of the Mueller Hardware Store, in 1952. Augusta was born in 1913, when the north part of the store was used for storage for heavy farm implements. For about three years there was a furniture store in the north room, which was added to give Mr. Mueller’s brother-in-law, Fred Lutz, a job. When the furniture store closed, Mr. Lutz went to work in the hardware store.)
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