Memories of Ralph 1925-2007

by Connie Parkinson - photographs courtesy of Charity Connell

A whole lot of people knew Ralph Connell -- went to school with him, worked with him on committees or in his store, fished with him, knew him as officer in many organizations, or as a brother Mason or fellow Methodist, knew his wife Jean [Hamilton] and daughters Charity and Sarah. Some even knew his parents Nelle [Osborn] and Elzy Connell; bought a milk bucket, or seeds from the bin, or had keys made or glass cut to size, or pipe cut and threaded, or screen doors repaired at Ralph's famous store (Connell Hardware, oldest continuous business in The Burg, home of the Hot Stove League, whose newspaper story was syndicated throughout the United States). His Breakfast Buddies kidded him about not wanting to pay for his second cuppa coffee -- but Ralph respected money and knew when to spend and when not to. Ralph gave: his time, his attention, his awareness of history, his good sense in touchy situations, his genuine joy of living. He knew all his regular customers and many who were casual drop-ins. He knew his suppliers and his merchandise: exactly where it was, what to substitute if the substitute was better, when and where he'd get more if he was out when you needed it.

From age 23 until he died in it, his hardware store was a stable part of his life --- and the town's.

In 1997, when the hardware celebrated its 125th anniversary, Ralph threw a party there in the store, and had souvenir books printed to hand out. He wrote a lot of the book. Somewhat shortened, the words in quotes are Ralph’s.

"As soon as I was old enough to work, Dad had me dusting shelves and sweeping the floor in the store. I was always out to make a quick buck. One of the first things I did was pick blackberries. I got 10 cents a quart, and had no trouble selling them. In the mowing season I had four lawns for sure to mow every week. I could get three done in one day. The Methodist Church lawn would bring me 25₵, the other two 70₵. With my 95₵ I'd go to Garry Wiswell's Red & White Store and get me a quart of chocolate milk for a dime.

"I had a bank account from about the age of five. When my parents sold my baby things they put the money for me in the Pataskala Banking Company, where they had their account. After I was old enough to earn money, almost every week I'd give Elzy a dollar or two, and he'd deposit it in my account. When I was in the service, I sent home half my pay ("Twenty-One Dollars a Day Once a Month" -­ remember that song?) and Dad deposited that for me.

"We didn't always work. We did a lot of fishing. When I was a boy, Blacklick Creek was rated as one of the better bass streams in Ohio. We caught a lot of bass, rock bass, bluegills, and suckers at the mouth of French Run where it flowed into Blacklick Creek. Kenny ["Paddlefoot" or "Paddle"] Van Schoyck and I were Blacklick Creek fishing buddies. From there we went to Canada--Saskatchewan or Ontario-- or northern Minnesota, for many years. I went to one fishing camp for 50 years under the same man who managed it. He was in his nineties the last time I saw him.

"There were three good swimming holes. In two of them you could 'skinny dip.' These were High Banks, in Blacklick Creek just south of Livingston Avenue, and Five Rocks, about two blocks north of Main Street. There were five boulders in that hole. The third swimming hole, pretty close to Rose Hill Road and just south of Broad Street, required a bathing suit. 

"I also recall Tom Moky. His name was Looker ["Loker"], but we called it Moky. Tom lived in a shack by Blacklick Creek. He would offer us boys candy mints that he carried in his pockets. Mom told me not to eat anything he gave me because it was dirty. Of course, I ate them anyway.

"Dad had an old flatbed truck. Once a year he would put rails on it and haul a lot of the Methodist kids to Summerland Beach at Buckeye Lake for a picnic. Later he had a small 1929 Ford pickup truck. I have gone to Brice with him many times to get fencing, barbed wire, chicken feed, and other items from the Motz-Cook Grain Company [another long-lasting business].

"Another memory is of the watch repair business in our hardware. Rolla Graham had one corner set up in the back. Here he did his watch repair work for several years. He lived behind the Reynoldsburg Bank in a pretty little house that overlooked French Run.

"I had a black and tan hound dog named 'Spot,' who got to be a town legend. Then, there were no restrictions on letting a dog run loose. Spot would stay around the store during school days, sleeping near the potbellied stove. So all of our hardware customers got to know him. [Bryant] Mickey Slack had a filling station at the comer of Main and North Lancaster, diagonally across the street from the hardware. Mickey had a little white terrier. Some of the loafers would hold Spot until I'd get across the street on my bike, headed home. Then when the traffic was clear, they'd turn Spot loose. Of course, he would come tearing after me. Spot and the terrier would tangle, but that was short-lived. That was a ritual we went through many times.

"My dog was smarter than some people crossing the street. I've seen him go out to the curb and look both ways, and if there was a car coming, he'd go back and sit on the sidewalk. Pretty soon he would go out again, and if all was clear, across he would go. "As near as we could tell, he lived to be about 19 years old. I had him most of my growing-up days. When I came home from military   service, my folks still had him.

"Spot finally got crippled in the hind-quarters. One day some boys found him, stuck helpless in a hole down by French Run. They picked him up and carried him to the hardware store. Rather than see him get into a position like this again and not be found, I took him to our veterinarian, Dr. E.W. Porter, and had him put to sleep. We made a wood coffin and buried him in our back yard. "That is the story of Spot and his hardware days.

"When I graduated from Reynoldsburg High School in 1943, World War II was being fought, and high school graduates were at the ripe age for military service. I entered the US Coast Guard, took boot camp training at Curtis Bay, Maryland, then went to Hatteras Inlet on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There we were on shore patrol on horseback. One time I had ridden five miles from headquarters, and I dismounted. The horse turned right around and galloped back without me. It was a long walk back to base.

"The old saying is that you should never volunteer for anything while in service. But I had a chance to go to Hawaii, so off I went, cross-country by train to San Francisco. The president of the Union Pacific Railroad happened to be in his own private car going west, and he invited me and three other men to have dinner with him. That was pretty nice.

"In Oahu, our quarters were in a big civilian building two stories high and as long as an ocean liner. Our dormitory rooms were on the second floor, while on the main floor were a recreation hall, a mail room, a pool table, a writing room, and some offices. In the evening they showed movies.

"My job at first was supervising the loading of ammunition on ships to be sent to the fighting zones. Sometimes we would go to the ammunition depot at Pearl Harbor and "crib" the ammunition, which meant loading it on shelves in exact order following a list.

"Here again, after a few months I volunteered for another position, as maintenance man in our quarters. This position eventually gave me a lot of free time, after I had done my duties. After traveling around the island of Oahu, and swimming many times at the beach on Waikiki, near the famous Diamond Head, I was getting bored.

"I saw an ad in the paper, for a packer in the Theodore Davies Wholesale Grocery House in Honolulu. I worked there until V-J (Victory over Japan) Day. Soon after that I was on my way home, through the Panama Canal to New York. There I got my Honorable Discharge and a train ticket back to Columbus.

"After I got home, I enrolled in business school. Then in 1948 my dad died. I was 23 and hadn't finished school, and I wondered if I was ready yet, but I thought I'd try managing the hardware store. I suppose I made a few mistakes I don't remember, but one mistake I didn't make was to move to Reynoldsburg Center, when that shopping center was being built. I was approached, and good business was practically guaranteed-- but the rent was $1000 a month plus a percentage of my gross income. Then a man Dad and I had known for a long time, S. L. Hall, owner of Smith Brothers Hardware [wholesale], talked me into staying where I was. He gave me good sound advice, and I've always been grateful for it. 

"One of the major changes in this business has been from bulk to blister packaging. If you want two screws, you don't want to buy a package of nine. And as one customer pointed out, I can give you the right screws on the first try. I handle everything in bulk that I can, but for some things, like turpentine and spray products, people have to buy container and all.

"The Columbus Dispatch delivery man would throw the bundles of papers in front of our store. There the paperboys would fold them and get ready to run their routes. All went well in good weather. However, in winter, or on rainy afternoons, I'd let them come into the front of the store to do their work. You know boys are bound to get rowdy, but I could generally settle them down. A few times in the winter I'd have to run the whole bunch out. After an afternoon or two in the cold I'd let them back in. I'm glad I wasn't too hard on them, because most of them grew up to become our loyal customers."

Ralph never lost his sense of fun. A Little Weekly reporter (probably the inimitable Doral Chenoweth), learning that as a boy Ralph had walked the handrail of the footbridge across French Run, persuaded 38-year-old Ralph to do it again.

Connell Hardware was begun in 1872, when Ralph’s grandfather Ezra Samuel Osborn at age 23 established E. S. Osborn, a tin shop where he made spouting, funnels, buckets, cups, lunch pails and more, and repaired household utensils that had sprung a leak. He made seamed metal roofing on the job. Ezra was a big man, nice-looking, and well liked -- and served as mayor for several years. His sons Howard, Claude, and Walter entered the tinning business and branched out to carry hardware, heating stoves and cookstoves, pumps, horse harness and collars, and farm implements. After Ezra died in 1908, the brothers moved the store's location twice. Howard became founder/ president of the Reynoldsburg Bank. Walter earned a substantial $300 monthly as production manager for Ralston Steel Car Company. Claude, at age 29, was The Burg's youngest mayor; he later worked in the Columbus Post Office and, like Ezra, wrote poetry. Nelle was their sister. 

In 1922, 50 years after establishment of the tin shop, Nelle and her husband, Elzy Connell, took over the business. It went against tradition for a lady to even enter a hardware store, but everybody knew Nelle, so that made it all right.

On Saturdays everybody came to town to do business, visit, get a haircut or play cards at the Masonic Hall -- and wound up at the Connell home, which was connected to the store, enjoying food they had brought, as well as one another's company. When Ralph was still little enough to want his baby bottle, he hid it behind his back so nobody would see it and tease him. He was told that as babies he and Jean played together, but neither one remembered doing so.

In 1934 Nelle and Elzy moved to Mason Hall, and the hardware never was moved again.

"Mason Hall," built in 1883, using brick from the local Dysart & Henderlick "tile mill," is probably the oldest business building in The Burg. Several kinds of merchants have had their quarters on the ground floor: two or three general stores, a bank, a Christian bookstore and Western Union office, an art school, grocery stores, a post office, a bakery, the local Chamber of Commerce. On the second  floor (and up 16 stairs but in constant use anyway), "Mason’s Opera House" sheltered dances, high  school graduations, minstrel shows, Chautauqua shows, Lyceum courses, debates, basketball games, a duckpin bowling alley, a teen center, offices, shuffleboard courts, a furniture storage warehouse, and for 18 years at $1 a year, the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society's first Museum.  Nathaniel N. Mason probably did not expect his building to last 136 years constantly in use.

Refurbished, "The Mason Block" is now occupied by Vick's Pizza, another long-term business.

Other stories about Ralph: A local boy, later a businessman himself, stole a can of airplane paint from Connell Hardware. Discovering it, the boy's mother marched the boy back to the store. The boy admitted his theft to Ralph, who said to the mother, "I know it's up front and a temptation to kids." Then, instead of taking back the paint and bawling out the boy, he said, "Well, you've already got the paint. Why don't you pay me for it on payments?" They worked out a plan. The boy got to keep the paint, he made his payments over several weeks, and got a lesson he remembered.

Another little boy was in the store with his father, and he took some nails out of the open bins. In another instance of old-time honesty, the father found out and took the boy back to the store. Ralph told the boy to return the nails to the bin. Then he said, "Some other time when you're in here, if you want a few nails, ask me for them, and I'll give you some."

Ralph and [Owen) Buck Adams had a sort-of barter agreement. Buck bought his hardware at Connell; Ralph's family liked Dairy Queen treats. Both kept track, but nobody paid until settling-up time. Then, whoever owed the most grouched and grumbled and paid the difference. So each one got something "free." The arrangement went on and on.

Ralph went to the store early one morning as usual, and sat down in a chair. When he did not show up for breakfast with the guys, Dick Barth called Jean, who then called the emergency squad. Sitting alone in one of his favorite places, Ralph had gone ahead without us. He was 82 years 3 days old.

For several years afterward, George "Cody" Lemaster operated the store, with the help of Willard Carl. Cody became ill and died in May, 2013. Carl took over temporarily; but the store closed in August 2013. The contents were auctioned in September 2013. Under only two names, Connell Hardware had been in business 141 years. Ralph had worked in it six long days a week (even went down and opened up on Sunday if you told him you had to have something), drove to Columbus and Brice for supplies, dealt with wholesalers, customers, and loafers by the stove, rang up sales on a tall old cash register (actually, two) whose drawer popped out and went ding! with every sale, organized, swept out, and for 59 years did everything you have to do to manage a business. And a large elderly building.

"I like the work, Ralph said. "This is the only job I ever had after military service. I would hardly know how to retire.”

Editor’s Note: I was a Sweet Adeline for 35+ years. Thanks to Ralph Connell, I usually ranked number one in ticket sales for our annual show. He always bought an advertisement for $25.00, then I would give him two free tickets to the show. In exchange, he would go to the Senior Center and sell enough tickets (at a senior discount) to bring two or three busloads of patrons to the Ohio Theatre. Whenever I came in the hardware store, he would tell all the guys, “Mary sang ‘Bill Bailey’ at the Ohio Theatre all by herself!” The next time I sing Bill Bailey, Ralph it will be for you … ~Mary Turner Stoots