Walt Wenzl read from his poem to the Nebraska City Historical Society Monday, "I'm only a simple hardware man. That's what they call me and that's what I am."
Wenzl, who took his first job at the hardware store at the age of 15 after responding to a "boy needed" ad in the local newspaper, started sweeping the floor in the 1940s and has been the store owner for the past 58 years.
He described for the historical society how the face and many of the characteristics of the business district have changed since he went to work for J.R. Haussener's Hardware Store at 906 Central Ave.
There was an ice cream parlor, where Pantorium Cleaners is today, a fruit market, and next door was Mary Schwaderer's beauty shop.
There were office supply, jewelry and appliance stores nearby. Across the street were the Wessel's Department Store and JC Penney. Alvin Willis' hatchery was around the alley.
The building itself was once home to Henry Markel, who sold the city's first Model T Ford from the location.
The Grand Hotel fire on Dec. 6, 1970, "wiped out the business on his side of the street," Wenzl said. "The limestone foundations of the buildings washed out," he said.
Wenzl's store once carried Monarch ranges, hay ropes, Dexter washing machines and rolls and rolls of barbed wire.
Prices when he began work at the age of 15 compared to today include a pound of nails, 6 cents to $1; pliers, 50 cents to $6.50; snow shovel, $1.50 to $12.95; and a hammer, "a good hammer, $3.95 to $24.95.
Wenzl started working for $3.50 a week during the school year and $6 a week in the summer.
Wenzl said he and his wife Rita rarely used a babysitter, raising their six children in the store.
His son John said hard work and friendliness were stressed growing up in the hardware store.
"The back room wasn't heated, so, when my brother and I would go back there to county inventory, we could only stay at a half hour at a time. Then we came forward to warm up some," he said.
"Dad taught us the most important thing was to always greet a customer. Even if we were in the backroom, we knew to call out and say hi," he said.
"Times have changed, but we haven't. Come next May, if I live that long, I'll be here 70 years and I'm proud of it," he said.
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