Retrospect: Harrison Bros. Hardware preserves more than just nuts and bolts

A look at Alabama's oldest operating hardware store

Noted photographer Carol Highsmith photographed Harrison Bros. Hardware in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For 126 years, Harrison Bros. Hardware has occupied the same place on Huntsville’s historic square. But there is more to the history of Alabama’s oldest operating hardware store than just nuts and bolts. Harrison Bros. is a preservation success story for the ages.

In the late 1870s, brothers James B. and Daniel T. Harrison relocated from their native Tennessee to Huntsville in hopes of establishing a tobacco wholesale business. Huntsville at the dawn of the New South era was a place for such ambitions. In 1879, they opened their first shop on Jefferson Street. In 1897, after nearly 20 years in business, the brothers relocated their shop to the south side of the square in downtown Huntsville. They occupied No. 3 Commercial Row, a keen spot facing the Madison County Courthouse and near the First National Bank. At the new location, the brothers still sold tobacco, but also marketed a line of crockery called Queen’s Ware and other kitchen utensils. After the move, the two brothers welcomed into the business their younger sibling, 25-year-old Robert S. Harrison, who assumed management of the store. James Harrison, the elder brother, died in 1908.  

When a fire swept through Commercial Row in late December 1901, Harrison Bros. lost a reported $2,500 in inventory and incurred damages to the store of $2,000. But from the destruction came an opportunity for expansion into the adjacent storefront. To repair the fire damage and stitch the two buildings together, the brothers turned to Daniel S. Brandon, a prolific brick mason and carpenter, who alongside his late father, Henderson Brandon, had created one of the most successful African American businesses in the region. When Harrison Bros. reopened in 1902, they added a line of furniture and related items to their crockery selection. 

A 1911 advertisement in the Huntsville Times touted Harrison Bros. and its array of items. Photo from the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Robert S. Harrison, as the story goes, was rather averse to the practice of paid advertising. When salesmen came to call, he would quickly cast them out of the store. If that is true, then it makes the few existing Harrison Bros. advertisements all the more important in telling the story of the business. A 1911 ad, for example, encouraged readers to eschew the trend of mail-order merchandising. “Give us a try,” the ad read. “Our prices will convince you that there is no advantage in sending your dollars away from home. We will save you the freight.” A 1921 advertisement for a new line of “lifetime aluminum” kitchen utensils, on sale for “less than pre-war prices,” indicates the end of the metal shortages and consumer inflation experienced during World War I.

Two ads run 11 months apart reveal the ongoing effects of the Great Depression upon the store and its clientele. In March 1930, Harrison Bros. offered a new, 8-tube Sentinel radio for $125 (nearly $2,300 today). By February 1931, the model was on discount, along with other radios, and the store was offering deferred payments and in-house financing. Happy days would return soon enough, however, and in the summer of 1933 Harrison Bros. joined half-a-dozen other Huntsville hardware and supply stores in supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery program, including wage and working-hour equalizations. “We are proud to be doing our part in this great movement to return prosperity to America,” their ad read. 

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By the time Daniel T. Harrison died in 1940, a new generation had begun working in the hardware store: Robert Harrison’s two sons, Daniel F. and John W., both of whom grew up in the business. When their father died in 1952, Harrison Bros. fell to them. For nearly 30 years, this second generation of brothers continued the family’s hardware business. Walking amidst the towering shelves of the store, they could extract the most obscure fitting, bolt or utensil for their patrons and send them out the door with their wares wrapped in simple brown paper bound with string. The store and its owners assumed a kind of weathered patina in the face of modernity. As Huntsville grew to become “Rocket City,” Harrison Bros. Hardware embraced the comforting familiarity of its unchanging ways.

But time doesn’t stand still. Daniel F. Harrison died in 1981, and when John fell ill in 1983 it seemed as though the family business might end with him. But on July 31, 1984, the store took on new life from a somewhat unlikely source. The family sold the building, its inventory and the Harrison Bros. name to the Historic Huntsville Foundation (HHF), a group founded in 1974 to encourage the preservation of historic structures in Madison County. Upon acquisition, a small army of volunteers undertook an exhaustive inventory of the property, cataloging every implement, utensil and item on the premises before opening the doors again to an expectant public.

This photograph was taken by Carol Highsmith in 2010 of the cash register in Harrison Bros. Hardware. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thanks to the vision of the HHF, Harrison Bros. exists today in much the same way it has for decades, but with added purpose and an expanded inventory. In front of tall shelves still full of hardware stand racks and tables of local art and Alabama-made products. Ledgers on display offer a glimpse of the store’s history, as does the operable early 1900s cash register. You can still purchase old fobs and fixtures there, too, making the store an important part of the unceasing work of historic preservation in the region. Harrison Bros. today includes exhibit space to advance the mission of the HHF. A current display pays tribute to the lives and work of African American brickmasons Henderson and Daniel S. Brandon.  

The history of Harrison Bros. presents itself as a kind of palimpsest. Like an old piece of parchment used again and again over time, the layers of its story mix together: the ambitious dreams of two Tennessee brothers; the talented hands of a Black craftsman restoring the building after a fire; two generations of care and hard work by a family business to serve the public need; and dedicated preservationists determined not to let this landmark disappear.

You can find more than nails at Harrison Bros. Hardware. 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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