Kuempel Hardware store sold to Meuser Lumber Company

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Past, present and future Guttenberg businessmen John Finch, Tom Kuempel and Charles Finch commemorated the sale of Kuempel Hardware to Meuser Lumber with a photo. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Two Guttenberg businesses, each well over a century in age, have come together in Meuser Lumber Company’s March 1 purchase of Kuempel Hardware. The Press sat down with John Finch of Meuser Lumber and Tom Kuempel of Kuempel Hardware to talk about the past, present and future of the two companies. 

Finch started looking for work in his family’s lumberyard at the ripe old age of five. He got off to a rough start in the lumber business, tipping out of a truck while reaching for a shovel, so the Meuser’s employees walked him home with instructions to come back when he was older. He’s been managing the business since 1988 and took full ownership in 2012, when he purchased Meuser Lumber from his father, Charles Finch. Charles was gifted 10 percent of the business from his grandfather, Fred Friedlein, in 1956, and took over management from his own father, Harold Finch, in 1960. 

Friedlein partnered with brothers Joseph and William Meuser to start Meuser Lumber in 1908. “Great Grandpa was only 26 at the time. He was scaling logs across the street for Zimmerman & Ives, and Zimmerman took a liking to him, saw his potential and sent him to Bayless Business School,” said Finch, who has kept his great-grandfather’s framed diploma. In 1940, when the Meuser brothers wanted out of their Guttenberg venture, Friedlein purchased their lumberyards in Guttenberg, Garnavillo and Garber. “There were 26 yards at one time, up and down the Wisconsin and Iowa side of the river,” Finch explained. Friedlein’s daughter married Harold Finch, and their descendants continue to run the family business.  

“I have three sons working here,” said Finch. “Alex is doing a lot of computer drafting and estimating; he’s stepping up and taking on some of my role in that. Marcus is taking care of rentals and appliances, and will be trained in servicing appliances. Austin, whose wife is in medical school, is filling many roles.”

With a full team behind him, Finch struck a deal with another Guttenberg man in a family business. “I knew that Tom was getting ready to retire and I was preparing us for the fact that there might not be a hardware store up there, so I built on here,” said Finch. “I drove by Kuempel’s before Christmas and saw how nice it looked and I thought, ‘I’m going to go talk to Tom.’ It would be a shame if it closed.” 

Kuempel has been a part of his family business for 55 of its 118 years. His grandfather Ed Kuempel moved to Guttenberg with his brother, John, in 1900, after two fires burned down their businesses in Clayton. They opened Kuempel Hardware in the very same location where it exists today. 

“In 1920 my uncle Al Lake came back from the service and grandpa says, ‘It's time you guys go into business for yourselves and buy me out.’ So they did that and added the single story section in 1920,” Kuempel told The Press. His father, Jack, and uncle, Al, sold boat motors, sporting goods, guns, appliances, toys and gifts, and Jack served as president of the Iowa Retail Hardware Association. Ed Kuempel ran a plumbing business out of the hardware store, which Tom’s brother, Bob eventually joined. Tom helped with the plumbing business by running the first backhoe Guttenberg had ever seen. 

In 1961, Lake sold to Jack and another of his sons, Jim. Kuempel Hardware became a True Value store in 1962, and Tom joined the staff after returning from the service in 1963. He and his brother Jim purchased the business when their father retired in 1968, after a 60-year career in hardware. In 1983 the brothers purchased the adjacent Cerny Building (formerly a grocery store, gas company, paint shop, and carpet store), adding to today’s total square footage of 4,950. Jim retired in 1995, leaving Tom with sole ownership of the business – delivering and installing appliances; taking service calls on nights, weekends and holidays; and taking care of the store Monday through Saturday.

Though he’s now fully retired, Tom has agreed to help walk Finch’s son, Marcus, through appliance repairs when needed. Marcus will be certified to service Whirlpool appliances, but nothing beats Tom’s lifetime of wisdom when it comes to dealing with the equipment. 

Besides seeing a new young man at their door delivering and repairing their dishwashers, refrigerators, washers, dryers, and ovens, customers won’t notice much change in Meuser Lumber or Kuempel Hardware. Finch has chosen to keep Kuempel’s name on the downtown store, and its knowledgeable staff will remain. Product branding will change from True Value to the Do-it-Best line Meuser’s uses, but Kuempel’s inventory – including housewares – will be very similar. 

The transition from Kuempel to Finch went smoothly. “They just put their trust in each other and shook hands,” commented Finch’s father, Charles. After about a month of discussion between Tom and John, the sale of Kuempel Hardware final. Echoing the voices of many generations of Kuempel’s customers, Finch told The Press, “I see the importance of what that store is.”

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