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Posted on June 20, 2022 at 4:32 PM by Ken Kocher
Legend has it that Farmer’s Hardware was established in 1836 and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, hardware stores in the United States. There may be some poetic license here. Yes, W.M. Burnett, touted as the originator of the hardware store, was in business in the early 1800s, possibly in 1836. However, newspaper ads from the 1840s and 1850s describe his trade as a saddlery selling harnesses, saddles, bridles, etc. as well as trunks and carpet bags. However, by the time of the 1869 fire, Burnett was listed as a hardware dealer. At his death in 1871, the establishment was known as Burnett & Co. and would continue as such until 1877 when the company was dissolved and continued by P.V. Carbine though it appears that Carbine was running the business as of 1872.
Philip Valentine Carbine, an immigrant from Wales, was Burnett’s son-in-law having married Hattie Burnett in 1867. Carbine initially ran the store from a portion of Atkinson’s block at the corner of Main and Jefferson (then Railroad Street). In mid-1880, Carbine began the construction of a new building to house his enterprise. It was a two-story brick building; the only brick building on the block. Brick construction was cold comfort in March of 1881, less than a year after completion of the building, when fire consumed this entire block of Railroad (Jefferson) Street. Carbine’s building was partially credited with keeping the fire from jumping to the block facing Main Street, but the building was left as a shell.
Carbine’s misfortune is a bit of luck for us as his contract with Daniel Towns for restoration work after the fire survives. One clause states that the work “will be as near like the first job that was contracted as far as can be made” indicating that Towns was the original builder. The original storefront is also described: “There will be 2 long show windows on ground floor in front of room C heads… One door frame with C head transom…” Like many of Madison’s storefronts, the Carbine building had a store front of arched openings later replaced by large openings of plate glass. (View the contract here, courtesy of the Morgan County Archives)
Another interesting feature was that there were no windows on the First Street side of the building (three were added in 2002). The only openings on this side were wide doorways on each floor. The lack of windows on the first floor is explained by the 60 feet of six foot tall shelving on the side walls as outlined in the Towns contract. The upper floor arrangement is explained by a line in an 1884 ad: “In addition to my hardware store, I carry on the second floor of my capacious building, a fine assortment of wagons and buggies, which I have at prices that baffle the competition!” A swing arm for a block and tackle to raise and lower wagons and buggies to and from the second floor remains in place today. Later that same year, Carbine built “a wagon shed next to the Hough brick store.” This would be a portion of the parking lot adjacent to In High Cotton. No doubt this allowed him to expand his inventory and, of course, was a bit more convenient for rotating stock.
Left: east side prior to added windows - Center: swing arm for lifting buggies to the second floor - Right 1885 Sanborn Fire Insurance map
Through the 1880s, 1890s, and into the new century, P.V. Carbine, “The Old Reliable,” provided Madison “A full line of heavy and shelf hardware, wagon material, and in fact everything kept by a first-class hardware store.” He boasted having “Anything from a knitting needle to a 2-horse wagon.” He added the Etheridge “B” sewing machine to his offerings in 1901. Yet, Carbine was evidently falling into financial straits at the turn of the century. In April of 1903, during bankruptcy proceedings, a federal judge ordered P.V. Carbine’s stock of hardware to be sold for $5,700 covering about one third of the claims against him. The silver lining was that the stock was sold to the Carbine Hardware Co. which had been chartered the month before. The incorporators of the company were P.V and W.L. Carbine, S.A. Turnell, F.W. Brobston, and G.W. Holmes.
The new company soon made improvements remodeling the store and bringing it “up to date in its arrangement and appointments.” A couple of years later, the company “completed some very attractive and very useful improvements to the interior of their store.” They added shelving, lockers, and rolling ladders. Then, in 1907, John L. Moore called a meeting of the stockholders and bought the Carbine Hardware Company renaming it Farmer’s Hardware Company. Thus, beginning a new era which we will visit in a future blog.
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