Summers Hardware Transformed Through Myriad of Names
Summers Hardware and Supply Company has had a long convoluted metamorphosis as it migrated through several decades, store locations and individuals into the business that is today located at 400 Buffalo Street.
The origin appears to go back to 1870 when G.C. Seaver came to Johnson City and opened a dry goods store. He later sold it and established a hardware store, which became the second oldest business in Johnson City. In 1888, Joseph P. Summers, who worked for the C.M. McClung Company, bought half interest in Seaver’s business and the store became Seavers & Summers.
After January 1893, a third person, James A. Summers, who had been working at the store as a clerk, formed a partnership with his uncle, Ben D. Lyle and acquired the business, bringing about another name - Lyle & Summers. Prior to April 1896, J.A. Summers and Harry H. Lyle, Ben Lyle’s son, owned the store reversing the company designation to Summers & Lyle.
After April 1896, Lyle sold his interest to their uncle William J. Barton. Soon, the company was relocated when Barton & St. John Hardware combined to form Summers and Barton. After March 1897, another transformation came into play when John F. Lyle, another uncle, united with the company to become Summers, Barton & Lyle.
To further add to the myriad of business titles, after February 1900, H.R. Parrott, who had been traveling with a nearby Bristol firm, arrived in town and bought John Lyle’s interest in the operation. Also, Joseph P. Summers who had left the city in 1892 returned and joined the company. The new name was Summers, Barton & Parrott.
After 1910, William Barton decided to organize a retail store and feed business so he sold his portion to James A. Summers. The new partnership became identified as Summers-Parrott Hardware Company and boasted of $50,000 in capitalization. Summers became president of the new firm and sold the retail department to other individuals in the city. The business was now fully wholesale and would remain as such until the present.
When the Buffalo Street operation opened its doors to the pubic in 1911, its business flourished. The company began selling Ford and Buick automobiles in addition to hardware.
A 1915 Chamber of Commerce publication had glowing comments about the firm: “One of the most striking features of the big business interests of Johnson City is stability, as exhibited in the fact that among its representative houses are some that have gained success and prominence by steady development through many years of active and honorable business history, a notable example being Summers-Parrott Hardware Company.
“This is one of the largest concerns of its kind in this section and operates an immense business in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky. The comparatively new building now occupied is an immense four-story structure and basement, 107 by 150 feet in dimensions and erected in the year 1911.”
After 1915, industry conditions necessitated the separating of the business. Parrott chose to stay with the automobile portion so he sold his interest to James A. Summers, built a garage next door to his former company and opened his store. Summers-Parrott Hardware was reorganized as Summers Hardware Company and, over the next several years, edged forward in spite of numerous economic downturns.
However, the company went bankrupt in 1936 and was reorganized as Summers Hardware and Supply Company, Inc. by creditors from banks and manufacturers. Fitzhugh Wallace, a local banker, became president of the struggling company. Wallace was a savvy businessman and vigilantly brought the besieged firm out of insolvency. He remained in that capacity until he became Chairman of the Board. His son Fitzhugh Wallace Jr. became President and his daughter, Gwen Wallace, part owner.
In a 1992 interview with Press writer, Phyllis Johnson, the two Wallace owners stated that their father restructured the company in difficult times, shifting toward industrial supplies, maintenance and construction goods. By then, consumers began migrating toward one-stop mega variety stores where they could shop for hardware items and sundry other merchandise under the convenience of one roof. It was during this time that Summers Hardware Company began selling automobile parts, a decision that proved to be highly lucrative.
In 1991 sensing it was time to move on, the Wallace family located their replacements in the business’s front office, selling it to employees John R. Lawson and R. Glenn Shaw. Eight years later, Shaw became sole owner. Today, the company is a thriving MRO wholesale supplier serving a wide-ranging customer base that includes manufacturers, schools, nursing homes, hospitals and commercial contractors.
It has been said that the wooden floors of the massive Summers Hardware building creak under the feet of those who walk over it as a testament to the strength of both the building and the work carried on there. Unlike its many former competitors of years past who have long passed from the scene, the business has pressed forward. The large letters on the side of the century-old building are a constant reminder to the populace of its lengthy and intricate history. And the beat goes on.
Thanks to Alex Summers, Gwen Wallace and Glenn Shaw for their valuable input to this article.