Hill’s Hardware opened for business on Main Street in Rutherfordton in 1947. The founder and driving spirit behind the new business was G. Fred Hill, known to one and all as “Mr. Fred.” Mr. Fred had been a salesman of Rawleigh products, a farmer, and a leader in his local church community, and he had earned the trust of everyone who knew him. The story goes that when Mr. Fred went on a buying trip for the new store the supplier he was attempting to buy merchandise from telephoned back to Rutherfordton to find out from the bank whether or not he was financially trustworthy. The banker told him, “Any check that Mr. Fred Hill writes is good.”
Mr. Fred acquired a lot facing Main Street, next door to the bank on one side and Keeter’s Hardware on the other. Mr. Fred’s brother, Oliver Hill, supervised the construction of the building. The wood for the floors came from timber cut from Robert Hensley’s father’s farm, planed into boards at a local sawmill.
The hardware business thrived in the prosperous times that followed World War II, selling to new homeowners and in many cases also providing the service to install plumbing and electrical systems.
Not long after the hardware store opened, Mr. Fred signed up to be a Ferguson Tractor dealer and after a time this led to a new location on Charlotte Road and a separate business called Hill Tractor Company.
Robert and Ellen Hensley decided to buy out the remaining partners in the hardware business, and for a quarter century, they operated the business together. They, in fact, became so identified with the business that many of their customers thought of them as the Hills. Neither of them seemed to mind being addressed as Miz Hill and Mister Hill.
Ellen loved jokes and puzzles and gadgets. Surely no one ever had more fun displaying the mysterious properties of a “whoopee stick” than she did.
Robert, who cheerfully admitted that a wrench didn’t fit his hand, was nevertheless able to advise anyone trying to install or repair a water system about the parts and fittings they would need and give them thorough instructions about how to proceed.
In the 1980s Hill’s bought out its neighbor and competitor, broke through the wall to connect the two store buildings, and hired the former Keeter employees to work in the combined business.
In the years leading up to her losing bout with cancer, Ellen was a well-known fixture in the hardware store, sitting in a rocking chair near the ancient cash register, directing customers up and around the aisles to find what they needed. It was a wonderment to many that she seemed to know where everything was.
Currently, the store is operated by third and fourth generation members of the Hill descendants, Martha Hensley and her daughter Michelle Heaton. It sometimes happens that someone looks around for the man in charge, but they soon are happy to deal with the women who know what is going on.
A lot of things have changed. There is a different product mix in response to altered buying habits of customers. The management systems have undergone numerous updates. There are no more card files for keeping up with customers, no more late nights hunched over a mechanical calculator computing inventory data, no more open bins with a scale nearby for weighing nails by the pound, no plow points, not many clevis hooks. But the feel of the old store remains, a whiff of old times in the air.