From the days of horse-drawn carriages to the advent and evolution of automobiles, Steinbaugh’s Hardware supplied products and knowledge to generations of Louisville residents.

Steinbaugh roots keep Louisville strong.

Louisville and Steinbaugh. Steinbaugh and Louisville.

The story of one can’t be told without the other.

By Steven Wilke

As Tom Steinbaugh tells it, the intertwining of a small mining town with his family’s history began in 1892 when his great-grandfather, John Jacob Steinbaugh, moved from Iowa to Louisville and bought a small blacksmith shop on Front Street. J.J. Steinbaugh wasted no time drumming up local customers, making picks and other tools for the miners who worked in the network of nearby mines called the Northern Coalfield. His shop expanded to provide horseshoes, wagons, wagon repair, farm implements and anything else people needed to survive in those days. Around 1904 Steinbaugh started stocking hardware and lumber, which then diversified to pipe, roofing, flooring, furniture, and appliances large and small.

From the days of horse-drawn carriages to the advent and evolution of automobiles, Steinbaugh’s Hardware developed a reputation for supplying the products and knowledge to build and furnish a house from the foundation up, helping Louisville residents transition from a mining collective to a suburban town.

“Your handshake was your contract,” Tom says, adding that his great-grandpa often waited until projects were finished to start collecting payments.

“They helped out a lot of people by extending lines of credit,” says Bridget Bacon, a Louisville resident since 1994 and the coordinator of the Louisville Museum and Historical Society since 2004. “So many people have told me the Steinbaughs helped them and their family members get going as young adults.”

J.J.’s son, Herman, inherited the hardware store, and eventually Herman’s sons Herb, John, Jim and Glenn also ran the business, which expanded through the decades, moved along Front Street and underwent minor name changes.

40 Whacks

Tom’s hardware roots started young, and like the generation before him he was born into the business. He played on the shop’s old wood floors or in the basement among furniture at various stages of completion. “The ranchers and farmers knew who you were when you were running around growing up,” Tom says. If he got into trouble on the north side of town, his mom would already know about it by the time he walked home to the south side of town.

“If the kids were getting out of hand, the grandmas would all come out and give them a whack,” he remembers, “and when you got home you got a whack for getting a whack!”

Christmastime scene at Steinbaugh’s 501 Front St. location, circa 1984.
Christmastime scene at Steinbaugh’s 501 Front St. location, circa 1984.

Tom’s father, Glenn, bought the hardware store from his three brothers in 1967, and Tom worked there part time through high school and college, doing tasks like separating nuts and bolts and assembling wheelbarrows. He left Louisville in 1970 for a stint in the Air Force and came back two years later as a member of the Air Force Reserve to join his dad at Steinbaugh’s Hardware. He joined the Louisville Volunteer Fire Department with his dad and uncles in in the fall of ’74, and a fateful evening not two weeks later gave him his first trial by fire.

When Tom received the phone call saying the store was on fire, all he had to do was look out the window of his house to confirm the orange flames down the street. He and his relatives rushed to the uncontrollable blaze that burned his family’s business to the ground. The Steinbaughs picked up the pieces and moved a block over to Main Street, into a historic building that had formerly housed a mercantile,
a grocery store and a carpet outlet in turn. In addition to products, they provided services from cutting shades and threading pipes to repairing screens and windows—and giving advice, of course.

“It felt like an old hardware store from a long time ago, with people there to help,” Bacon says. “It wasn’t just a physical presence, but the helpfulness and friendliness that made it seem like it was from another time.”

Tom remembers some great customers, especially the farmers that continued to support him through the years. “Some of the stories and lessons that they taught you on common sense—if you just listened, you learned a lot,” he says. “It’s where I learned a lot of my so-called ‘knowledge.’”

‘Louisville Is About Family’

When the big-box stores moved into town, transactions slowed at Steinbaugh’s, and it closed its doors for good in 1997, after
105 years and four generations in business.

“It was just shocking—it seemed like such an establishment on Main Street,” Bacon says, adding that in the days that followed, the Louisville Times ran a two-page spread from town residents saying their farewells, wishing the family good luck and expressing gratitude for all the years of service.  “We thought, ‘What is downtown Louisville going to be like without them?’”

Glenn Steinbaugh retired, but Tom stayed in the independent hardware scene, taking his experience to McGuckin Hardware in Boulder, where he has worked as a store manager for the past 18 years.

He recently visited the Louisville History Museum to see an exhibit that Louisville native Richard “Dick” DelPizzo has been working on since Steinbaugh’s Hardware closed—a 6-by-6-foot replica of how old Louisville looked from 1895 to 1920. The miniature Front Street is complete with a miniature Steinbaugh’s Hardware.

Louisville has plenty of other reminders of the Steinbaugh legacy, like the Steinbaugh Pavilion on Front Street, which hosts the popular Downtown Louisville Street Faires in the summer, or the Bellavista subdivision on the south end of town, where many streets are named after Tom’s aunts. Tom lives in Thornton now, but his mother, aunt and sister still reside in Louisville, all on the same street.

“Working at the museum, I’ve come to realize that so much in Louisville is about family,” Bacon says. “And the Steinbaughs really represent that idea for me.”

Steven Wilke is a Boulder freelance writer who likes homebrews and messing around in the garden.