A Step Back In TimeJune 5, 2020
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There might not be flux capacitors for sale on the floor-to-ceiling shelving at L.H. Sturm Hardware Store, but any customer opening the screen door might feel zapped “Back to the Future” by one.
One family photograph near the entrance shows gentlemen at the counter in the Roaring 20s, while another from 1912, the year the Titanic went down, features ax handles in a wooden holder.
Now look around and see that so much of what was in those pictures is still there. Those same counters, glass display cases and holders. The worn wooden floor. The spiral staircase. Even the rolling ladder hooked into a track up by tin crown molding.
Customers should expect nothing less from one of the state’s oldest hardware stores and the oldest continuously-operated commercial retail business in Jasper. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Look for the proprietors — Bernie Messmer, 81, and his wife, the former Sharon Sturm, 79 — to be at City Hall soon for the reading of a proclamation honoring the family that has now operated the hardware store on the Square for 125 years.
The three-story brick building at 516 Main St. was reported to be the tallest commercial building in the city when it opened in 1886. Joseph Friedman had it constructed and then sold it in 1895 to John Lorey and Louis H. Sturm, the latter of whom was the husband of Friedman’s great-niece Julia.
L.H. and Julia then became the sole owners, eventually passing the store to their three children: Hugo Sturm (who died in 1988), Elsie Sturm (who died in 1979) and Carl Sturm (Sharon’s father, who died in 1956 when she was just 15 years old).
“I started coming here when I was little, when I could cross the street,” says Sharon, who grew up on Fifth Street.
Sharon’s Uncle Hugo and Aunt Elsie kept the store going after her father died. When Hugo suffered a stroke in the early 1980s, Sharon took it over.
Bernie, a Navy veteran who married Sharon 46 years ago, joined his wife at the store in 1995 when he retired from Crane Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center.
“I tell people she keeps me off the streets and out of taverns,” he says.
And, the past 10 years, Sophie — the family schnauzer — has been front and center in the store.
“She’s our official greeter,” Sharon says.
Bernie’s daughter, Nyana Lloyd, lives in Oklahoma, but the couple’s son, Jason Messmer, 42, can close the store when his parents need to be away.
Despite there being no air conditioning, Jason says the ceiling fans and screen doors front and back work surprisingly well.
“Actually,” he says, “it doesn’t get too darn hot.”
The rolling ladder flexes when Jason trots up it, but Bernie still climbs aboard at times to get to those high-shelf items.
“I don’t like to, but when I have to, I do,” Bernie says.
There’s a lot of merchandise to keep track of, much of it American-made. An original cash register that only went up to $9.99 has been replaced by Bernie’s computer that he used to originally catalog 7,000 line items. That number is up to 10,600, but Bernie says the total is inflated because he has yet to delete discontinued merchandise.
The store sells standard hardware like screws, plumbing supplies and saw blades, as well as a century’s worth of hard-to-find and novelty items like whisk brooms, nut grabbers, meat grinders and lots of cast-iron cookware. It is still possible to come across some square-head bolts on a shelf that could date to the 1920s or ’30s.
Wine-making and home-brew supplies bring in the young crowd in the same way newlyweds came in to buy their first butcher knife 70 years ago.
The building itself once housed two fraternal lodges on the third floor: the Knights of Pythias and the Ancient Order of United Workmen. An alcove next to an upper lodge room is complete with a small sliding door, ostensibly to give an entrance password.
The second floor was once home to a dentist’s office. It had a spittoon. And a sign asking the public to please not spit on the floor.
Still on site are Sharon’s grandfather’s tin shop tools for making custom gutters, downspouts and stove pipes, although they don’t work so well on the thicker metal needed to be up to code today.
“It was lighter-weight stovepipe than we use nowadays, so the crimper won’t work,” says Jason as he completes some tasks at his great-grandfather’s workbench.
Long gone is the dynamite once stocked outside in a metal box.
That’s a good thing. A 1969 fire destroyed the two-story Reising’s clothing store that shared a common wall with Sturm’s.
“It’s double-walled, which is good,” Jason says. “You can still see soot on the bricks where the stairs go up to the third floor.”
Sharon was dating Bernie at the time of the fire. She remembers coming home to find her mother gone and the ironing board still up in the living room. She knew that was odd. And then a neighbor told her Reising’s was on fire.
While the dynamite is gone, the store still sells carbide. It is popular for tossing down mole tunnels along with some water.
“The gas kills the moles,” Bernie says.
In a nod to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bernie and Sharon operated largely on a call-in basis during April, when Bernie said The Square looked like a ghost town. They went back to their normal operating hours the first full week of May.
Bernie and Sharon enjoy vacations, especially trips to the beach with Sophie in tow. “Oh, she rides so nice in a car,” Sharon says. This year’s vacation might be delayed, but a road trip is still in the plans.
“I’d like to go and get a suntan,” Sharon says.
When retirement beckons, Jason, who works for Ewing Properties and does landscaping on the side, says he can juggle that and minding the family store.
“If he wants it,” Bernie says, “I guess it’s his.”