Rathbone Ace Hardware has operated in the same spot on Commercial Street in Springfield since it began in 1897.
Metal-worn wheels, urgently click-clacking down the track, sing a song of generations past. Few in Springfield, however, have heard its serenade as long as Rathbone Ace Hardware. After all, the Commercial Street shop has watched traveling trains from across the street since it began in 1897.
But the store has done more than simply stay in business — it’s also stayed in the same family, a connection that now runs four generations deep.
“My great-grandfather started here,” says Tim Turner, the store’s owner, who has managed the business since the late 1970s.
It’s a next-to-never reality in today’s world: When Turner goes to work each day, he sees the same store — and the same street — that his great-grandfather did 119 years ago.
Starting in Springfield
Despite the store’s longevity, the Rathbone local legacy goes back even longer than 1897. It began in the 1850s, when Thomas Rathbone — Turner’s great-great grandfather — came to the United States from England.
After stints living in New York and St. Louis, he led his family to Springfield in 1858 and initially set up shop as a tinsmith on Springfield’s square.
“When General Lyon was killed in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, my grandfather soldered him into his casket and then they shipped the body back east,” recollected Claud Rathbone, Turner’s grandfather, in the Springfield Leader & Press on April 29, 1981. “They had metal caskets in those days.”
After nearly 15 years on the square, however, everything changed when the railroad rolled into town. But when it came, it wasn’t to where some originally thought it should go.
According to “The History of North Springfield” by Paul Harris, the Public Square was the center of the city in those days. Because of this, the prospecting Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was interested in having its tracks take a more central path through town. But there was a catch:
“The incoming railroad asked the citizens to contribute $10,000 as sort of a bonus for coming into their town. This request was refused on the grounds the railroad had been granted a franchise to come through Springfield, and they must do so. To this the railroad responded they did not have to come through the town, and they would build where they pleased.”
Where they pleased is where Commercial Street is today, and on May 3, 1870, the first train came to town. The Springfield Leader gave a preview of the event, which emphasized that the train was bringing a new chapter to the city:
“The barrier which so long has shut us out from the world has been overcome, and we find ourselves to-day practically as near St. Louis as we were to Lebanon a twelvemonth ago. It is the railroad that has effected this wonderful change in our condition, and whatever may have been our bickerings with those who have directed the enterprise in the past, they should be forgotten, one and all, to-day. The benefits which may have been lost to individuals are insignificant in comparison with those which have been secured by the community at large. It is only the general good that we are called upon to recognize, and let this recognition attest our forgetfulness of little things.”
It wasn’t long before “North Springfield sprang into existence as if by magic,” noted the “History and Directory of Springfield and North Springfield.” The town was officially organized in 1871, divided from Springfield proper by today’s Division Street.
And that wellspring drew Rathbone from the square to Commercial Street in 1875.
Coming to Commercial Street
Rathbone’s move from the square, commonly known as “Old Town,” was successful: Three years later, the Springfield Patriot-Advertiser noted that Rathbone sold stoves, tinware, queensware and glassware, and that “all who purchase goods from Rathbone will find him stable, courteous and attentive, always ready to oblige and accommodate.”
Except, perhaps, at tea time.
“When three o’clock came, it didn’t make any difference if someone was in the store — he’d close up and go home for tea,” recalled Rathbone of his grandfather. Apparently that bothered one person in particular: James Henry Rathbone, Thomas Rathbone’s son, who according to other accounts left the business over the practice.
But he didn’t go far: He partnered with J.F. Carmack in a hardware store — today’s Rathbone Ace Hardware — just down the street from his father. That year was 1897.
“And we’ve been here ever since,” says Turner.
A new era
One of the earliest ads for the “new” hardware store appeared in Springfield’s Leader-Democrat on Oct. 27, 1897.
That time was a heady one in Springfield, proven even before the “new” hardware store came to be. In 1887, it became one of four cities in the nation to electrify streetcars; that same year, the two Springfields voted to consolidate.
By then, the animosity between the communities was long gone: According to the Springfield Express on April 8, out of 2,583 votes, 2,524 people were in favor of the blending. When that happened, it was cause for great celebration.
“At night, a grand outdoor jubilee meeting of citizens was held on Center (Central) Street between Boonville and Jefferson streets at which rockets were fired, bonfires made and speeches in ratification of the consolidation were delivered by Judge Walker, Cols. Boyd, Tracey and others. Lively music was also furnished the occasion by a consolidation band made up of citizens of both cities. The boom booms immensely!”
Those days also saw a population explosion in Springfield. A 1896 promotional booklet on Springfield noted that between 1880 and 1896, the city had nearly quadrupled its population. That increase — from 6,500 people to 25,000 — helped create what was described as a local kingdom:
“If you are desirous of changing your home to a milder and more healthful climate, where everything native to the temperate zone is grown in profusion, where crops never fail, where more advantageous conditions exist for the enjoyment of life than any other region on this globe, come to Southwest Missouri — it is a kingdom — and Springfield is its metropolis.”
In 1898, a large crowd came to Commercial Street for the hardware store’s demonstration of Moore’s Airtight Stove. (Courtesy of Tim Turner)
And Rathbone’s was in the middle of it all.
When that booklet was published, Claud Rathbone was six years old. His memories were of a store filled with goods appropriate to the day, such as harnesses, collars and single and double trees for wagons.
But while the store’s wares differ from today’s, so does its atmosphere. For a period, the hardware store was across the street from Ozark House, a hotel that was so elaborate that it became a social center for Springfield’s high society.
Locals were interested in novelty: A 1898 demonstration of Moore’s Airtight Stove — a contraption that was said to save half the fuel of other stoves and turn ashes to fine powder — drew such a crowd that a photo of it was featured in a local bank’s calendar. Four years later, the Jefferson Avenue footbridge opened to the public — something Rathbone recounted years later as “a little scary at first.”
That’s not the only aspect of Commercial Street that might’ve scared individuals in its early days. A booklet, published by Springfield’s First Congregational Church, noted that “when all those (railroad) laborers had received their month’s wages, with thirteen saloon doors open day and night, and no legal authority in the place, the drunkenness and debauchery equaled anything we read of in the most lurid tales of the ‘wild and woolly West.'”
Cycles of change
Not long after the store opened, Carmack died. Claud Rathbone’s father, James Rathbone, then became the sole proprietor of the hardware store after purchasing Carmack’s interest from his widow. At that point, the store became Rathbone Hardware Company.
Claud Rathbone came into the business full-time after graduating from Drury College in 1911. The younger Rathbone didn’t leave the store — except for time away during World War I — until he retired in 1978.
“I had an idea of being a lawyer, but I went into the store,” he noted years ago. “I’ve never been sorry.”
Commercial Street, looking west, in 1925. Note the sign for Rathbone Hardware on the left side of the street. (Courtesy of the Greene County Archives)
The same street, but looking the opposite direction, circa 1952. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)
Over the years, the business — and the shopping district — changed. The area was still bustlingly busy through the “Commercial Street Boom,” which continued into the early 1960s. At that point, however, a southward population shift led in a blighted time in northern Springfield.
But Rathbone’s still stood. Around that time, several aspects of the business began to transform. One way was physical: A remodeling project saw the removal of vintage cast-iron decor from the front of the building.
“But they took away a lot of the old character when they redid it,” Turner says of the metal siding that was installed — “You know, to make it ‘new and modern.’”
The store proclaims its name as it welcomes shoppers through the front door.
Another change in the business involved the way it obtained its wares.
“Used to, we bought from a lot different vendors and suppliers,” notes Turner. “And then we joined Ace in the ‘60s.”
Turner says the decision to join Ace in 1963 was a natural one. “At that time, a lot of the small vendors were disappearing,” he says, who also notes that Ace Hardware is a cooperative — a fact that means that it is jointly owned by its members.
“So it’s just a thing we buy from,” Turner notes. “New stores that join Ace, they have to pretty much meet pretty strict guidelines and do this and that. But our charter’s old enough that we can pretty much do what we want.”
Tim Turner, whose great-grandfather began Rathbone Ace Hardware, owns the business today.
Turner, a man of few words, doesn’t have a long explanation of how he ended up in the business. “I don’t know, it just happened,” he says. “Somehow I did.”
And now he’s been full-time at the store for nearly 40 years. Looking back, he says that much about the hardware business is the same as it was when he began. “I mean, our business is pretty plain,” he says. “Everybody still needs the same things.”
Those “same things” often mean nuts, bolts and screws, all of which can be found by the row at Rathbone’s. The plumbing section comes in next, says Turner, while other shelves are filled with a little bit of everything. There are things one would expect from a hardware store — and a few others that might surprise, such as baking pans, food-using gadgets and even an ice-cream-cone shaped cookie jar.
“Of course, we used to carry a ton of housewares, before Walmart and the mall and everything came in,” says Turner. “Then we scaled back.”
Another section of the store is filled with antiques, something that shows the store’s efforts to adapt to the times — times, Turner says, that are positive.
In an effort to spur revitalization, Commercial Street was designed as a local historic district in 1978, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Momentum continues today: Efforts to label “C-Street” as a go-to place for dining, shopping and living have benefited Rathbone’s as well.
“(Business) has really been picking up the last few years,” says Turner.
But even in the years when interest waned in the north part of town, Turner — nor his predecessors — gave up. Nearly 120 years later, what is their secret to success?
“We’re just kind of stubborn, I guess,” says Turner. “Stuck to it.”
Want to shop?
Rathbone Hardware (508 E. Commercial St., Springfield) is open Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more information, call the store at 417-862-6775.