County Line Publisher Emerita

I recently was browsing through my very tattered and worn copy of “The Wiltonians.” Local history books will never be on the New York Times bestseller list, but they do become a constant reminder of where we have been, and in some cases, where we are headed.

“The Wiltonians” was published in 1990. That’s not so long ago in my mind, but long enough that of the pages and pages of local businesses listed, few are left.

When I launched this newspaper in 1983, each town had a hardware store: Woods Hardware in Kendall, Robinson Hardware in Ontario, and Norwalk Hardware, owned by Stan and Mary Schwartz. They are all gone now. The last standing is Wilton’s Hardware Hank. What they shared in common was local ownership. I challenge you to consider the current ownership of the Main Street businesses in these four villages. Can you think of more than a handful that are owned by people who live in the community?

I don’t mean to imply that those who live elsewhere cannot make significant contributions to the community. But when we look at the heyday of these small towns, when they were bustling centers of commerce, much of that energy and resulting prosperity came from those who lived in the towns. 

So, it is with a great deal of sadness that we report the death last week of Julie Schreier of Wilton’s Hardware Hank. Don and Julie purchased the Heilman Hardware store in 1973. By my calculation, they were just a year short of a half century in business. Unless I am missing someone, it appears that of the four villages, Wilton Hardware Hank is the longest surviving business under the same ownership.

 Yes, you can go to Farm & Fleet in Onalaska or you can buy it on Amazon. It likely will be cheaper.

But here is what you will not get.

You will not get a clerk who will stand with you forever in front of a wall of paint chips and help you decide just which shade of blue with a bit more yellow or green highlights might satisfy your deepest desires.

There will not be a tray of goodies and a seat where you can sit and gobble up some Rice Krispie bars, cake, brownies, cheese and crackers, or whatever it was Julie happened to have baked for customers, who may or may not actually make a store purchase. 

No one at Amazon or Farm & Fleet will whip up flowers for your daughter’s wedding, as Julie did just because she loved working with flowers.

You will not come home with a welcome banner for your garden or a hand-knitted winter scarf. Really, Julie, I tried to pay for those, but you would not take the money.

Did Don ever know how much merchandise she gave away? 

One day she complained to me that she had not made as much strawberry jam as she would have liked because sugar was so expensive. Really, Julie? How many semi-loads of treats did you give away to customers over 48 years?

At Norwalk’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner on Sunday, Theresa Lehner recalled how each week Julie would call in a grocery order to her Norwalk store.

“And it wasn’t a small order either,” Theresa said. 

It might have been because they had gone to Norwalk High School together. Or more likely it was a deep-seated commitment the Schreiers shared to support local business. If I was selling an ad for the paper, Julie always shifted me over to Don. In 39 years, I cannot recall he ever turned me down. And he paid for it before the ink was even dry on the bill. 

If Norman Rockwell were still alive, he might have chosen Wilton Hardware Hank as his subject. For decades, Rockwell’s illustrations of small-town life graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and later Look magazine. 

I can well imagine that portrait would include Julie’s most recent tiny dog, Skittles, asleep in the window cage, surrounded by toys and treats. Don would be sorting through an endless inventory, and Julie likely would be apologizing that the free treats did not meet her usual high standards that day. 

All of those magazines whose covers celebrate small-town life are gone now. And, yes, maybe they over-sentimentalized it, but clearly that life is also going away. And where is the argument that we are better off without it? No more than we are better off without Julie. And we most certainly are not.