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Hardware store owner marks 70 years

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 2:34 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2013 3:41 p.m. CDT
(AP Photo/Lincoln Journal Star, Eric Gregory)
Ed Mills, a customer since 1979, stops to chat with Walter Wenzl at Wenzl Hardware in Nebraska City. Wenzl started working at the store 70 years ago and has owned it since 1954.
(AP Photo/Lincoln Journal Star, Eric Gregory)
Following a downtown lunch break. Walter Wenzl returns to the Nebraska City hardware store he has owned since 1954.
(Eric Gregory)
Walter and Rita Wenzl stand behind the counter at Wenzl Hardware in downtown Nebraska City. Walter has been working at the location for 70 years.
(AP Photo/Lincoln Journal Star, Eric Gregory)
A hand-operated elevator at the back of Wenzl Hardware is still functional, but off limits since Walter Wenzl doesn't pay the state to inspect it anymore.

NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. – When Walt Wenzl was 15 years old, his parents told him he should look for a job.

So, he went to John Haussener’s hardware store in Nebraska City and was hired part-time, working before and after school. He recalled his first day as unmemorable and confusing.

“I don’t remember what I did. I think I sat on the chair most of the time because it was all new to me,” Wenzl said.

Now 85, Wenzl still sits on a chair – but in the office of the hardware store that bears his name and where he has worked most of his life.

In May, more than 200 people, including family and friends, celebrated Wenzl’s longevity and his 70 years at the hardware store, which has become a fixture in Nebraska City.

“He’s always friendly. If you’re having a bad day, you go see Walt. He’s got what you need,” said Tom Schreiner, who dropped in to congratulate Wenzl during an open house.

Schreiner has known Wenzl since their days at St. Bernard’s Academy, now Lourdes Central Catholic School. He described his friend as a survivor, who also dabbles in poetry and local history.

Wenzl Hardware Store is a museum in itself. The two-story building was built in 1864 and still has an old elevator operated by hand. The tops of the wall shelves are dotted with antiques, including a 1903 Flexible Flyer sled.

Over the years, Wenzl has collected tools, housewares and other items, like a butter churn and an iron-looking device that makes pleats in skirts. He’s even got his old leather baseball mitt from his youth and smoking pipes, a habit he gave up decades ago.

Today, his store at 906 Central Ave. carries an assortment of nails, bolts and screws, clamps, chains, vises, shovels and hammers, housewares and small appliances, gardening supplies and just about anything else you might need in a hurry.

“It’s so wonderful that he has a hardware store. There are not too many left,” said 88-year-old Dorris Sackless, a local historian. “It’s a real value to people, especially after they get up in years and can’t get to Lincoln like young people can.”

Wenzl said he guesses which items he should stock and keeps a “want book” for things people have asked him to get. He doesn’t try to compete with other hardware stores and places like Wal-Mart.

“I don’t pay any attention to them. I do my own thing,” Wenzl said.

For instance, he carries Radio Flyer wagons and wheelbarrows. That was very fortunate for cousins Brandon Kuenning and C.J. Kuenning, from Imperial in southwest Nebraska.

They were in Nebraska City on Saturday for a wedding and needed a toy wheelbarrow for a gag. They said it was a family tradition for the groom to wheel his bride to the reception in a wheelbarrow, and they planned to show up with a toy one. Wenzl had just what they needed. How did they find him?

“We were looking for a hardware store,” Brandon Kuenning said, and saw the sign on the side of the building.

The hardware business has been good to Wenzl, who bought the business in 1954 from Haussener and purchased the building three years later.

“He was a great teacher,” Wenzl said, noting that Haussener once worked as a traveling salesman in Omaha. “He just knew hardware.”

Wenzl was a good student. He knows a lot about hardware, but don’t ask him for any advice on a project.

“My grandfather was a carpenter, and I can’t even build a birdhouse,” he joked.

The hardware business has provided the means for him and his wife, Rita, to live comfortably. Five of their six children went to college. None of them have followed in their father’s footsteps.

Wenzl opens the hardware store at 7:30 a.m. and closes the doors at 5 p.m. each weekday. On Saturdays, the store closes at 2 p.m. Wenzl used to stay open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, but he admits to slowing down in recent years.

“I’ve been here 70 years, and I’ve enjoyed it, “Wenzl said. “Most of the people who come in are nice.”

Retirement is not in his plans. He said the hardware store gives him something to do.

“I have no special hobbies,” Wenzl said. “It keeps me out of the beer joints.”

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