Editor’s Note: The News-Review begins its expanded Business coverage today with the addition of a new feature — Meet Your Merchant. A Douglas County business will be profiled each Monday.
OAKLAND — The red brick building that fronts Locust Street in this small community’s downtown is a landmark. So is the business — Stearns Hardware — that it has housed since at least 1891.
Bill Stearns is the family’s fourth generation to own and operate the business, which is now a True Value Hardware franchise. He and his uncle, Bob Stearns, are partners in the business, which was founded in 1887 by Bob’s grandfather, Arba Fay Stearns; Creed Chenoweth; and Z.L. Dimmick. The latter partner left the business after just a year or so.
The business may have first been in a wood building on the same site before the brick structure was built in 1891, according to a history of the store compiled by Louise Stearns, Bob’s wife.
Bob Stearns, 89, attributed the hardware store’s longevity to customer service.
“I think because we’ve been very helpful to our customers with their plumbing and electrical needs and whatever else they’ve needed,” Stearns said. “People have to go somewhere for these types of things and we’re it here. We’ve served the community.”
“It’s been a labor of love,” added Louise Stearns.
Bill Stearns began working at the store 25 years ago and has worked it by himself for the past couple of years.
“We’re convenient here,” he said. “We’re the only hardware store in town. We’re here for the do it yourselfers and for small jobs. We have the basics to serve the community. We know our customer base, what they want and what sells. And if we don’t have it, we can order it. We get a lot of community support here.”
Bold letters announce some of the departments within the store: Housewares, Home Décor, Sporting, Automotive and Hardware. There’s also floor and wall space designated for Painting, Plumbing, Lawn & Garden and other more general areas.
“I like it here,” said Oakland area rancher Celilia Payne of the hardware store. “They have most of what you need. Why go to Roseburg when you don’t need to? I can’t remember much that they haven’t had here. Whether you need to fix an electrical problem or something with your well, they’ve got it here or can get it for you. They have knowledge about what they’re selling and they’re always here to help you.”
The inventory in Stearns Hardware has seen some changes. In its early years, the store sold buggies and farm wagons, farm implements of all kinds and the parts to repair them, water pumps, egg incubators, Rio automobiles, tires, stoves, refrigerators, dynamite and blasting caps, silver-plated dinnerware, sewing machines, doors and windows, moldings, chicken feed and much more. An antique farm wagon is on display in the store, but is not for sale.
There were years when the store featured an old wood stove with chairs and spittoons around it. It was a gathering place for the community. But the days of lugging wood or coal up from the basement to burn for heat are long gone.
Edwin Stearns, the son of Arba Stearns, began working in the store about 1914. About the same time, Chenoweth retired from the store, leaving ownership entirely in the Stearns family.
Stearns Hardware was an independent business until Edwin Stearns signed it up with the Winchester company in the 1920s. Much of its merchandise during that decade had the Winchester name on it. Then, in 1928, Stearns Hardware became a Marshall Wells Co. franchise.
When Bob and Fay Stearns, two of Edwin’s sons, returned from service during World War II, they purchased the business in 1946. That’s about when the business quit selling farm equipment and implements.
The store experienced another change in 1959 when Coast to Coast Stores purchased Wells. In 1998, Coast to Coast and Tru Value merged and became TruServe. A couple years later the name was changed to True Value and Stearns Hardware remains a member of that franchise.
Bob and Fay worked the store full time until Bill joined the family business in 1986. Bob and Fay then alternated weeks working the store with Bill until they both retired a few years later. Fay died in 2010.
Bill was helped in the store by Larry Kennedy until he retired in 2010. Now Bill works the store most of the time by himself.
“There are so many new things on the market, you have to make changes and update your stock to stay current with market trends,” said Bill, 57. “We have a lot of the same customers. There’s a loyalty to the store.
“I like coming to work every day,” he added. “I enjoy helping people solve their problems.”
• News-Review business reporter Craig Reed can be reached by calling 541-957-4210 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.