Archive for Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The end of an era

Longtime downtown Tonganoxie hardware store to close

March 29, 2006

One day soon, John Lenahan will turn his key in the lock and close his hardware store for the last time.

And when that happens, the building's half-century of nuts and bolts will come to an end.

John Lenahan stands near a display of historical photos in his
store, Lenahan Hardware, in Tonganoxie's downtown business
district. Lenahan, who is 83, announced last week his plans to
retire this summer and close his store. The 100-year-old building
has housed a hardware store for the past 50 years.

John Lenahan stands near a display of historical photos in his store, Lenahan Hardware, in Tonganoxie's downtown business district. Lenahan, who is 83, announced last week his plans to retire this summer and close his store. The 100-year-old building has housed a hardware store for the past 50 years.

Lenahan, who turned 83 in January gave a wry grin when asked if he could remember his first customer. He said, chuckling, "I can hardly remember yesterday."

The lifelong Tonganoxie resident who has operated Lenahan Hardware, 515 E. Fourth St., for 35 years, is ready to close shop. His decision is based on old-fashioned business sense.

"When you get to the point that you're not physically able to do all that the business requires, it's time that you should make some kind of adjustment," Lenahan said.

The business, which John and Jean Lenahan bought from Carl and Elizabeth Oakson in 1971, has been a hardware store since 1956. Before that, it was the Royal Theatre. And before that, Lenahan said, the building that was built around 1900 served as a dry goods store.

On Monday, Lenahan's resolve to close became evident. He posted "20 percent off" signs on his windows. And he plans, by mid-summer, to leave the empty building behind.

However, he's not looking to spend his days in the rocking chair.

Lenahan's late wife, Jean, was an avid gardener. Not only did she establish attractive flower beds throughout Tonganoxie, she also doted on her own yard.

She died in 2001.

"I want to take care of Jean's flowers," Lenahan said of the flower beds at his home. "Try to shape up the yard."

And it's likely he'll have a book or two at his disposal to take up on rainy days.

"I like westerns that have some historical value," Lenahan said.

First-hand knowledge

Lenahan has long been known as a local historian. He's written two books about Tonganoxie, and the front of his shop contains hundreds of photos detailing Tonganoxie's early days.

"I've lived here all my life," Lenahan said. "I was born up there at 830 Eighth Street in the southwest bedroom," he said, chuckling, "of course I don't remember it."

Of the eight Lenahan children born in the house to Frank and Lucille Lenahan on Eighth Street, two remain, John and his brother, Bob.

There was a time though when John's future was uncertain.

At the age of 6, he was struck by a car -- a 1928 Ford Coupe -- on Pleasant Street.

"They didn't think I'd live," Lenahan said. "They took me up to Dr. Coe, and then to the St. John Hospital in Leavenworth where I was for about three months."

Lenahan recalled the nuns who prayed next to his bed "round the clock."

And, he recalled the celebration when he came out of a coma.

"I was unconscious for several days and all of a sudden I woke up," Lenahan said. "You can imagine the jubilation in the hospital because they all expected me to die."

As Lenahan talked last week, business along Fourth Street went on as usual.

Cars streamed up and down the street. A father and two sons came in to buy chain for a dog run. Another man came in to ask Lenahan if he'd gotten around to repairing his tiller.

Lenahan said that on most days, about six of his friends come down to his shop. They pass part of a morning sitting near the front window, where the sun warms the room. Nearby, Lenahan's "rodent control" sleeps curled up in the sun. The long-hair cat is a foggy gray with darker gray markings on her face. Katie, as she is called, lives in the store year round, Lenahan said. And, she gets to know the customers.

"She's got a lot of admirers," Lenahan said.

Necessary changes

Life hasn't been the same since his wife died.

"Boy I sure miss Jean," Lenahan said. "I've been kind of walking around in a daze ever since she died. I really don't have a desire to do a lot."

The couple were married 49 years. They have three children. Chip Lenahan lives in Illinois, Becky Borella lives in Missouri, and Angela Lenahan lives in Lawrence.

John and Jean met in Tonganoxie when he attended the alumni banquet. He had been out of the service for a few years, having served in World War II, and she was from out of town, visiting a girlfriend who lived here.

He took her to the Savoy Grill in Kansas City, Mo., for their first date.

In the years between the military service and buying the hardware store, Lenahan worked at Fort Leavenworth, and later at the Hercules Army Ammunition Plant in De Soto.

For the first 18 years he owned the store, the previous owner, Carl Oakson, continued to work there.

Lenahan described Oakson and his wife as "great people."

"Bless their souls, they're gone," Lenahan said. "I've seen so many go, my real old regular customers, all dead."

For a few nearly silent seconds, the fluorescent light hums, the cat gives a quiet meow. Lenahan leans back in his chair and closes his eyes.

The changes in his lifestyle, his retirement, all have been set in motion.

"I want to get out of here by the end of July, but that's nothing certain," Lenahan said. "I figure it will take about half that long to sell all the merchandise. I hope to do it sooner, but I don't think I will, people are not all that flush."

And, in the end, when he turns the key in the lock, Lenahan said, it is the people -- his customers -- that he will miss the most.

"I enjoy the people, talking to the people is probably the main thing and satisfying them and seeing the satisfied look on their faces," Lenahan said. "That's the job, that's why I've enjoyed this so much, kept it so long. I was going to sell out right after Jean died. But I decided she wouldn't have wanted it that way, so I stayed with it because it's my life."

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