The scents in classic hardware stores were unmistakable: sawdust and paint and fertilizer and new tires, all mingling together. Every aisle of the hardware store offered a new scent, a
The scents in classic hardware stores were unmistakable: sawdust and paint and fertilizer and new tires, all mingling together. Every aisle of the hardware store offered a new scent, a new tool, a new memory.
Those places sold everything from 12-penny nails and bolts by the pound to plumbing supplies and gardening tools. From galvanized washtubs and assorted socket wrenches to oil lamps, handsaws, and even the old Flexible Flyer sleds.
Remember the wooden floors that creaked with every step? The wall of tools with hammers and saws and mysterious handheld contraptions? The shrill sound of the key-grinding machine? Remember running your fingers through a bin full of washers or wing nuts?
Whether you went to buy grass seed in the spring, a rake in the fall, or a snow shovel in the winter, a visit to your local hardware store made a memory. They were the Swiss Army knives of retail. That’s the history of Lowe’s Home Improvement — which L.S. Lowe started in 1921 as Lowe’s North Wilkesboro Hardware, a relative cracker box of a store downtown on C Street.
Although Lowe was the founding namesake of what would become one of the world’s largest home improvement chains, the affable Wilkes County farmer and businessman had little to do with transforming his small-town hardware store into the corporate giant that Lowe’s has become. When the 42-year-old Lowe opened his store, he was content to sell the general merchandise that most rural hardware stores of that era were known for.
During those early years, shoppers may not have found kitchen sinks and patio furniture in the 3,500-square-foot store, but if they needed dry goods, groceries, a roll of barbed wire, a keg of nails, or some other miscellaneous hardware item — or even, ahem, a tin of snuff — Lowe had ’em covered.
After Lowe died in 1940, his daughter Ruth Lowe Buchan inherited the business and then sold it to her brother, Jim Lowe. But it was Ruth and her mother, Floy Elizabeth Lowe, who ran the family business during the early ’40s while Jim was serving in the Army.
The two women “ran the hardware store as best they could in the constricted economy of the war years,” writes author Deni McIntyre in No Place Like Lowe’s, a history of the company. “They had to get used to shortages, to unreliable suppliers, to ration books, coupons and stamps. They had to get used to telling people ‘No.’ It wasn’t much fun — or very profitable. Like many businesses, Lowe’s North Wilkesboro Hardware was just hanging on.”
What may have ultimately saved the company was love: When Ruth Lowe married Carl Buchan Jr., the wheels of change and growth began to turn.
Like Jim Lowe, Buchan enlisted in the Army, but he was given an honorable discharge after suffering a foot injury in 1943. Suddenly, he needed a job. Lowe, still in the Army, made Buchan an offer: If Buchan took a complete inventory of the store and paid Lowe the equivalent amount in cash, the two would be 50-50 partners.
“The stock consisted of notions, dry goods, horse collars, harnesses, snuff, produce, groceries, small miscellaneous hardware, and building materials,” Buchan later recalled. All told, the inventory amounted to about $12,500.
After buying into the family business, Buchan assumed management of the store and immediately decided to sell off the stock, except for the heavy hardware and building materials. Buchan foresaw what many other merchants did not: When the war ended and millions of soldiers returned home, they would need houses. A building boom was about to erupt, and Buchan was positioning Lowe’s to be a part of it.
Among those millions of soldiers coming home was Jim Lowe, who initially embraced his brother-in-law’s vision for the company. But he soon turned to other business interests, including starting the Lowes Foods supermarket chain. Meanwhile, in 1949, Lowe’s opened its first branch store north of North Wilkesboro, in Sparta. Three years after that, Buchan bought out Jim Lowe’s interest in the company.
“I was completely on my own for the first time in my life,” Buchan would later recall. “Predictions were that I would fail. My trade connections said that I would not last beyond 90 days.”
The crystal-ball gazers were wrong. Lowe’s stores were multiplying, and with them, so were sales.
The crystal-ball gazers were wrong. About 90 days later, Buchan opened another store, this one in Asheville. Then another. Then two more. Lowe’s stores were multiplying, and with them, so were sales — to the tune of $30.7 million in 1960.
Buchan died in October 1960, at age 44, but his plan for the growth of Lowe’s was in place. The company continued to blossom without him at the helm, going on to become the largest hardware chain in the country, before being surpassed by The Home Depot. It remains the second largest, and no other chain is even close.
In 2003, Lowe’s relocated its corporate headquarters to Mooresville, but its presence is still felt in North Wilkesboro — from the Lowe’s exhibit at the Wilkes Heritage Museum to the many Lowe’s employees who settled there and never left.
The museum exhibit showcases a few remnants from the store’s early days: The first cash register. An apron worn by Lowe’s employees. Old ledgers. Vintage photographs. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to fuel the community’s pride.
“To have something of that nature here in Wilkes County and go worldwide is tremendous,” says Jennifer Furr, executive director of the Wilkes Heritage Museum. “Most people would never believe something like that could come from a small town in North Carolina.”