Anchor on Main Street: Remembering Mochel’s Hardware

Mertz-and-Mochel

By Maureen Callahan

Sometimes, a community business becomes like a town’s anchor. For 111 years, that place was Mochel’s Hardware on Main St. Charles Mochel and business partner Levi Mertz initially opened the store as Mertz & Mochel in 1884. The pair quickly earned the trust of customers in need of hardware for home repairs or projects. In addition to quality merchandise, they also got the reliable, sound advice needed to complete the work.

Charles Mochel, grandfather of John Mochel Jr.

From ice for their kitchen iceboxes to coal for their basement furnaces, they found it at Mochel’s. Screws and nails, individually sold, came in a plethora of sizes. As time passed, keys were cut, paint was mixed, and gardening and holiday items were added to front window displays. Mertz was gone by 1922, and the name changed to Charles Mochel & Son.

97-year-old Downers Grove resident and third-generation business owner John W. Mochel, Jr. recently reflected on his career in the business started by his grandfather well over a century ago. “I started working there alongside my grandfather when I was ten,” said Mochel. “He could tell you what was in every drawer and cabinet with his eyes closed.”

John W. Mochel Jr. was born on May 4, 1926. He grew up across from Randall Park as the only child of John Sr. and Ollun Anderson Mochel. Mochel attended Whittier School, and later Downers Grove High School (now Lincoln Center). He graduated from Denison College in Ohio. Later, he saw much of the south pacific while serving in the Navy.

Soon after his tour, he returned to Downers Grove and married Doris Mae Hawk, a schoolmate from when he was growing up.

Mochel went to work with his father and grandfather. “I never applied for any other job in my life. My job, from day one, was the store.” By this time, Mochel’s father had doubled the original size of the store. The family prospered, eventually having a son and three daughters while living in their Denburn Woods home.

“The store was like our second home,” said oldest daughter, Leslie Mochel Rueckert. “There was a breakroom in the basement with a sort of kitchen. My dad often napped on a lawn chair down there,” she said as she laughed. “Their employees were like another family.” New hires went through a fun-loving initiation to feel part of the gang. They celebrated everyone’s birthday and attended each other’s weddings and christenings.

“Everyone who worked there felt they belonged,” said Leslie. Old-fashioned company picnics were memorable. “Kids had burlap sack races and played in the creek while the adults played cards. Everyone brought a dish to share,” she remembered, smiling.

Mochel’s was there for its neighbors, too. Like the time a fire broke out in the basement of the business next to the hardware store in the early morning hours a few days before Christmas. Before long, it had spread to the bank. The firefighters used the break room on the lower level of the hardware store as a check-in point as they took turns fighting the flames in the bitter cold. While Doris Mae kept the hot coffee coming, the Mochel kids helped unbutton the firefighters’slickers as they came in briefly to warm up. “Their fingers were frozen,” said Linda Mochel Paulsen.

Work always came first to this family. “My parents never closed the store for commitments like weddings or funerals,” Linda stressed. The exceptions were the few times John and Doris Mae went on vacation. “I remember my dad leaving me in charge of the store at 15 or 16 years old,” Leslie recalled with a chuckle. “He counted on me to run the store and make the decisions and bank deposits in his place – nobody would do that today.”

“Mochie’s,” as the children called it, was a family affair in which all four children worked. John empowered his children. “It was just ‘here it is, learn it, you need to know it,” said Linda. “He trusted us to get the right color when mixing paint the old-fashioned way when you followed a recipe to get a certain color or to cut a key accurately.”

Of all the things entrusted to them, fire department calls were the most serious. For many decades, the Downers Grove Fire Department was largely a voluntary organization. During that time, fire emergency calls came through the store. “We knew when the phone rang in one long, continuous ring to pick it up and just listen,” said Linda, “because on the other end was someone calling to report a fire somewhere in town. We knew to say nothing, take down the address, hang up, and call Chief Frank Wander right away. I think back on that responsibility as a 12-year-old, and I still can’t believe it.”

But it wasn’t always business. “The holidays were fun at the store,” Linda remembered. The Main Street business district closed early on Christmas Eve for company parties. Employees bounced up and down between storefronts, bringing holiday cheer to neighbors.

“My parents would share drinks with other store owners, and some regular customers even came by for the odd Tom & Jerry,” said Linda. “Once, when I was about 14, Leslie and I snuck away on an ‘errand.’ We went to several stores, having drinks at each one. My dad was fuming when we got back,” she recalled as she laughed.

Leslie will never forget the echo in the empty store the day her father pulled the door shut behind them for the last time. “I’m glad I was there for it,” she said. “My mom, dad, and I just hugged each other and cried.”

A historical marker written by Linda in honor of the store’s one-hundredth anniversary is all that remains of Mochel’s Hardware at 5122 Main St. But the lingering smell of sawdust and the ring of the cash register remains in the memories of generations of Downers Grovers.

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