O boyoboyoboy – I get to go this morning with our neighbor Mr. Sala and Dad to Dad’s old classmate Mr. Horgan’s new hardware store on East Fourth Street – it’s 1948 and the store’s only a year old. We’re going because Dad and Mr. Sala like to barbecue meat and they need one of those new-fangled gadgets for the backyard where they can start a fire in it then put food on the grate over the fire. And have a couple cold Tahoe beers while they’re at it…
So into the back seat of the ’41 Chevy I go and they pile in the front seats. Mr. Horgan’s store is east of town a few blocks; his father started the first one in 1904 and named it for the street it was on – Commercial Row. There were two hardware stores on Commercial Row – the other was Reno Mercantile a block east of Commercial Hardware in an old building with a creaky floor that was built as a Masonic hall. Dad said that it should have been torn town a long time ago – thought it might be the oldest building in Reno and I think he was serious!
But this morning we’re off on East Fourth – what a great new building it is – it has new lights that the Nevada State Journal wrote an article about – they’re called “fluorescent” lights – long skinny tubes that glow and light up the room – no bulbs hanging down. More stores should get them. The new Commercial Hardware is huge and has all kinds of stuff – it’s hard to imagine that a hardware store could be much bigger.
The new store’s location was picked in line with the old Commercial Hardware and Reno Merc stores – close to the train tracks. Commercial Row was named that because of Reno’s early dependence on the commerce of the Comstock, and the V&T came to Reno daily from the mines in Virginia City. And the agriculture of Carson Valley relied on railroads. That’s why so many stores that relied on mining and livestock were on Commercial Row, like Cannan’s Drug, with all the veterinarian drugs for animals. And mining supplies, like carbide for the miners’ lamps. Neat stuff – get it wet and it makes acetylene gas for the miners’ head lamps. Or flush it down a toilet if you want to move the porcelain commode across the restroom of a service station. But I’m only six years old, so don’t know about that. Yet.
Commercial Hardware’s new location also benefited from the railroad; in its case the Western Pacific Railway, that connects with the Mighty SP down by Louis’ Basque Corner. The WP served the Sierra Valley, and every morning it brings milk, livestock and produce in to Reno and points beyon, and has a lot of industry along its right-of-way. It now keeps its locomotives in an area between Evans Avenue and the University of Nevada, where my crystal ball says will someday be the Fleischmann Agriculture Building. And its locomotive repair shop will someday be a coffee house on Record Street. But I don’t know that yet; it’s only 1948 now.
The railroads’ influence…
One of our teachers, Mr. Leimback, told us about how Reno was built around the railroads, keeping the industrial and food-oriented businesses like Commercial Hardware and Nevada Livestock close to the railroad tracks. He was a neat guy. Like most of our post-WWII male teachers, he had earned the right to teach in the big schools, like Reno and Sparks, by teaching in some cow-county (that’s Dad’s word, not mine!) school. The State Education Board had that rule, so most of our men teachers knew our state pretty well – the mining and the ranching.
In years to come we’d meet David Finch, who was the no-nonsense principal of Reno High School and put that school on the national map after taking over its reins after it opened on Booth Street in 1951. Mr. Finch, who wouldn’t let us sing “There is nothing like a dame” in our senior assembly in 1959, came to town from Stanford University, (where he was on the Indians’ boxing squad) through the little silver mining town of Rochester, a hoot-and-a-holler east of Reno by Lovelock. Looking back we’re glad he wound up in Reno. Even although we had to change our song to “…a girl.” (Which we did for the final rehearsal, but in the actual performance our underclassmen and parents heard it just as Hammerstein wrote it: “…like a dame.” We sailors paid for that stunt… Mr. Finch, in retrospect, was probably one of the best education administrators to ever hit Reno.
We got our “barbecue” gadget that morning, which wasn’t easy in 1948 – it would be five more years before they really became available. I read once that some guy working for the “Weber Steel Company” that made round steel buoys, cut one in half, took it home and put a grate on it and the Weber buoy company thereafter became Weber Grills. Don’t know if that’s true, but I learned early the words of Mark Twain, not to let the truth interfere with a good story. And that’s a good story!
So, we’ve toured Commercial Hardware and Reno Merc with its squeaky floors and bats and birds zinging around the store, and walls that creaked whenever a million-pound SP cab-forward steam locomotive passed across Commercial Row. Then. And it didn’t get any better.
And as usual, I’ve used up ‘way too many words, 1,019 on my page-counter on my yellow lined tablet that I’m writing this on after Dad and Mr. Sala and I returned to our homes on Ralston Street across from Whitaker Park. And I’ve no pictures that aren’t protected by that picky-picky “copyright” thing that I’ve been warned about. So – I’ve several other early hardware stores in Reno, and of course Carl Shelly’s on Green Brae Avenue in the Rail City, Greenbrae two words then, had opened during WWII and I want to have some space to say something nice about Carl Shelly, whose influence on Sparks’ history, with his friend Tom Swart’s, would endure for 40 more years. So to keep this from getting too long, I’m going to wrap it up and get back to the other hardware stores in a separate column in three or four days. Now, the Great Gildersleeve is on KWRN radio so that’s where I’m going. Meet you right back here midweek.
And I’ll point out a milestone that we’ve all reached together: The Six-Year-Old Kid has been pedaling his Schwinn around the village, splitting participles and using run-on sentences since his first column, a no-brainer was written out of boredom during the Super Bowl game of 2017. Two years later, he’s still six years old; he’s grown up once in a while so he can ride his bike with his buddy Henry Philcox, but usually returns to 740 Ralston Street. He thanks you for riding with him…!
email@example.com – lemme know if I have permission to post your comments!
A comment about David Finch: “Hi Karl, I was so glad to see mention of David Finch. Senior year, I was in his Human Relations class. We had to write an essay every week. It was the best class I took until graduate school in Anthropology 15 years later, and the skills he helped us develop were the best preparation I could have had.