Clallam County Historical Society (3) The “Hardware Dress,” as worn by R.D. Willson’s daughter, Mary, in an advertisement for the Port Angeles store. At right, Janice Noonan re-created the “Hardware Dress” recently for the Clallam County Historical Society.

BACK WHEN: Few share memories of the ‘Hardware Dress’

THREE PEOPLE RESPONDED to the January “Photo from the Past,” which was the Hardware Dress, made to advertise Willson Hardware.

R.D. Willson established Willson Hardware in 1896 in a little building on Front Street. (Reflections in the windows of old photos indicate it was on the north side of the street.)

Paulette Willson said she found a photo showing a small door with a Willson Hardware sign.

The label on the back of the photo said, “Laurel Street entrance and Aldwell Building.”

This was a second location he probably used for a short time while his First Street building was being constructed.

In 1910, Willson built the first poured concrete building in Port Angeles. The new building was at 109 W. First St. (later 111), between Laurel and Oak streets.

In the early days, Montgomery Ward was west of Willson Hardware, and Palace Bakery was to the east.

In 1965, Knudson & Green was listed as occupants of the Montgomery Wards’ building (113-115 W. First).

Smart Shoppe and the Yardstick were next and Coast to Coast, Weisfields (121 W. First), Singer Sewing Center (121½ W. First), Peninsula Bible Store (125 W. First), Thrifty 88 Center (129 W. First), Rasco Diamond Store (135 W. First), Port Angeles Auto Shop and First Federal Savings and Loan (139 W. First) on the west corner.

Also in 1965, Widsteens (101 W. First) was on the east corner with Mode O Day (103 W. First) to the west. Willi-Lou’s Inc. (105-107 W. First) was next to Willsons on the east.

R.D. Willson was born in 1858 in Pennsylvania. His wife was Lillie D. Harrison. His son, John W., was married to Pearl Stakemiller, whose mother, Mary Stakemiller, was a member — and last known survivor at the time of her death — of the original Puget Sound Cooperative Colony.

Pearl was born here in Port Angeles, as were John’s and her children.

In 1913, his son, John W. Willson, and friend Ed Short joined the business.

Later in the 1930s, Frank Rhebeck worked with the store for several years before he left to start his own Sporting Goods Store.

Fire in basement

An article in the 1937 Port Angeles Evening News told of a fire in the basement of the hardware store that started when a match was lit:

“The Fire Chief Clay Wolverton said a clerk ignited a match while he was drawing creosote from a barrel into a smaller container.

“The match flame caused an explosion of fumes.

“Although the clerk was uninjured and fled to safety, the fire quickly spread to barrels of creosote, linseed oil, turpentine, alcohol and other flammables stored beneath the hardware store.

“Flames spread to a freight elevator shaft leading to the street-level storage.”

The fire caused at least $10,000 in damages.

Charles Willson joined the firm in 1938.

When World War II started, Leslie Rodda, with assistance from Charles’s sister, Marie Willson Read, managed the store while the Willsons served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

After the war ended, Rodda became a partner and stayed with the firm until his retirement in 1958.

John H. Willson Jr. came into the business and became manager in 1964 when Charles Willson left to go into Port Angeles Savings and Loan.

Eleanor Schmitt Tschimperle remembered Leslie Rodda’s good attitude and willingness to help when she got married in 1939.

Rodda took care of all her dishes, both plain and good, and all her silverware needs. He also started a list of what she could use so her friends could choose their gifts to her.

Hannah Singhose wrote, “On a chilly Eden Valley day, remembrances of Willson’s Hardware. All of our family remembers the well-stocked shelves and knowledgeable clerks at Willson’s Hardware. We were close to the family because their son, John (‘Bud’) was in the Coast Guard in WWII with my brother, Charlie. Mrs. Pearl Willson was very gracious and invited us into their home for visits. I will always remember the Christmas that she gave us gifts including those delicious Frango mints from Seattle’s Frederick & Nelson.”

In 1966, Cliff Swain purchased the building and closed the business soon after. The Port Angeles Directory of 1969 lists the building as vacant and in 1970 lists Mr. Lee’s Beauty School as occupant.

Paulette Willson, daughter of the late Charles Willson, wrote that R.D. Willson was her great-grandfather, and he had established the hardware store in 1896.

She said, “I am guessing the young woman — in what we fondly refer to as the hardware dress — was his daughter Mary, although I don’t know for sure. The original store was on Front Street but was moved to First Street in 1910. Clearly the man had a great sense of humor and marketing. Note that the banner is hanging on a hoe.”

(After viewing a family photograph, it is evident that Mary is wearing the “hardware dress”).

Janice Noonan created a dress patterned after the “hardware dress” that is featured in this article next to the original dress photo.

You will notice Noonan did an exceptional job. When she was asked why she went to all this work, she replied, “It was a challenge.”

The Clallam County Historical Society had a photo of the original hardware dress in their collection, and when Kathy Estes and others were looking at the photo, the comment was made that: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could re-create this dress for our exhibits?”

At that point, Noonan was asked if she could do it, and she said she would be happy to try.

Another of the volunteers offered to take Noonan to her husband’s garage, where he had drawers full of little metal tools, all in order. He let her help herself.

Noonan fastened the little tools to the dress with industrial Velcro, but all the pieces fell off, so she redid it using a powerful glue she had purchased at the fabric store.

The dress now hangs out at the Clallam County Historical Society’s archives at their Lincoln School location.

It is thanks to our pioneers who built their businesses that this town has grown and flourished.

They were talented and used materials they had at hand to create their advertising and whatever else they needed.


Alice Alexander is a Clallam County historian, author, and a descendent of an Elwha Valley pioneer family. She is a recipient of a 2014 Clallam County Heritage Awards. She can be reached at [email protected].

Alice’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month, alternating with Linnea Patrick’s Jefferson County history column on the third Sunday of the month.

Willson Hardware Co. as seen in the 1930s.

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