NEW BREMEN — Hardware and history go hand-in-hand when a New Bremen native shares stories laced with his broad sense of humor — such as polishing spittoons as the start of his career.
At 89, Stan Kuenning still works five days a week, rolling his motorized wheelchair around the True Value hardware store on state Route 66. He spoke recently to his fellow residents of Elmwood Assisted Living about “the good old days” in New Bremen.
Part of his presentation was about New Bremen’s history, particularly as a cargo and passenger stop on the Miami-Erie Canal.
“That’s what made New Bremen a metropolis,” said Kuenning. The village, just 23 miles east of the Indiana border, “had four- and five-story buildings where people stayed when they came from far away to catch a canal boat.”
He told of hog drives: “Hogs will stay together when they’re driven in a herd, but cattle or horses will stray off.” As many as 400 pigs a day would be loaded on canal boats – along with passengers – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the days before cars and trucks were common.
Keunning was born in 1928, and his hardware career began when he was 11. Boys wore knee-length “knickers” to school until the fashion changed to ankle-length black slacks.
“My mother was ironing when I asked her for $1.89 to buy some long black pants,” he said when relating the Great Depression years. “She didn’t miss a stroke in her ironing when she said, ‘Son, I don’t have $1.89,’ so I decided to get a job.”
His first stop was at the local hardware store, “where I asked the owner if he could hire a young boy to sweep floors or wash windows. He said, ‘Yes, you can do that every day after school, but your No. 1 job every day is to empty and polish three brass spittoons — one at the front door, one at the cashier and one at the rear door,’” Keunning said.
He worked at the hardware store until he turned 18 in May 1953, as the Korean War was ending, and he was notified to get a physical to be drafted into the Army.
“They told me not to go to school or anything because they’d probably call me up in September. So I quit my job in the hardware store … when I got a call from my uncle in Miami Beach, Florida, to work at the Hollywood Beach Hotel.”
He started out mowing lawns and progressed to parking cars. “I made $200 a month plus tips and mailed $50 back home every other week,” he said.
In those days, most Florida hotels closed from May to September because temperatures got hot and hotels weren’t air-conditioned.
“I heard about a man from Cincinnati who needed someone to drive him home. The next morning I asked him if I could drive him to Cincinnati. He didn’t know where New Bremen was,” Keunning said.
It took five or six days, Kuenning said, “because there weren’t any interstate roads back then. We had to drive through every town and village on back roads. I drove into his garage on Reading Road in Cincinnati and helped him unload his baggage.”
Then, Kuenning said, “The man asked me, ‘How are you going to get back to New Bremen?’ And I said ‘like this’ (as he gestured with his hitch-hiking thumb). So he said, ‘Nah, how ‘bout I’ll buy you a train ticket to New Bremen?’ I said, ‘That would be fine, but we don’t have a train in New Bremen.’
“So he said, ‘Well, Stan, let me take you to the Greyhound station and get you a bus ticket.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have a bus station in New Bremen.’ So he gave me $50 and agreed to me hitch-hiking, because everybody did it back then.”
Drivers also were more tolerant of hitch-hikers.
“I got a ride after only two cars passed me on Route 25 and rode all the way to Piqua. Then I saw a truck marked ‘Morsey Eggs, Minster, Ohio.’ Mayor (Frank) Morsey was driving, and he knew my mom and dad, so he drove me to my front door in New Bremen, and I still had the $50 in my pocket.”
Kuenning was not drafted into active-duty military service, but he enlisted for a six-year hitch in the Army Reserve. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant as a mortar artilleryman, attached to the Company K Reserve unit in St. Marys, which was not called to combat.
He continued his hardware career during those years, having returned to his old job at New Bremen Hardware. In 1953, he bought the Western Ohio Hardware, then the second hardware store on West Monroe Street. He cobbled together $18,000 from his life savings, a bank loan and family borrowing.
“That was a lot of money back then,” said Kuenning. “The average man’s salary was $25 a week. My mother-in-law said she hoped I wouldn’t get the bank loan because we wouldn’t be able to pay it back before we went on Social Security!”
Actually, the loan was paid off much sooner, as Kuenning, while operating the store with his wife, Dona Mae, also took over a hardware supply route through eight stores in area towns and villages.
“The True Value store in Celina was one of my customers, and I saw that their supplier’s goods were cheaper than mine, so I joined True Value,” buying into its co-op operation.
Through the years, Kuenning’s hardware business focused on “local industry and people buying light bulbs. Heck, some of them are still alive and buying from us today. That’s why I come to the store. Elmwood is a nice place, but every morning my son, Scott (owner of the True Value store), or his wife, Linda, picks me up and brings me to the store about 9 o’clock, and I stay till 1:30, meeting people and take them to whatever they’re looking for.”
In his early hardware years, Kuenning’s work included sales to Crown Equipment Corp. He recalled, “Crown originally made temperature control vents for home furnaces.” Keunning’s friend, Jim Dicke, and three family founders then progressed through the growing television market, manufacturing antenna rotors.
“Then Jim’s father-in-law suggested the company should build a cart that could hold a ton of merchandise and one person could move it,” Kuenning said. That proved to be the start of developing Crown lift truck-manufacturing that today employs 14,000 people with corporate offices in Germany, Australia and China. “And they’ve been good customers ever since,” Keunning said.
As Crown grew to a multi-billion-dollar, worldwide corporation while New Bremen’s hardware business remained relatively local (the Kuenning family also owns True Value stores in St. Henry and Wapakoneta), the friendship of Stan Kuenning and Jim Dicke didn’t wane until Dicke died, Nov. 11, 2016.
When Crown had a Dayton office in the Arcade Building, “If I was in Dayton, I’d drop into his office when I saw his car parked outside,” Kuenning reminisced. “All I had to was stick my head in and say ‘Jim,’ and he’d say ‘Stan’ and reach into his bottom drawer for a deck of cards, and we’d each put up a quarter and play one hand of five-card stud.
“One of us would walk away with 50 cents, just like the good old days,” he said with a laugh. But the hardware business has changed dramatically in recent years, Kuenning said.
“Dona Mae (who died in February 2015) didn’t know anything about the hardware business when we got married in 1948, but she learned the paint business, and she was good at it. We always said if we had to stay open on Sundays, we’d sell the business because we always went to church. Now today, Sunday is our biggest day!”
In a daydream moment, Kuenning said, “If I could dial the 11 numbers for a phone call to heaven and Dona Mae answered, I’d say, ‘Guess what we’re selling now. We’ve got women’s ready-to-wear clothing.’ Her reply would be, ‘You’re shi**in’ me!’”
With another anecdote, Kuenning brought his hardware memories full-circle, relating, “Just a few years ago, a restaurant called The Pub opened in the building that once was New Bremen Hardware. After dinner there one night, I went to the restroom, and there was the same toilet where I washed and polished spittoons 75 years ago.”