By Diane Euston
Photos courtesy Euston family
September 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of a hardware store legacy in South Kansas City. Countless people have relied upon the expertise of their managers, part-time employees and retirees. We’ve all been there- sauntering into one of their stores with a strange, broken unidentified screw that fell off of your latest home improvement project. Miraculously, these employees know exactly what drawer in a sea of drawers to look and replace those unusual pieces.
That’s the kind of customer service you get at a place like Euston Hardware.
It’s also personal for me, as the name of the hardware store is the reason some don’t pronounce my last name “Houston.” Euston Hardware was started by my great uncle, Ken – my granddad, Ernie’s younger brother. It’s where I can still go and get my monogrammed trash bags.
The history of Euston Hardware is the story of south Kansas City and the growth of the suburbs. For 50 years, this small business has been a part of our community.
The Euston’s and Walsh’s in Kansas City
The oldest of five children, Edward Ernest Euston (1889-1965) married Clara Doyle (1892-1985) and worked as a buyer in the grocery division of H.D. Lee Co. They had three children: Edward Ernest “Ernie” (b. 1915), Milton Kenneth “Ken” (b. 1917) and Mary Ellen (b. 1924).
In 1921, the family moved to their home at 5923 Locust in the heart of the Brookside neighborhood. For over 50 years, that home on Locust was the host of many cocktail hours, card games and holiday meals.
Mary Ann Walsh (b. 1921) was the oldest of three children born to Thomas Walsh (1890-1960) and Ruth Donigan (1893-1971). Her father, Tom, owned Walsh Construction, a successful company in Kansas City. After attending College of St. Teresa, she worked as a secretary and model for Nelly Don. “She was the perfect size 10 model, so she’d end up trying on the dresses,” youngest son, Kevin said. “We think she spent most of the money she made at Nelly Don buying the clothes she modeled.”
Marriage and the War
Ken and Mary Ann met through friends and began dating. Then, an event that shook the nation changed the plans of young men like Ken. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the war across the ocean into America’s backyard. Ken was bowling with some friends when the news hit the airwaves. Nine days later, Ken enlisted at Fort Leavenworth, Ks. as an Air Corps aviation cadet. My grandad, Ernie, enlisted and served in the Navy.
He had asked Mary Ann to marry him twice before, and she had turned him down because her mom allegedly thought it was too sudden. But, a third time was a charm, and 21-year-old Mary Ann Walsh walked down the aisle with 24-year-old M. Ken Euston in November 1942 at Annunciation Catholic Church.
In the first years of their marriage, Mary Ann followed Ken around the United States as he went through training for the Air Corps. In 1944, Ken was sent to Great Britain and Mary Ann went back to Kansas City. Their first son, Mike was born while he was away.
On June 6, 1944, Ken was one of the pilots who dropped 30 paratroopers into the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. This was the first operation that became known as D-Day. Ken made transport supply runs throughout Europe and returned home in late July 1945.
After the war, Ken and Mary Ann moved for a time to Kansas City, Ks. before moving to the Brookside neighborhood. Ken landed a job working as a salesman for a lumber company and later worked as a manufacturer’s rep. Mary Ann hung up her Nelly Don dresses and devoted her time to her family. The couple welcomed six boys in total: Mike, Jim, Dan, Tom, Gerry and Kevin.
Ken was often on the road for his sales job, leaving Mary Ann alone running a household of rambunctious boys. Ken’s travel schedule began to weigh on the family. And, sales jobs weren’t always the most stable.
Ken, much like many do-it-yourself men, always dreamed of opening his own hardware store. If he could pull it off, Ken thought, he wouldn’t have to travel as much and could spend more time with his family.
Euston Hardware at Watts Mill
Kansas City’s suburbs were moving south, and so were shopping centers. RanchMart had a hardware store, and McMahon Hardware ran stores in Prairie Village and in Red Bridge.
In 1971, the Kroh Brothers began developing a six-acre site at Watts Mill. At the southeast corner of 103rd and State Line, this new shopping center would cater to the new neighborhoods. Ken and Mary Ann decided to take the gamble and signed a lease on a 4,768 square foot space at 1201 W. 103rd St. in Watts Mill. This space today is Marco Polo’s and Jasper’s.
Other businesses slotted to fill Watts Mill were Berbiglia, Smaks, Carpet Tree, National Photo and Eddy’s Restaurant.
Euston Hardware featured “moss green walls with yellow accents” and opened on Mary Ann’s 50th birthday- September 29, 1971.
To be clear, Mary Ann was all in. Opening a hardware store was her dream, too.
It wouldn’t be easy, but with the help of their four youngest sons, Dan, Tom, Gerry and Kevin, they kept the doors open and catered to the neighborhood’s needs. Sons like Kevin would do homework in between customer visits and earn his tuition to Rockhurst through Euston Hardware labor. “We got paid a nickel an hour – and had a good discount,” Kevin recalled.
The couple worked every day inside that store to make it a success. On days when Mary Ann didn’t close the store, she would rush home and cook dinner for her family. If she needed to be at the store until close, she would prepare a Crock Pot meal in the back so everyone could eat.
There may have also been some happy hours in that back room, too.
The store was successful enough that in 1979, they opened a second store at 6955 Tomahawk in Prairie Village. A few years later, they opened a Euston Hardware in Brookside while they continued to run Watts Mill.
The Eustons were having difficulty with lease negotiations at Watts Mill, so when the McMahon family decided to close their hardware store at Red Bridge, the opportunity opened for Euston Hardware to move there. In 1984, Euston Hardware made its debut and fit in amongst stores such as Payless Grocery Store, Macy’s, Pinkie’s and Bruce Smith Drugs.
Frank the Tomato Man
It wasn’t too tough to find good help, as it seems to be the dream of many retirees to tinker around part-time among tools. Even my grandad Ernie left retirement to work with his brother at Euston Hardware.
Frank O’Brien (1917-2004) had owned his own construction company for years, and he was always someone who didn’t want to face a day without something to do. After he retired, Frank walked through the doors of Euston Hardware at Watts Mill wanting a little part time job to fill some time.
Frank didn’t love to stock shelves and fix pricing – he liked to fix problems and teaching employees young and old what he knew. Frank’s son, Tom, was glad to see him helping others. “While his hardware work added supplemental income and helped fill his days, tomatoes became his passion,” Tom said.
Oh, and Frank had a passion for tomatoes.
At his Red Bridge home, Frank grew 50 plants from seedlings and then built a garden complex with a water drip system and constant soil testing to make sure fertilization was perfect. In July, those juicy tomatoes made it into brown bags that he sold for around two dollars a piece on a card table outside Euston Hardware in Red Bridge. “What he charged barely covered his costs, so I’m pretty sure he did it for the rave reviews,” Tom laughed.
Regulars to the hardware store began to count on Frank to supply their summer tomatoes. It was employees like Frank that kept Euston Hardware going as big box stores started moving into town.
Out With the Old, In with the New
JC Nichols approached the Eustons about opening a large home center in 1985 at 83rd and Mission. At 24,000 square feet, it offered wallpaper, cabinets and design services. It took a long time, but the brothers opened this store together while still operating the other three stores. It was sold three years later.
Prairie Village thrived, continuing their kitchen design service managed by Kevin’s wife, Kathy and a rental service offering “tools, equipment, guest and party needs.” Employees such as Don Fisher filled retirement by filling customer’s needs at the store. “When old ladies would come in with their problems they couldn’t describe, Don would just go to their homes after work and fix it himself,” Kevin laughed.
Don Fisher was a favorite of employees, too. Even though he was retired military and a bit stern to the high school boys working in the store, those kids would come back years later asking, “Is Don here?”
In 1997, Ken passed away, leaving his wife, six boys and the stores in Red Bridge and Prairie Village.
But business had slowed at Red Bridge; the neighborhood was getting older, and the younger generation seemed to prefer the national chains.
In 1998, businesses such as Whisker Rivey’s (where I worked as a hostess and server at the time) shuttered their doors after 32 years in the neighborhood. So did my beloved Pinkie’s dime store. The shopping center was looking more like a ghost town when Euston Hardware decided to close their doors, too.
A year later, Waldo Hardware on 75th St. was purchased and turned into a Euston Hardware. It, along with Prairie Village, continued business.
The Euston family lost their oldest member in 2015 when Mary Ann passed away. Her matter-of-fact personality, infectious laugh and easygoing nature lives on in her six boys, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.
Back to Red Bridge
After decades of neglect, Red Bridge Shopping Center had a new lease on life when Lane4 Property Group, Inc., the company which revitalized Corinth Square, purchased the property in 2015. The hope, of course, was to draw new tenants to Red Bridge.
The Eustons saw an opportunity to bring Euston Hardware back there. They’d already purchased Packs Hardware store in Smithville, and when part of the old bowling alley went up for lease, they decided to take the gamble.
“We hoped customers would come, and they did,” Kathy said.
The new Euston Hardware opened in Red Bridge in 2017, and the customers came in droves. With their rental selection, outdoor garden center and friendly, knowledgeable employees, business thrived.
Kevin was surprised when a man walked into the Red Bridge store looking for him. “I took one look at him and knew his face,” Kevin recalled.
“You probably don’t remember me,” the man said.
Kevin reassured the man, now in his fifties, that he did recognize him. He had come into the Watts Mill store when he was a little boy with his father. The man held up a yard stick that had been a gift at the grand opening of Euston Hardware fifty years earlier.
“He teared up as he handed it to me and told me to keep it,” Kevin said.
That’s the thing about neighborhood hardware stores. They hold more than strange screws, nuts, bolts, paint and plumbing supplies. They hold a special place in the hearts of so many.
That’s why it was hard for the Eustons to sell three of their four of their stores this year. However, every employee was able to keep their jobs and the stores still hold the Euston name. A family-owned company has taken over, and the Eustons are now operating Euston Hardware in Waldo.
Shopping local is what has kept Euston Hardware’s doors open for 50 years, and their dedicated employees and customers keep small hardware stores afloat. They have a place in the market, just as Ken and Mary Ann Euston recognized when they took a risk in a new shopping center in south Kansas City.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantatrailer.blogspot.com