Tom Kuempel shares memories of growing up in the hardware business

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Kuempel Hardware has served the community for more than a century. Tom Kuempel has recently sold the family business, but the hardware store's family name still remains in honor of the many years the anchor business has faithfully served the community. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

Longtime respected businessman Tom Kuempel was born on Feb. 4, 1939, to Jack and Hildegarde (Lake) Kuempel. 

"I grew up and out in Guttenberg," the 81-year-old jokingly replied.

There were nine children born into the Kuempel family. Tom told The Press, "Six of the children survived and three died in infancy. There were three girls, Clara Mae, Bernyce and Kathleen, she was the oldest, and three boys, Bob, Jim and I."

Tom attended St. Mary's School in Guttenberg. "I attended all twelve grades at St. Mary's. Sister Leonita Teeling was the principal pretty much the whole way through. I played basketball and girls. I was an average student," he said with a chuckle.

Kuempel and his brothers enjoyed playing in the backyard with Tonka trucks. "There was a section that is now street that used to be grass. We would take shovels and make paths and drive our trucks around. That ended when I started mowing the lawn," he smiled. 

Tom's wife, Helene, shared the unique history of the original Kuempel home now owned by Carol Smith. She said, "My grandmother, Lillian Anderegg, and my mother rented the home from the Kuempel family. Tom's folks, as well as Don and Helen Meder and Jim and Lou Kuempel, all lived in the home throughout the years. Tom and I lived there when we were first married." 

Tom added, "Part of the home is a log cabin. The bedroom ceiling was so low I had to stand in the living room and put my shirt on because I couldn't raise my hands over my head in the bedroom."  

Kuempel Hardware beginnings

In 1902 the Kuempel brothers, John and Edward, had a furniture factory and undertaking business in Clayton.  Tom recalled, "After two fires my grandfather and his brother said 'Enough!' At the turn of the century they moved to town and bought the hardware store from Minger and Kords." 

Kuempel Hardware at its current location has been in business for approximately 120 years. Tom noted, "My grandfather started the store in town before I was even a twinkle in my old man's eye. In 1920 my Uncle Al Lake came back from the service and grandpa said it's time for you two to get your feet wet." 

Jack Kuempel and Al Lake became business partners to create Kuempel and Lake Hardware. "Uncle Al was the bookkeeper. He didn't work the floor. He lived on the second floor of the building. The partnership lasted from 1920-1960," he remembered 

"My first job at the store was to tar the roofs. I probably started in about the eighth grade. I also delivered the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald beginning in the sixth grade and all through high school." He went on to say,  "One time I was delivering newspapers by Lakeside when I noticed one of the train cars had smoke coming out of it. I jumped on my bike and road down to the depot and warned them about the fire. They stopped the train and put out the hot box."

"When I graduated from high school I attended Loras College. On the weekends I would hitch a ride back to Guttenberg and work for my brother, Bob, in the plumbing business. I operated the backhoe. I wanted to become an accountant, but my mom thought I should have a four-year liberal arts education. I didn't last long in college," he said with a smile. 

Service years

"I was drafted in the Army during the Berlin Crisis. I went to Colorado for my basic training and was stationed in Fort Hood. The Cuban Crisis came to a head, and we were transported by troop train to Alabama where we trained for two weeks. They loaded us on LCM's and we went towards Cuba. We spent two weeks 30 miles off the Cuba Coast." He continued, "Then that cooled off and we headed back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. We trained another division for amphibian landings for another two weeks. We would run practice drills on small islands near Cuba. We eventually returned to Fort Hood for the remainder of my time in service. We trained our replacements at North Fort Hood. That was when Kennedy was shot. We worried we wouldn't be discharged."

Kuempel was released from service duty on Dec. 6. "Before I was out of the service my brother, Jim, and I bought Uncle Al out. Five years later we bought dad out. I started working at the store the same day I returned home. They had me wrapping Christmas presents," he recalled.

Tom and Helene

Tom brought to mind, "I met Helene at the bowling alley. It was located in the second story of the furniture store. She and Coralie Heller and Arlene (Kruse) Harbaugh, Andy Elsinger, John McGrane and I bowled together in mixed doubles. I was 25-years-old at the time. Helene was 23."

Helene chimed in, "None of us ladies wanted anything to do with our bowling team partners. We didn't want to pair off so we either sat all together in the back seat, or vice versa when it was our turn to drive when we traveled to different towns for bowling league."

The pair eventually fell in love. "We went for a boat ride, and he put his arm around me and that was it," she said with a smile.  

Kuempel commented, "In the summer my folks lived on the island. We had a boat and my father did a lot of fishing. My dad would get up in the morning, throw an egg in the coffee grounds, put it on the stove and go fishing. When he could smell the coffee he would grab a cup and go to work." 

He shared, "We didn't have indoor plumbing. We only had an outhouse, except for the last few years. In the flood of 1965 we raised everything off the floor three feet. The water rose quite a bit higher than that. When we went back after the water had receded, the only thing that was the original color was the ceiling and one throw pillow that was floating around. The rest of it was mud!” 

Tom recollected, “Dad and Doc Brandt went fishing one day. They were stopped by the game warden and  were caught without a fishing license. He let them go back to the house and retrieve them. He didn’t know my father could have easily stopped at the hardware store and purchased a license for Doc Brandt.” 

Kuempel fondly remembered, “We would spend all day Sunday water skiing on Bussey Lake.” 

Helene recalled, “I didn’t swim so Tom would beach me on a sandbar and take the kids, Diane, Paul, Marcia and Marc, and their friends water skiing.” 

Tom added, “I would burn up a couple of tanks of gas hauling those kids around. It was a lot of fun. Gas was pretty cheap back then.” 

Tom was a volunteer fireman four days short of 25 years and an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). He explained, “Dr. Downey started training the first ambulance technicians. We trained at stations set up at the municipal building. Owen Pufahl didn’t want any of his volunteer firemen to be EMT’s. He wanted the firemen to stay dedicated to the fire department only. I quit just shy of 25 years.” Helene added, “Dr. Downey was such a wonderful man and dedicated physician.” 

Kuempel True Value Hardware has served the community for many years. The Iowa Department of Economic Development honored it as a 2003 Century Business.

Kuempel has recently sold the family business. The hardware store’s family name still remains in honor of the many years the anchor business has faithfully served the community. 

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