After generations, the Dixfield icon of Towle’s Hardware has a new owner – Mainebiz

after-generations,-the-dixfield-icon-of-towle’s-hardware-has-a-new-owner-–-mainebiz

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After more than a century in the same family, Towle’s Hardware & Lumber Co. in Dixfield has sold to a Maine entrepreneur outside the family who views local hardware stores as an important community tradition.

Norman “Butch” and Donna Towle sold the business, after it spent five years on the market, to Richard Chadbourne. Dennis Wheelock of Magnusson Balfour KW Commercial-Keller Williams Realty brokered the transaction.

“It doesn’t happen every day that a hundred-year-old business sells,” Wheelock told Mainebiz.

The Towle’s Hardware & Lumber store was listed in 2016. Established in 1911, it’s a long-time institution in the community run by the same family for four generations, with multi-generation customers. A rebuild in 2008 provided up-to-date premises and technology, and it’s in a central location.

Courtesy / Magnusson Balfour KW Commercial-Keller Williams Realty
After more than a century in the same family, Towle’s Hardware & Lumber Co. in Dixfield has been sold to a non-family member.

Wheelock fielded several queries each year, including a couple of folks from Florida. The reason it took so long to sell is because the Oxford County town, in western Maine, is itself off the beaten track, he said.

“I would get people calling from away and they’d say, ‘Well, where is Dixfield?’” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘It’s near Rumford and Mexico. ‘They’d say, ‘Where’s that?’ I think a lot of people lean toward more urban areas.”

Nail kegs

Towle’s Hardware, at 5 Weld St., was started in 1911 by Charles “Charlie” Hershel Towle and his wife Alice, according to a couple of family histories, including one written by Michael “Mickey” Towle, the founder’s grandson and Butch’s brother.

When Charlie opened the store, he sold glass, dog food, John Deere tractors, cast iron stoves, gas and electric refrigerators, paint, lumber, Stanley tools, hardware and gasoline.   

“Glass came in wooden crates which, being frugal, Charlie dismantled and used to build the storage bins for bulk garden seeds,” Mickey Towle wrote. 

Courtesy / Towle Family
Charles Towle started C.H. Towle Hardware in 1911.

They ran a “tin knocking” shop in the rear of the store. Tin knocking refers to sheet metal work.

Turpentine was sold from a 55-gallon drum. The customer brought his own can or bottle to fill. Nails came in 50-pound kegs and were stored in nail bins and sold by the pound. Pipe was cut and threaded by hand. 

A row of shed roof garages at the rear of the building was at one time used for horse stalls, then to store cars for a nearby hotel. 

“The middle garage had a basement area that housed a sawdust-fired, hot-air heating plant to prevent the cars in these garages from freezing in cold weather,” he wrote.

Charlie made a miniature motorized Ferris wheel to fit in the store windows. On each seat he placed a quart of paint and when the motor started the wheel turned to make a motion display.

Rope-pull elevator

By the 1960s, Charlie and Alice’s son John, and John’s wife Betty, were running the store. 

Their sons, Butch and Mickey, worked at the store when they were kids. In his history, Mickey recalled that the store was the first building in Dixfield to have an elevator. It went from the second floor to the basement and was operated by hand, using a rope to pull it up and let it down.  

Courtesy / Towle Family
Second-generation owners John and Betty Towle

“Butch and I used it to move spool wood from the basement to the second floor for the Round Oak cast iron kitchen stoves,” Mickey wrote.

When truck loads of sheetrock were delivered to the store, the boys unloaded and stacked it by hand — several hours of nonstop work. The same scenario was carried out when John had a train car load of rolled roofing and shingles delivered to a railyard in the nearby town of Peru. John would hire a man to drive the truck to Peru and Butch and Mickey would spend the day loading a truck up from the railroad car, ride back to the store, unload it, then return to the railyard for another load.  

“Everything was done by hand,” Butch told Mainebiz. “We didn’t get a forklift until I took over.”

Butch recalled a favorite time at the end of Christmas, when the family would deliver the store’s unsold toys to children in town whose families normally couldn’t afford much.

Rebuild

Butch and his wife Donna purchased the store from John and Betty in 1976. They performed other facility improvements and expansions, including acquisition of a railroad car for storage.

In 2008, the original building was torn down and replaced with a new one with double the space. The original grain shed became part of the new store. An original storehouse was repurposed as an insulation shed. Original seed crates and nail bins remained in use.

Granite front steps that John put in for the entrance to the old hardware store became the outside entrance to the new hardware store.

Eventually, Butch and Donna’s son Chip began helping them keep the store’s digital technology up-to-date. Chip also built a convenience store called Towle’s Corner Store on the same property beside the hardware store. Chip continues to own the convenience store, which was not part of the transaction.

Butch and Donna donated over 1,000 of John Towle’s tools to the Dixfield Historical Society. The tools are now on display in a collection called the John L. Towle Antique Tool Museum. 

Courtesy / Towle Family
Seen here are some of John Towle’s tools at the Dixfield Historical Society.

Butch will soon be 76 and figured it was time to retire. 

“I worked there about 55 years,” he said. “So it was time.”

Right person

The family retained the property but wanted the right person to buy the business. 

“We’ve had chances to sell i3t, but we wanted to make sure it stayed a hardware store here,” Butch said. “It took a little while to find someone who would run it like it is.”

Some potential buyers envisioned putting in a dollar store, he said.

“You can find those everywhere,” he continued. “We just wanted to keep it as hardware store.”

Courtesy / Towle Family
Donna and Butch Towle, second and third from left, with their children Joni and Chip and Chip’s wife Deb.

Some queries came from out-of-state.

“But a lot of them didn’t want to move this far north,” he said. “They wanted to go to Freeport and South Portland.  If it were in those areas, we could have sold it overnight. But we waited for someone who wanted a country store in a smaller area.”

That person was Richard Chadbourne, who learned the store was on the market when he was in the area on other business.

“I like to look at real estate when I’m driving,” Chadbourne said. “I came across Towle’s Hardware.”

Courtesy / Magnusson Balfour KW Commercial-Keller Williams Realty
The store is centrally located in Dixfield.

Chadbourne contacted Wheelock to learn more about the opportunity.

“I wanted to meet with the owners and see what their vision was and see if I could be a good fit,” he said. “Towle’s has been there over 100 years. That’s what really attracted me, seeing the relationship between the family and the community.  Once I met with Butch and Chip, it was a no-brainer.”

Investment opportunity

Born and raised in Portland, Chadbourne pursued finance and economics as an undergraduate in West Virginia. He returned to Maine and worked in inventory management and international seafood trading for Bristol Seafood in Portland. After about four years, he went to work for Key Bank for several years, then for Bank of America, where he was branch manager in Westbrook.  

Courtesy / Richard Chadbourne
Richard Chadbourne at his Freeport Hardware store.

In 2019, he went into business for himself to invest in real estate. On Long Island, in Casco Bay, he bought a six-unit residential property called Sunset Landing, to offer as short-term rentals. 

That venture led him to hardware stores as an investment.

“I started needing supplies,” he said. “Every time I bought an item, I found myself at the hardware store, so I started looking at opportunities.”

In 2020, he bought Freeport Hardware.

In Dixfield, Chadbourne’s plans include expansion of the do-it-yourself home improvement section, the pet section and the garden section, with the addition of a greenhouse and products such as organic soil sourced from Maine companies.

“We’re doing that in Freeport and have had a really good response,” he said.

Chadbourne will keep the Towle’s name. 

Hardware stores are important community institutions, he said: “I want to continue the tradition of the local homegrown store that’s meaningful for Maine going forward.”

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