Lewter Hardware Company was a staple in the Huntsville community for 94 years—almost a whole century.
Since its doors closed last month, Historic Huntsville Foundation and UAH Archives and Special Collections have stepped in to help preserve the legacy of the iconic Huntsville store and the family behind it. Here’s how.
Two weeks ago, Donna Castellano received a Monday morning call from a Lewter’s employee inquiring if the ledgers had any historical value and if HHF could help with their preservation. She immediately said “YES!” and that she would be right over.
Castellano is the Executive Director of the Historic Huntsville Foundation (HHF). Since that day a couple weeks ago, HHF and UAH have been working together with the Lewter family to ensure that the history of Lewter’s lives on.
The ledgers aren’t just pages of purchases. Castellano explained that the ledgers help us to reconstruct history. In them, you can get glimpes of what 1900s Huntsville was like—how businesses responded to the Great Depression, how they responded to an influx of rocket scientists, how the textile industry impacted their business.
And UAH is helping with that reconstruction. Mac Lewter donated all the Lewter’s records to UAH Special Archives and Collections, some of which date from the 1930s. UAH will be able to accurately preserve the records by cleaning and indexing them for future researchers.
Eventually, UAH will also digitize those records so that they can be found online. You’ll be able to see the names of Lewter’s customers, where they lived and trace the patterns of Huntsville history.
Castellano explained the value of those patterns. By looking through the ledgers, you can trace the growth of Huntsville from its small beginnings to when the space program came and beyond. The growth that we continue to experience in Huntsville can be traced back through those records.
But the ledgers aren’t all. The photographs give an important visual element to the history.
Every corner of Lewter’s is filled with history—and what better way to capture that than with high-quality photography. HHF hired photographer Jim Teed to do just that.
“Jim had a difficult task. Not only did he need to document the physical layout of the store and its defining features, but he also needed to capture the warmth of the Lewter’s Hardware experience. There is no doubt he achieved on both counts.”Donna Castellano
She further explained that it’s important to photograph Lewter’s because it’s part of Huntsville’s built history. The best way possible to show the future what was there in 2022 is through photographing the building.
Part of that building that Teed captured dates back 150 years. The part of the store that customers were familiar with was, “just the tip of the iceberg,” Castellano explained. The second floor and back rooms of Lewter’s hold lots of history, such as original windows and door trim.
But, there’s one specific feature that has entranced Castellano and the team behind this—the old freight elevator. Mac Lewter showed them how this old freight elevator works—manually. It moves from the first to second floor by way of a pulley and rope.
The history here is rich.
Rounding out the preservation of that history is the experiences of Lewter’s customers.
Castellano related how the photographs and records will give insights to how people lived, but, “with Lewter’s, that’s bound up in the experience of people who shopped there for ages.”
She spoke of her own experiences at Lewter’s, saying that she always knew they could help her solve a problem. That’s what made Lewter’s so special to Castellano—when she didn’t know how to fix something, they did.
“They really fostered the idea of customer service.”Donna Castellano
She explained that having an account there was a “rite of passage” of sorts for being a Huntsvillian. When she and her husband bought a house in the 1990s, they did just that.
Castellano and her husband would go into Lewter’s for a piece of hardware. While Mike talked with Donnie Lewter or hardware staff, she would stay up near the register, pet the cats and munch on peanuts. That was part of the one-of-a-kind experience that Huntsvillians had at Lewter’s.
How you can help
Mac Lewter’s incredible generosity in donating the records to UAH for preservation is how the legacy of Lewter’s and the history of Huntsville will live on.
Castellano said that it’s important for the community to keep this sort of history preservation in mind. For HHF to be able to do their amazing work, they have to have materials—letters, photographs, business ledgers and oral histories.
She encourages people who have those materials to recognize that they have something to value and to reach out to an organization like HHF to preserve that history.
Historic Huntsville Foundation continues to make an impact on our community through projects like the preservation of Harrison Brothers Hardware and even more projects yet to come.
Do you have any memories from Lewter’s? Let us know by tagging us on social media @hvilleblast or by using our hashtag #hvilleblast.