Owners of Wilmont Hardware work to keep community vital
WILMONT — When Deb Vaske ordered a bench to add to the inventory at Wilmont Hardware shortly after she and her husband, Duane, purchased the business nine years ago, she had hoped it would appeal to a customer and find a new home in someone’s backyard.
Nine years later, the bench is still there. It no longer has a price tag dangling from it — nor does it look like it did when it was first set up. Deb said it has needed reinforcements several times.
That bench hasn’t been a conversation piece, but rather a piece where conversations take place.
“Everybody sits on it,” exclaimed Deb in a boisterous voice to which locals are accustomed. She calls most people honey and knows customers by name.
“We don’t really have customers — we have friends,” she corrected.
Whether it’s someone from town or a farmer who has stopped in to chat, the bench has been their gathering place, situated mere feet from the sales counter and carbon sales slips where most sales are logged. The locals have charge accounts, so there’s rarely a need for a cash register.
Deb said she did have a customer come in one day who wanted to buy the bench, but their usual gathering of guys objected.
“The guys said, ‘You can’t sell our bench,’” she recalled. So, she ended up placing an order for a new bench for the customer.
The Vaskes run the store with their youngest son, Adam. All three happen to also serve on the Wilmont Fire and Rescue Department. Duane has been a firefighter for about 25 years, while Deb and Adam both joined four years ago.
“I stood here and watched them run every time the pagers went off, and I thought, ‘I could do this — I want to help,’” said Deb. At the time, Duane and their middle son, Jared, were firefighters.
Nowadays, if the pager goes off, Deb said they lock up the hardware store and run — next door — to the fire hall.
“If I don’t get the sign put up and the door is locked, people know we’re on a call,” said Deb, adding that she joined the department because she likes to help people.
In a small town, being a volunteer helps keep the community viable.
“You’ve got to keep a small town going,” said Duane. With a 24-member department considered full, he said the squad is a couple people short right now.
Still, when a call goes out, members show up ready to respond.
“You can’t pick and choose which (calls you respond to),” said Duane, adding that their department typically has more pages for rescue than for fire. Part of that may be the result of an aging community.
The Vaskes, both natives of Wilmont — she grew up five miles from town and he grew up two miles from town — settled within the city limits after they were married nearly 32 years ago.
“It’s such a nice little town,” said Deb.
Like many small communities, Wilmont is one where everybody seems to know everyone else. Although, as jobs leave and more people commute, the town isn’t what it once was.
“We don’t know our neighbors like we used to,” Deb reminisced. “You could walk around the block, and it would take you two hours because you stopped and talked to everyone. Now, it’s become more of a bedroom community.”
Still, if someone is in need, she said anyone can pick up their phone and someone will be there to help. Deb served 12 years on the Wilmont City Council, retiring at the end of 2011.
As businesses like the grocery store, cafe and farm store have closed, the Vaskes have added new inventory to the hardware store to help fill the void. Their store’s shelves are filled with everything from small kitchen appliances and canisters of coffee to sporting goods, electrical supplies, nuts and bolts, paint, snacks, coveralls and work gloves.
“And if someone comes in and wants something, we’ll get if for them,” added Duane with a smile.
After seeing their two oldest sons leave Wilmont — Justin resides in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he is the assistant manager of a Wal-Mart, while Jared moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he works in the finance department for a car dealership — youngest son Adam purchased a house just two doors down from his parents. In addition to helping out at the hardware store, he and Duane both work the overnight shift at Bedford Industries in Worthington.
“It’s always just been home,” Adam said of Wilmont. “It’s a small community and you know everybody.”
“When these kids were growing up, the neighbor ladies would give them heck just like I would (if they were misbehaving),” Deb said with a laugh.
The camaraderie carries over from the neighborhoods to the hardware store to the fire department.
“We can laugh as a group,” Deb said of her fellow firefighters. “Thank God we all have each other. We laugh, we cry. It’s a nice group to work with.”
A couple of years ago, when the rescue squad was paged out to a rural residence during a blizzard, Adam said nearby farmers came to the rescue and blew out the road to get the rescue squad to the scene.
“Everybody showed up to help,” added Duane.
While it will be several years before the Vaskes consider retiring from the hardware store, Adam said he may take over the business some day and keep serving the community he’s called home his entire life.
The hardware store is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday.
“Pretty much everybody has my cell phone if they need something,” added Deb. “I can come down after hours.”
“Especially during harvest and they have a breakdown,” added Duane.
“I need them, they need me. It just works,” said Deb.
Daily Globe Reporter
Julie Buntjer may be reached