Big two-day auction at Ernst & Son Hardware will sell off parts of downtown Lawrence history

photo by: Courtesy: Elston Auction Co.

The Dutch Boy sign that has hung a top the downtown building at 826 Massachusetts Street for decades will be part of the upcoming auction of Ernst & Son Hardware.

There is not a monster in the mysterious basement of the former Ernst & Son Hardware store in downtown Lawrence. Just a Dutch Boy and enough early 1900s shipping crates to contain a Frankenstein, if needed.

The contents of the basement of Lawrence’s oldest hardware store have been a mystery for many. It was common for a first-time visitor of the store at 826 Massachusetts St. to gaze upon the floor-to-ceiling shelves on the store’s main floor, only to have someone whisper “there’s even more in the basement.”

That part of the store wasn’t open to the general public, but area residents soon will get to lay eyes upon all its treasures. As we’ve reported, Ernst & Son closed its doors in June after its longtime owner, Rod Ernst, died in January. Now, family members have decided to have a giant two-day auction next month to sell off what remains of a business that dated back to 1905.

photo by: Nick Krug

A customer enters Ernst and Son Hardware, 826 Massachusetts St., on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018.

Baldwin City auctioneer Mark Elston, who will be running the auction, tells me the basement items indeed will be part of the sale, and they include a lot of old items. And many that perhaps no one other than Ernst would have thought to save.

“He kept the original wooden box that the store’s cash register was shipped in,” Elston said. “There are boxes for cream separators. The main thing that struck me in the basement is all the wooden boxes that he kept that date back to the store’s opening.”

Speaking of the cash register, it will be sold, and is expected to be one of the marquee items of the auction. It dates back to the 1890s. In addition to having the original shipping box, it also has its original manual, Elston said.

photo by: Courtesy: Elston Auction Co.

A cash register dating back to the 1890s is expected to be one of the marquee items for sale at the upcoming Ernst & Son Hardware auction, which is selling off stock of the business that closed in June.

Shirley Ernst, Rod’s widow, told me that will be one of the items hard to part with.

“Every time I touched that cash register, I wondered how many hands have been on it,” she said. “It is a wonderful piece of history, but what am I going to do with a cash register?”

The auction also is expected to attract a lot of attention for its large amount of Dutch Boy memorabilia (I guess there are Dutch Boy collectors, although I would think that hobby would require careful explanation upon coming up in conversation). For those of you who don’t know, Dutch Boy is a paint company that dates back to 1907. It was founded by the National Lead Company, which is one of the oldest publicly traded companies in America, but shockingly, no longer has that name (It’s now NL Industries, in case you find yourself in a trivia contest at a Wall Street bar). The auction does include the large Dutch Boy Paints sign that hangs atop the downtown hardware store building. Think about that for a moment: Is that the oldest continuously hung sign in downtown Lawrence?

Among some other items on the list that caught my eye: A wooden stove that dates back to 1891, a five-foot vintage airplane, taxidermic animals and whiskey barrels. (Notice that I listed taxidermy and then whiskey. I can assure you that you never want whiskey to come before taxidermy.)

photo by: Courtesy: Elston Auction Co.

Roaches had much to fear at Ernst & Son Hardware. The sign will be part of an upcoming auction of the business that dates back to 1905.

photo by: Courtesy: Elston Auction Co.

Catalogs and other old items will be part of the Ernst & Son Hardware auction in September.

Elston said he thinks auction-goers are going to be surprised by the amount of “new-old stock” that the business had. For example, Elston found feet upon feet of barn track — the tracking system used in old barns to move hay bales — in the store. Barn restorers (yep, there is a whole world you don’t know about) hunt high and low for vintage barn track that they hope is still in decent enough shape to use. The stuff at Ernst, which also includes a lot of house hardware, has the best of both worlds. It is old but not used because it has been sitting in the store for literally decades — or perhaps in some cases, more than a century.

“There is so much new-old stock,” Elston said. “It was made a long time ago, but it is just like new.”

Expect a big auction. Elston is breaking it into two days. The first auction will be at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 9. The second day will be the following Sunday at 10 a.m., Sept. 16. Based on the sale bills, it looks like the first auction will focus a bit more on the hardware, guns, knives, tools and fishing and hunting merchandise the store had. The second auction will include more of the memorabilia, such as the signs, displays, cash register and other such goods.

Elston said he is making arrangements with the city to have much of the auction in the public parking lot that is behind the store. He said it would be difficult to get all the people into the store building, given how many items are in the building.

As for the building, the Ernst family owns it. The building is not part of the auction. There are no plans to sell it. Shirley Ernst told me the family doesn’t have a tenant for the building but rather wants to get it emptied so that it can determine what repairs and renovations may be needed.

“Right now, we are really just focusing on the auction,” she said.

That is a big chore, both physically and emotionally. Ernst said, at the urging of family members, she won’t be at the auction to see the items go.

“The knife case, the gun safe, some of the photos on the wall, they are things you see every time you go in there,” she said. “They are just part of the store, so that will be hard to see them go, but hopefully they will go to a good home.

“But he’s been in business since 1905. He has had a good run, but unfortunately it is over.”

photo by: Nick Krug

Customers come and go from the front entryway of Ernst & Son Hardware, 826 Massachusetts St. on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.


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