In 1994, a conglomerate purchased our local phone company. Shortly thereafter, a customer relations drone called, asking me to rate their service. After only 72 hours as their customer, I countered that it was probably premature to form an opinion. But then I asked, “Well okay, if I were running late coming in to the office to pay my bill, and called and asked you to stay open, would you?”
“No, that’s against our policy,” was the answer.
Then I asked, “Okay, if I managed to get there on time and found I was a dollar short, would you trust me till Saturday?”
“No, we couldn’t do that either.”
Exasperated, I remarked, “Well, Mister, if you won’t stay open a few extra minutes, and you won’t trust me till Saturday, then I guess your customer service stinks, because they do that stuff at the Cato Hardware already, and they don’t waste their customer’s time on stupid surveys either!” That was 16 years ago, and mercifully, those yo-yos have never called back to ask me anything. Yep, give me the Cato Hardware any day.
Now, if your idea of a hardware store is some home improvement mega-mart staffed by personnel who wouldn’t know a #000 offset Philips from a crowbar, then an old-style, stand-alone country hardware store isn’t going to be your mug of Swiss latte. On the other hand, if your idea of a hardware store is a place with wooden floors and bins of loose nails, then maybe you’re in luck. For in Cato, there is just such a place – a retail dinosaur in a world of prepackaged wood screws.
And one guy, Johnny Bramble, runs the whole shebang. For the record, I’ve traded at the Cato Hardware for over 20 years and count Johnny Bramble as a friend, but during your first visit, I wouldn’t call him “Johnny” – that’s for us regulars. Newcomers should simply call him Mr. Bramble. But rest assured, whatever you call him, you’ll be standing in a real hardware store – where quality still predominates. “We stock as many U.S.-manufactured items as possible and try to avoid anything from China. Generally, the stuff is so poorly made, that it’s not worth the bother,” said Johnny, continuing, “We used to carry Chinese-made deck screws, but nearly 50 percent of them would snap in two when you drove them. We told our supplier that if he wanted to keep our business, he’d better start bringing us better merchandise.”
From hotel to hardware
In 1960, when he was six years old, Johnny’s parents, Richard and Marion Bramble, moved to Cato and purchased the store. After graduating from Cato-Meridian High School in 1971, John spent the next four years attending the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Upon graduation in 1975, he embarked on a career in the hospitality industry as both a caterer and hotelier. But, he told me, he grew tired of 75-hour workweeks, and in 1990 returned to help his mother and father run the family business explaining, “Putting in only 60 hours a week sounded easy.” That was 20-plus years ago, and he’s been at it ever since.
The cut marks
When you step inside and make your way to the counter, you may notice a series of cuts in the floor. They’re spaced one foot apart. If a customer buys rope or chain, Johnny measures it out right there. Funny thing – every year, an inspector from Weights and Measures drops by, checks the cuts and re-measures the floor, just to be certain Mr. Bramble hasn’t tampered with them. Yeah, like after 50 years, the Cato Hardware is all of a sudden going to start cheating people – absurd!
The inventory maven
In 1998, during the height of the sailboat racing season, one of my crew was badly cut by the exposed end of a bolt. Wishing to avoid a reprise of this mishap, I realized I needed cap nuts on every exposed bolt end in the cockpit, so I made a hasty visit to the Cato Hardware. I asked if they carried stainless cap nuts, and Johnny assured me that he did. “How many do you need?” he asked.
“Six,” was my reply.
To which Johnny said, “I think I’ve got seven.” And sure enough, the hardware did have seven. Somewhat amazed, I asked Johnny how many individual items the store carried, and what PC-based software they used to keep track of the inventory. He replied, “We don’t have a PC, I keep track of everything in my head.” (So much for modern technology!)
What makes this even more impressive is that by his own reckoning, the store’s inventory numbers some 50,000 separate items. And, despite the somewhat unorganized appearance of the place, Johnny knows precisely where everything is, the lack of a computerized inventory system notwithstanding. After a fashion, the Cato Hardware seems to eschew high-tech devices altogether, as their rotary phone and antique cash register bear testament.
On the counter, right next to the nail scale, is a brass and oak monster, a 1910 Class 900 National Cash Register. It’s completely operational and in pristine condition. In fact, Johnny even has the original operator’s manual! However, unlike modern models, the cash drawer contains six separate coin compartments, because when it was built, silver dollars and half-dollars were still widely circulated. The small marble slab, mounted below the register keys, was used to test for counterfeit coins. During the early part of the twentieth century, coin counterfeiting was rampant, but if dropped on that marble slab, only silver-content coins would produce their characteristic ringing sound – pretty clever if you ask me. That marble slab contributes a few more pounds of weight to the machine, which is already quite heavy.
It takes two strong men to even lift, much less carry the thing, said Johnny. It’s decidedly old fashioned, much like the 1920s building the hardware is housed in, as well as Johnny’s general attitude about customer service in a small town business. And, it’s not the only antique in the place either.
Lining the shelves atop the counters and displayed on the wall space above is an incredible collection of antique tools and memorabilia. Old-style wrenches, hand augers, whiskey barrels, ice tongs – and stuff I don’t even know the names of – fill the place. One of the hardware’s most prized possessions is an original Dutton “Easy Draft” plow.
According to a history of the town published in 1879, E.Q. Dutton began manufacturing plows in Cato around 1875. Johnny noted, “We used to take the plow down and put it in the front window to mark the beginning of spring planting, but we stopped. As we got older, it seemed to be getting heavier.”
Other oddities include an antique all-glass chicken waterer, ice harvesting saws, a wooden wheelbarrow, drawknives, a wooden butter churn and a polished wooden wheel hub fashioned from American chestnut, which, as the chestnut blight arrived in America around 1920, is at least 90 years old. In addition to his extensive knowledge of local history, Johnny is an avid collector of such items, and where better to display them than in the hardware where he can enjoy them six days a week? Another curiosity is an original Columbia Rope measuring meter. It was used to measure lengths of manila rope (hemp), which Columbia no longer manufacturers in the U.S. Johnny says it’s one of only a handful of intact units left in existence.
As I walked around the store snapping photos, Johnny called out, “Hey Rich, wanna blow something up?” With that, I turned and gazed at perhaps the most unique antique in the establishment – a DuPont Blasting Machine, sometimes referred to as a “dynamite plunger.” Long ago, when farmers still blasted their own stumps and explosives weren’t tightly regulated, the hardware sold both dynamite and the means to make it go “Kaboom!” The unit, a DuPont Model 20, dates from the 1920s, and the plunger and internal magneto still work. I think of the device as the ultimate “boom box.”
Where the heck is Cato?
Carved from the northern reaches of the Town of Aurelius, Cato was founded in 1802 as a military township, on a segment of the original Revolutionary Tracts. At that time, it became the northernmost town in Cayuga County. Eventually, the towns of Sterling, Ira, Victory and Conquest were carved from its original boundaries. So it is perhaps ironic that the Cato Hardware isn’t in the Town of Cato at all. You see, the centerline of Route 370W is the dividing line between the towns of Cato and Ira. So while approximately half the Village of Cato is in Cato, the rest of the village, including the hardware, is in Ira. And for those of you who weren’t aware, Cato takes its name from the Roman Senator “Cato the Elder” who gained oratory fame for concluding every speech with the same three words, Cartago delenda est – Carthage must be destroyed.
On July 17, the Civic Heritage Historical Association, comprised of the historical societies of Cato, Ira, Victory and Conquest, dedicated their new combined museum and archive. In conjunction with that event, Johnny Bramble threw a one-hundredth-birthday party for his cash register, and a whole bunch of folks came to celebrate.
The Cato Hardware is located almost smack-dab in the center of the Village of Cato, near the crossroads of NY Rte 34N and Rte 370W. It’s open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. If you need directions, call 315-626-6577. It’s not far away, but when you step inside, it is long ago.
by Rich Finzer