Viewed through the lens of history, 1920 was a bellwether year. Henry Leland founded Lincoln Motor Car Co., Babe Ruth began his 15-year career with the New York Yankees after being sold the previous year by the Boston Red Sox (arguably the dumbest decision in the entire history of Major League Baseball), passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote and Cato Hardware opened for business.
While the Red Sox finally overcame Babe Ruth’s curse 86 years later, Cato Hardware is still at its original location smack dab in the center of the upstate New York village of Cato. Practically everything about the hardware and, for that matter, the village itself, is old.
Carved from the northern reaches of the town of Aurelius, N.Y., Cato was founded in 1805 as a military township on land that was part of the original Revolutionary Tracts. For those not familiar with New York history, Revolutionary Tracts were lands set aside by Congress as compensation for the officers and enlisted men of the Continental Army.
Walk through the door of the hardware and take a step back in time. From the wooden plank floors to bins of loose nails, it’s a throwback in the modern world of prepackaged lock washers. It’s also home to a fascinating collection of antiques, not the least of which is the cash register.
On the counter, next to an antique nail scale, is a brass-and-oak monster, a 1910 Class 900 cash register manufactured by National Cash Register Co., Dayton, Ohio. The hardware’s owners, members of the Bramble family, also have the original operator’s manual. The cash register was there when the family purchased the business in 1960.
Unlike modern models, the register’s cash drawer contains six separate coin compartments. When the register was manufactured, silver dollars and half-dollars were in wide circulation. The marble slab mounted above the cash drawer was used to test for counterfeit coins. During the early part of the 20th century, coin counterfeiting was rampant. If dropped on that marble slab, only a silver coin would produce a characteristic ringing sound.
Weighing in at a svelte 225 pounds, the register doesn’t move much. A Bramble family member noted that a pair of strong men is needed simply to lift the beast. In 2010, looking for an excuse for a social occasion, the Bramble family threw a 100th birthday party for the machine. It’s one of a trove of antiques displayed inside the business, and you don’t have to search very long to find more. Many were acquired by the owners’ late son, John Bramble, an avid local history buff.
About 10 feet from the cash register rests another interesting item, a complete, fully operational Columbian Rope Co. measuring meter. Columbian Rope, founded in 1903 and originally located in Auburn, N.Y., won fame and fortune manufacturing sisal and manila (hemp) ropes. Meters were made for the company by a private contractor and installed in stores selling Columbian cordage.
Below the unit seven holes have been bored into the floor. Rope stored in the basement was fed through the holes and secured at the base of the unit. When a customer wanted rope of a specific diameter and length, it was pulled up into the meter and measured. Like the cash register, the meter was already in the hardware when the Brambles purchased the business. It likely dates to the late 1920s.
A blasting machine — sometimes referred to as a dynamite plunger — is another unique piece housed in the hardware collection. The unit, a DuPont Model 20, dates to the 1920s; the plunger and internal magneto still work. Decades ago, before explosives were tightly regulated, farmers removed stumps with explosives. Local hardware stores sold both dynamite and the means to detonate it. I tend to think of the device as the ultimate “boom box.” A local farmer who wanted it to have a good home donated it to the hardware. While a bit dusty from years of sitting on a shelf, all it needs to go back into business is some wire, a blasting cap and a few sticks of dynamite.
Cato Hardware even has a solid American chestnut wagon wheel hub. The owners discovered it in the basement of the hardware where it had been stashed decades ago. Numbers describing the size and length are carved in one end, along with the words “Irving Hub.” Dating the item was fairly easy, as the chestnut blight struck American shores in about 1900, destroying nearly every American chestnut tree. You’ll notice too that spoke pockets have not yet been cut into it. An exhaustive search for the manufacturer turned up nothing, but it was likely milled somewhere in the Northeast where chestnut trees once grew in great profusion. The hub is in brand-new condition, albeit dusty in spots; a good coat of wax would shine it up like new.
As I’m a regular customer at the hardware, I sometimes wonder if the place is actually a museum masquerading as a hardware store, or the other way around. On Saturdays, many visitors come to gawk at the antiques — and there’s plenty to gawk at. The walls are lined with old wrenches, ice saws, hand augers and cooper’s tools.
But I’ve saved the best for last. The hardware’s most prized possession is its Dutton Easy Draft plow dating to about 1880. According to an 1879 history of Cato, E.Q. Dutton began manufacturing plows in Cato in about 1875. Paul Bramble, son of the former owner, the late Richard Bramble, told me the plow was once part of a regular display. “We used to take it down and put it in the front window to mark the beginning of spring planting but we stopped doing that,” he says. “As we got older, the thing seemed to be getting heavier.”
Like the cash register, it is in pristine condition. Discovered in an old warehouse that was about to be torn down, the plow has never been used. The hardware purchased it in the mid-1960s. It’s also an object of considerable envy: The local historical association is trying to locate an Easy Draft for its collection of locally manufactured farm implements. For the record, the hardware has no intention of parting with it.
So I’ll let you decide. Is it a hardware store or a museum? FC
For more information: Cato Hardware, 2525 Main Street (NY Route 34), Cato, NY 13033; (315) 626-6577.
Freelance writer Rich Finzer lives on an 80-acre farm in Hannibal, N.Y. (about 6 miles from Cato Hardware). He has written for Good Old Boat, Living Aboard, Dollar Stretcher, Hobby Farms and BackHome magazines.