St. Louis Inquirer[Steve Debillis]

November 1991, page 18 and 12

Transcribed by: Henry Herbst, 22 May 2000

As the debate raged over whether St. Louis would have a 1903 or a 1904 World's Fair, livery operator George Lehman looked forward to the positive effects the fair would have on his and every other business in town.

The great Louisiana Purchase Exposition displayed many of the technological advances that would change life in the 20th century, and one of these was the increasing prominence of the automobile.

Lehman, who always had his fingers in several projects, was shrewd enough to realize that this did not bode well for the livery business. So in 1909 he opened a "first class" hardware store on the northeast corner of Tamm and Clayton Avenues [now occupied by the Dogtown Bistro].

After one year his business expanded to the point where it was necessary for Lehman to move to another building at 6400 Wise Ave.

Legend has it that the section of St. Louis known as Dogtown owes its name to the 1904 World's Fair, or more specifically the Filipino natives who populated a recreated village on display at the fair. The Filipinos considered dog meat a delicacy , and due to the Clayton-Tamm Ave. area's proximity to Forest Park, this is where they would go "grocery shopping." According to the story, several pets vanished from back yards, only to end up on the fairgrounds as Rover roast. There are other stories about where the name Dogtown came from, but this is the one that pops up most frequently.

George Lehman also had the World's Fair to thank for his new location on Wise Ave. The building was built almost entirely from materials salvaged from the demolition of the fair. Although the exterior of the store has been extensively remodeled over the years, the interior still boasts many original touches, including the wooden floors and tin ceiling.

"Grandfather was a trader at heart," recalled Martha Hamlin, who with her husband, Bill, represented the third generation of the family-owned business. "If a customer could not come up with the cast to pay their bill, he might accept chickens or some other item of value. Grandmother complained that he was always coming home with something other than money."

Initially George Lehman rented the store on Wise Ave. from the grocer next door for $32.50 a month. Today Lehman's Hardware owns both building. A ledger from the company's early days reveals such transactions as a gas range that sold for $25.50 and a 10-cent charge made on Oct. 16 and not paid until April 25 of the following year.

The Lehmans had no sons, so when one of their two daughters, Marie, married Walter Moon, it seemed logical to invite him into the business. The Moos, who also had two daughters and no sons, later became sole owners. A few years later after their daughter, Martha, married Bill Hamlin, Bill joined his father-in-law in the operation.

The Hamlins bought an interest in the store and after Moon's death in 1972 they acquired the remainder of the stock.

One of Martha Hamlin's favorite relics from her grandfather's day is an ancient eight sided wooden screw case that was sill in use at the store 50 years after it was purchased. As the general interest in antique collecting rose, she became nervous about its fate. Some day, she feared, her husband might just sell it. She suggested that it be taken home for safe keeping but Bill seemed to ignore her.

Actually he was well aware of her concern and , at Christmas time, a truck pulled into the Hamlin driveway to unload of all things, the screw case.

Over the years Lehman Hardware was expanded as much as it can at its location. When the grocer-landlord closed the store, both buildings were purchased and part of the former grocery store was used for retail space, the rest for warehousing. Small areas were reserved for two tenants, a dry cleaner and a barber. Finally the dry cleaner relocated; the barber remains. The Hamlins couldn't bring themselves to ask him to move. When he does, of course, they will use the space.

Bill Hamlin was nationally known in the hardware business, serving as president of the Western Retail Implement and Hardware Association.

Bill's sons joined him in the business, and took charge when he passed away. Bill Jr. has left the company, but Steve carries on the family tradition.

Lehman's has acquired a house and a garage in the neighborhood for additional warehouse space.

"Our customers have been loyal through the years," said Steve Hamlin, "We try hard to give good service and price things competitively. Our employees are really good and can help someone through a project from beginning to end. We can't see that the big chains have hurt us." Two discount houses and a large independent are nearby; yet Lehman Hardware's volume increases each year.


Bibliography Oral history Recorded history Photos
YOUR page External links Walking Tour

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu