One hundred and seventy-one years ago, in 1847, Smith Hardware opened on Columbia Street in Covington. The store was established by John Edis Smith only 34 years after the founding of Covington and was first located on the southeast corner of Columbia and Boston Street. It then moved across Columbia to the opposite corner, according to a statement by Buddy Smith in a newspaper article published in 1992.
After the great fire in downtown Covington in 1911, the business moved back across the street to the east side of Columbia Street, two doors down from Boston. John Edis Smith was Buddy's great grandfather. John's sons Hardy and Henry operated the store together for a time, but after a while, Henry went up the street and started a general merchandise store.
Over the years Hardy's son Archie Smith Sr. passed the the running of Smith Hardware down to Archie Smith Jr., (Buddy), and then on to Archie Smith III. After 145 years in business, the store closed in July of 1992, some 26 years ago. The business celebrated decades of family tradition that changed little over the generations, with personal service as its hallmark and versatility its motto.
Buddy first began working in the store in 1936 by sweeping the place out. He was right out of school. Buddy remembers that Fred Blossman was also a clerk at the store for a while, and Sidney Blossman was their bookkeeper.
The first telephone in Covington was moved to Smith Hardware early in the century, and Hardy Smith was the operator for the telephone system, for a time.
The Smith's scrapbook contains many pictures of the store's history as well as a December 1923 letter from the Superintendent of Schools for Allen Parish, admitting to a $10 overcharge on a bale of cotton 28 years before in 1895. He wanted to pay back Hardy Smith the misappropriated $10 with eight percent interest for 80 years for a total of $34.
Linda Smith, Archie's wife, worked in the business for 24 years. She said that the building located at 228 North Columbia Street had been remodeled numerous times, the last time in 1980. It was also remodeled extensively in 1945 when it began selling major appliances.
Over the years, the store kept pace with the times, selling (and repairing) motorboats and outboard motors in the 1960's, filling scuba tanks for diving hobbyists, leasing AT&T equipment, selling plumbing supplies and cutting pipe, offering electrical supplies, lawncare equipment, tools, fireplace items, paint, small appliances, key-cutting services, swimming pool maintenance supplies, plus even selling used clothing and toys.
Smith sold lumber and other building materials for many years, also.
Archie Smith III worked there for 38 years, starting right after high school. He said that when the store closed in 1992, they went through the storage rooms and found bits and pieces of the family's history as well as merchandise from years gone by. Among the items they found were horse buggy parts and leather harnesses, even a Model T bumper.
As Covington began offering other shops, Smith Hardware gradually shifted inventories, always on the lookout to offer items that were not available anywhere else in the area.
The Window Display Chronicles
One of the traditions conducted by the store was a theme-oriented window display, everything from Persian Gulf War photos to Christmas trees and Mardi Gras animated figures. Children would take delight in coming to town and seeing what was on view at Smith Hardware's window. Photographs provided by Archie Smith III.
The store was located on what was Covington's main street for its first several decades. The first few blocks up Columbia Street from the Bogue Falaya River was the "heart of the city," with town hall right across the street from Smith Hardware. Farmers came to town often to buy, sell and trade their goods. The cargo boats would come up the river and dock at Columbia Street landing just a block away, making the area alive with activity.
If someone asked for something, instead of just telling them where they could find it, they had a policy of showing the customer just where it was. Buddy recalled Hardy sitting out in front of the store welcoming strangers to town and finding out who they were and what their business was.
After the store closed in 1992 cleaning out the 145 years of items in storage behind the store turned out to be a big event. It involved sorting, pricing, deciding whether to keep, sell, or throw away literally thousands of items. Then there were the pieces that the Louisiana State Museum wanted for its collection...
Here's the 1992 news article that put the spotlight on the wonderful array of things found "in the back" of the store, things that had been there for years and years.
Smith Hardware Storage Yields Treasures From The Past
"Relegated through the ages to the back storage rooms of Smith Hardware Co. Ltd., a number of unusual and ancient items are turning up as the Smith family cleans out the Covington store for its closing next week after 145 years in business.
"Linda and Archie Smith have been finding some treasures. A late 1950's Coca Cola machine is one of the items, and when they plugged it in last week, it ran perfectly.
"The canvas side window curtains for 1925 through 1927 model Fords and Buicks were another find, as were the Diamond T chrome truck hubcaps, and a stack of automobile license plates going back to 1939. There's also the 1962 Valiant bumper. Where it came from no one knows.
"Many of the items defy description, and even the elder Smiths don't know what they are.
"The Smiths were pleased to find the old wooden cash register they used many years ago, the one with the crank on the side, but then a few days later they found that cash register's predecessor, an even older, crankier mechanical cash register.
"Nail kegs and oak barrels are scattered around the storage area, and an old pharmacy cabinet with porcelain knobs was also found in the back
"There's a collection of old wooden shipping boxes, stamped with a variety of product names, from shotgun shells to blasting caps. The old bench tools are valuable, of course, as are the numerous bathroom light fixtures, wooden extension ladders and two sets of Johnson Outboard Motor Commemorative Brandy Sniffers.
"Many of the old-fashioned display racks and merchandising units were for sale, too, bringing offers from various individuals.
"In the stockroom, scattered about on shelving, are lampshades, crockery of every description, curtain rods, old-fashioned window screens, and even the proverbial kitchen sink. A 1930 s posting machine accompanies two 1920's typewriters.
"Many of the old signs and cutout wooden letters used by the store to advertise its many different items for sale are also being sold. They also found a stack of beveled glass shelving and cast iron bracket shelving supports. Those sold quickly.
"The back rooms are also yielding a ton of paperwork, payments, invoices dating back a hundred years or so, orders, and, best of all, catalogs from manufacturers long since gone out of business.
"The Smiths may donate some of those records to the historical society, since the business records of Smith Hardware closely reflects the history of Covington itself.
"Even ox cart axles are found hanging from the walls of the back room, and various Model A Ford parts are being found, along with a Model T axle and jack.
"The hard part about finding all this stuff is knowing what to throw away and what to keep, and what price to charge for the stuff they decide to sell. Linda has, in the past month, has sometimes had to dig through the garbage for stuff Archie has thrown away, thinking it was of no value.
"One box be threw away contained 1945 Lionel toy train parts, including a box of smoke pellets for the steam locomotive. He leaned a couple of orange window display risers against the front door, preparing to throw them away, but before he could, someone saw them, asked how much they were, and bought the units.
"The over 300 stuffed animals that called the window displays of the hardware store home over the years are, at least, finding good homes. Some of them are going home with the Smiths, others are being bought by other Covington merchants.
"And the Smiths keep digging. They are finding slate mantlepieces, signed and numbered by the artesan; "no parking" street signs, a 1950's kitchen stool, and an odd assortment of nuts, bolts and cables.
"They are even selling the old chalkboard message board for the Ozone Lancers scuba diving club used to record the catches and activities of the at-one-time popular group.
They are still finding many other items tucked away in the side storage areas, and a whole warehouse in the back remains to be delved into, Linda said.
"She called the Louisiana State Museum last week to see if they would be interested in having some of the items for display at the New Orleans-based museum. A curator called them back almost immediately, and the next day, a representative of the museum was at hardware store, waiting on the sidewalk for them to open, in fact.
"He spent over an hour looking over the items available, making a list of items he felt the museum would be interested in having on permanent loan.
"Smith feels that the state museum would be better able to preserve and display many of the items, and that it would be a tribute to the family to have children and grandchildren going to the state museum in years to come and seeing labels on the items that came from their family hardware store in Covington."
July, 1992, issue of the St. Tammany Farmer newspaper.
In her "Houses That Talk" series, Carol Jahncke said this about the Smith Hardware building: "Life was slower in Covington back in the early days of Smith Hardware. People would drive up in their wagons and buggies, and tie their horses in front of the store, then come in and chat a while.
"The store was first built in 1847 by Edis Smith, father of 12. Its clientele was mainly farmers, many of them cotton farmers from Mississippi. Covington was a shipping point for their cotton bales down the Bogue Falaya River, across Lake Pontchartrain and into the growing markets of New Orleans.
"Covington streets were packed with oxen-drawn wagon piled high with cotton bales. Some of the cotton would be stored in warehouses off Columbia Street so they could be sold at the best time for the highest price. Over the years, Smith Hardware served many purposes: as a trading post, a retail grocery store, and provided a variety of other services needed by townfolk and farmers alike.
"The Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte Rivers were filled with schooners back in those days. They were the life artery for getting people in and out of town, bringing the mail and all manner of fancy goods.
"When the trains came to Covington, the schooner cargo trade began to diminish. In the mid-1870's, corn was 22 cents a bushel, wheat was 70 cents a bushel and oats were 18 cents a bushel. Cheese was ten cents a pound, as was sugar.
"The original Smith Hardware building was destroyed by the 1903 fire in downtown Covington. It was rebuilt with bricks."
A Family History
Smith became a blacksmith, then started Smith Hardware in 1846. The family moved to Covington in 1857, living on East Rutland Street, in the building which formerly housed St. Tammany Homestead. Smith Hardware continued in business for 145 years, carried on by the son of John Edis Smith, Hardy Horatio Smith, and Hardy's sons Archie and Alfred Smith.