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Zurgable Brothers
A Hardware Store Cut from the Past

Michael Hillman

O.K. I admit it, I always wanted to own a hardware store. Some of my earliest recollections involve walking through hardware stores, holding my father's hand and staring in awe at countless shiny marvels of every shape and size. It wasn't until my father retired from the Navy and settled in my mother's home town of Narberth, Pa, that I discovered Ricklin's Hardware, a store that has been my benchmark against which all hardware stores are measured.

Upon entering, I was always greeted by 'Lillian,' who had worked at Ricklin's "since hardware was invented." Half the fun of going to Ricklin's was finding out from Lillian what was happening in the town, as well as getting some tidbits on my mother's younger days (but I'll save those wild stories for later).

I couldn't begin to count the number of times I walked Ricklin's worn wooden aisles. It seemed every time I turned around I was in that store; of course, if I were a little bit more organized, I would have been there a lot less. Nevertheless, it seemed no matter what I needed, they always had it and when I needed it, they were always open. And if I didn't have enough money that was O.K.; I'd square up next time I came in.

Alas, all good things come to an end, especially when your parents are paying for it. That time came for me after college, when I was forced to join the real world and get a job, and my days of wandering Ricklen's aisles were behind me forever. Over the ensuing years, my career took me far from my roots, and just to save a buck, I found myself falling into the trap of shopping at 'big named' hardware monoliths. You know, the ones where the store personnel give you a nasty look if you ask for help, and God forbid you ask for advice or request a special order. Thoroughly callused by years of bad service, I had forgotten just how enjoyable a visit to a hardware store could be, until I walked into Zurgable Brothers for the first time.

I believe it was Mark Zurgable who greeted me with a "Hi, haven't seen you before. You new around here?" Upon hearing what farm we had bought, Mark started to rattle off the history of the farm, focusing of course on the hardware the store had supplied. Being devoid of any tools and supplies, as well as common farm sense, I quickly became a frequent weekend visitor to Zurgables. After the first few times, I was no longer embarrassed to grab one of the store's staff and solicit advice on the best approach to a project I was about to undertake or how to resolve a predicament I was in (like peeling fence paint!).

Zurgable Brothers, as its name implies, was founded in 1946 by three brothers: Henry, Maurice, and Roger. Born to Thomas and Virginia Ling Zurgable, the brothers and their two sisters, Margaret Zurgable Shard and Sister Amila Zurgable, were early pillars of the Emmitsburg community.

During World War II, Henry served on the home front, Maurice was a front line airplane mechanic in the Pacific theater, and Roger, upon graduating from Mount Saint Mary's, was commissioned and served also in the Pacific, aboard the destroyer USS Stack.

Roger I. Zurgable

Following the war, the brothers decided to go into business together. While today the name Zurgable Brothers is synonymous with hardware, to most Emmitsburg residents, this was not the case fifty years ago when the three brothers set up operation. Back then, Zurgable's was known for its furniture, toys, farm machinery, gas, feed, and seed. Hardware didn't enter the scene until 1953 and then it was just a side business.

Henry, the oldest brother, ran the 'Zurgable Brothers Home Furnishings' at the brothers' 'in town' shop. Mark Zurgable, the current flag bearer of the family trust, has lots of fond memories of his tutelage at his Uncle Henry's shop, "especially during Christmas time." Mark remembers spending months assembling toys for Christmas, "everything from doll houses to model airplanes, and when we were ready, the store would be filled from floor to ceiling with toys of every shape and size."

Unlike today's furniture shops, if the store didn't have what you wanted, the brother could arrange to have it made. Even with a long tradition of supplying superior quality furniture, the brothers found it increasingly difficult to compete with the large furniture specialty shops and, in 1968, closed its doors for the last time. Today the shop serves as the offices of Dr. Curley and Rickley's Plumbing. (If only Dr. Curley was a urologist ... what fun I could have had with that line.)

While the brothers were general parents in both stores, Maurice and Roger were responsible for running the 'out of town' store, which housed the farm machinery, gas, feed and seed business. The brothers were the local distributors for 'Oliver' farm equipment well into the 50's and sold Shell, and later Texaco, gas at pumps in front of the store until 1982. Customers entering the store in the early 50's would be greeted with sights of all sorts of farm equipment, stacks of feed and seed, bags of cement, and by 'Tiger,' the store's feline mascot.

"Back in those days, you had to have a cat to keep the mice away from the feed." According to Mark, "Tiger took it on as his personal responsibility to greet each and every customer, and God help you if you happened to sit down on the 'Liars’ Bench'...an extensive scratch was then expected." Up until the late eighty's, Zurgables' cats greeted their customers and, according to tradition, or according to Paul, lack of originality, all were called 'Tiger.'

In addition to selling farm equipment, Maurice and Roger also sold ice cream, soda, farm clothes, and candy. According to Elaine Ebaugh, proprietor of Hair’s Inn in Emmitsburg, the original store didn't even have a cash register: "Roger used to make change from his pocket."

Like most general stores of its time, Zurgable Brothers provided a bench for regulars to sit and converse. Soon, because of the nature of the conversations, it took on the name of the 'Liars Bench.' Unfortunately for you readers, when Mark began to tell some of the stories about the members of the Liars Bench, he stopped himself short with "well...you better not print that, his sister is still alive and she'll get pretty upset," or "nope, can't write that either, his son is a pretty good customer, and I don't want to get his dander up," or "Na, he's family, and my Aunt Margaret will give me what for if she reads that." So if you're interested in some Emmitsburg folklore that will never make it into print, you're going to have to ask Mark himself.

Pat Knowels (known as Dion to his friends) and Paul Kretz, however, were not as circumspect about their memories of the Liars Bench. According to both, the vote for most colorful customer was Bernard Shields. Being well advanced in years, Bernie moved rather slowly. "He lived across the street from the store, and you could see him leave his house; half an hour later he would still be on his way. Every time he came in, he would clear a spot on the shelves in front of the cash register, light his pipe, and start telling stories. One day, he got so engrossed in a story that he forgot that he had lit a match, until it started to burn his thumb, and because he was so slow, he was unable to flick it out. Apparently the staff went home early that day to change wet pants. When not burning his thumb, Bernie used to listen to the advice the store staff would provide customers. "More often then not," Paul said, "when we were done, Mr. Shields would blurt out that we were full of 'hog wash,' and then go into a diatribe over how they did it back in the days...before they invented nails!"

In the late 70's, Roger bought out his brothers, and became the sole proprietor of the hardware store. In 1977 Henry passed away, and in 1979, Mark and Jeff, who have worked for their uncles ever since they can remember, succeeded their uncles and became the new Zurgable Brothers. Mark and Jeff’s father, Roger, passed away shortly after relinquishing the helm to his sons. Maurice, the last of the original brothers, passed away last year.

Jeff and Mark both graduated from Mother Seaton School and St. Joseph’s High School. Jeff, like his father, also attended Mount Saint Mary's. Mark, unlike Jeff, opted for the world of adventure and joined the 'hippies.' According to Paul and Pat, in his younger days, Mark had the longest hair in Emmitsburg. Since that time, Mark has been trying to cover his tracks, to better position himself for a long-planned run against Dr. Carr for town mayor, by joining the Lions’ Club, the Sons of the American Legion, and the Borderline 4-Wheel Drive Club. (Rumor has it that Gary Kubala will be Mark's campaign manager.) Occasionally, however, Mark has relapses. According to Paul and Pat, when the store is empty (which is rare), Mark plays the air guitar to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Up until 1981, Zurgable Brothers was an independent hardware store. In 1981, in order to bring the "finest quality at the best prices to Emmitsburg," Mark and Jeff joined their store to the Trustworthy hardware store chain. In 1990, Jeff headed off to 'God's country,' which I always thought meant Emmitsburg, but Jeff, in an delusionary state, felt was West Virginia. However, before heading off, Jeff helped Mark commission a study by the Mount Saint Mary’s psychology staff to determine the optimum height at which to display candy to attract the attention of children between the ages of 3 and 6. The results of that study have been quite profitable to Mark and the school, and if you listen closely as Mark rings candy sales, you'll here him say "that's 40 cents for me, 5 for the governor, and 5 for the Mount."

While I've always dreamed of working in a hardware store, that can't be said about Paul, Pat, or Tony, the guys that really run the store, contrary to Mark's opinion. All admitted that they started to work at Zurgable’s because "they needed a job, and no one else would hire them." But over the years, all admitted that they would not trade the memories for anything. Other community members who took their turn helping customers include Stevie Kelly, Richard Worther, Chuck Copenhaner, and Steve Orndorff.

Paul, the stores' general manager, started working part-time at Zurgable’s when he was sixteen, full-time after high school. A life-long resident of Emmitsburg (part of the Topper clan), Paul is married to Debra Wivell (of the Wivell clan), a union which brought a cloud on the proud Wivell name since it was well known at the time that Jacob Topper, Paul's grandfather, was a beer bootlegger. Paul remembers members of the Liars’ Bench talking about heading over to his grandfather's springhouse to get some 'Spring Water.' When not keeping Mark and the rest of the staff in line, Paul can be found playing with his three children: Dawn, Cory, and Kayla.

While I enjoy all the staff at Zurgable, Paul is clearly Audrey's favorite, and Paul reciprocates by calling her every time I overspend my 'Zurgable allowance.' According to Paul, what he likes most about working at the store is helping people. "When guys come in with a list of what their wives need, I tell them what their wives want. When wives come in with lists of what their husbands want, I tell them what they really need." For Paul, the most enjoyable customers are those who haven't a clue about how to hold a hammer, but who have the desire to learn.

Pat, the 'hippie' of the store, is the only Zurgable employee who is not a life-long resident of Emmitsburg. Pat began his Zurgable sojourn on a part time basis in 1982, becoming full time in 1988. In between he had an 'interesting' tour of duty in the Navy, which, believe me, I could not begin to do justice in describing. I suggest for those interested in hearing a hilarious tale, descend on Zurgable’s late on a Saturday afternoon, (after Mark has left) and get Pat talking, but don't do it if you're in a hurry; the way Pat tells the story is almost as good as the story itself. When not keeping customers spellbound with his stories, or thinking up ways to annoy Mark, Pat spends his time with his Harley and his son Kyle.

Tony Orndorff, the 'new kid on the block,' started work at Zurgable’s only two years ago, but his connection with the store has also been life long. When he was a kid, his parents, in a clear case of mistaken judgement, used to use Pat as Tony's babysitter. In spite of Pat's best efforts, Tony turned out well; Paul, however, still has hopes to reform him. Tony refused to comment on his lack of dereliction for this story.

Today, I'm probably as close to a 'regular' customer as it comes, and according to Audrey, a natural candidate for the Liars’ Bench. Unlike days of old, however, I now make a list of what I need (a trick Audrey taught me) and with PJ, my trusty Jack Russell in tow, set off every Saturday morning to overspend my hardware allowance. What I find most appealing about shopping there is my ability to walk out of the store with lots of things and never have to take my wallet out.

A holdover from days gone by, Mark still allows his customers to purchase items on store credit (which worked out really well for me until Audrey insisted that our account be put in her name, and then put me on a budget). If not in a rush, I'll wait and jawbone while my purchases are written up. When in a hurry, I'll simply wave the product to Paul or Mark, who'll give me a nod, and I'm off. No waiting in lines, no hassle, no bill!. When I'm really in a crunch for time, I can send Stas, my Mount Saint Mary's rent-a-student, and because the Zurgable staff knows my purchasing history, can rest assured they'll get him what I need, no matter how poor my directions to him may be.

At out house, the phrase 'Ace Hardware quality' is meant as an insult. The physical quality of our farm is a testimony to the correctness of advice I've received from Mark's staff over the last few years, and the 'trustworthiness' of the hardware Mark sells. Like the Ricklin's of my youth, I always know that Zurgable will have what I want, and will be open when I want it. As proclaimed first in another local newspaper forty-four years ago, "The success of the Zurgable Brothers proves that conscientious service pays dividends and that there are no barriers to success when good fellowship and the Golden Rule is applied." This statement is just as accurate today as it was when it was first printed.

Read more articles by Michael Hillman

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