Old Downtown West Plains Store Spans Four Generations in Same Family

Jul 29, 2008

As part of KSMU's ongoing series "A Sense of Place," Jennifer Moore traveled to West Plains, and visited with the fourth-generation owner of a downtown building who says he could never leave there.

At Number 1 Court Square in downtown West Plains, a brick building stands three stories tall. Today, its windows are lined with antique dolls, furniture and dishes. But for most of its 123-year history, this site was home to a hardware store. A cornerstone lodged in the northern side of the building bears witness that its story begins just two decades after the end of the Civil War.

"Aid Hardware was founded by my great-grandfather, Charles Theodore Aid," says Toney Aid, the fourth generation of Aids to own this building. His great-grandfather apprenticed as a tin-smith in Philadelphia as a teenager, then headed west to seek his fortune.

"One of the salesmen that sold him hardware convinced him that he should move to West Plains. At that time, about 500 people lived in West Plains. By ten years later, almost 5,000 did. It was the biggest growth boom this town has ever had, thanks to the railroad," he said.

And with that boom came the need for tools and hardware. It really was the dawning of a new era, and the young tinsmith, Charles Theodore Aid had arrived just in time. In 1885, he broke ground on Aid Hardware in this very spot, and went to work.

"He made tin items for people here. He made buckets, and rain gutters. One of his popular things was a bathtub," Aid said.

On one of the back walls today hangs a large, tin megaphone which was hand crafted by C.T. Aid; he would loan it to the high school for athletic events before the year 1900.In 1914, C.T Aid decided to rebuild on the same spot; that building remains today. The original tin ceilings bear the faces of Greek goddesses, which continue to stare down on his progeny much as they did C.T. Aid when he did his bookkeeping or inventory so many years ago. 

C.T. Aid was also known for his creativity in marketing.

"He wanted to get a huge crowd in for a sale. So he came up for the idea that he would give them everything they needed for housekeeping," Aid said. A cookstove, dishes, linens...before long, the wedding was the most talked-about event in West Plains. C.T. Aid insisted that the identities of the bride and groom were to remain a secret. He invited the entire town.On the day of the wedding, the wedding party met upstairs in the furniture department while the townspeople gathered in the hardware store below. The store was packed.

Aid: And at the point and time, the bride and groom came downstairs and got married right over there on that landing that you see.

Moore: What year was that?

Aid: That was 1915. In 1975, I was sitting in my office there and an older couple walked in and said, 'You probably don't know anything about this, but we got married here.' And I said, 'Not only do I know about it, I've got photos of your wedding.' And they said, 'You know, today is our 60th wedding anniversary. We live in Oregon, and we've come back to West Plains to see where we got married.'

Moore: Wow, that's an incredible story. Can I see some of those wedding pictures?

Aid: Yes, sure.

Toney leads me to a steel door in the back of the store; it's a walk-in safe. He turns the giant dial and proceeds to unlock it.

Moore: So this safe that we're walking into right now is how old?

Aid: From 1914, so 86 plus eight...that's 94 years old.

Moore: Oh my goodness, it's just entering in a, what, 8 foot by 8 foot what looks like a treasure trove in here.

Aid: Yep, this is where I keep all my photographs, and things I've collected. And somewhere in here...

He brings the box back out of the safe and opens it up. Inside are hundreds of original photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"Now here's a picture of the store decorated up for the wedding...and here's the happy couple," Aid says.

Next we walk past the landing where the bride and groom stood almost a century ago, and over to the original 1914 wood-plank elevator. The elevator is run by a large electrical motor on the roof, and runs up and down on a weight and cable system. We step onto the old wood flooring. I'm given brief safety instructions before Toney pushes the button.

Moore: Don't look over the edges? Okay...now I'm looking up and it's about 50 feet straight up, and here we go.

Toney Aid says this is his family history right here in one building.He has devoted his life to keeping the West Plains square vibrant: he and his wife have renovated twelve old buildings around the square, and have just bought their 13th.

"Keeping downtown alive and active in life is my goal in life and what I really enjoy doing," he says.

For some passing through town or who just come to shop for antiques, the old hardware store building is just a place. But for the Aid family, the blood, sweat and tears which have been shed here make this building almost like a family member itself.Reporting from West Plains, I'm Jennifer Moore for KSMU's "A Sense of Place."

Support for "A Sense of Place" on KSMU is provided by the Springfield-Greene County History Museum and Founders Park.