Nov. 27, 2006

Dassel woman celebrates 50 years in hardware store

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

LaVonne Mortenson has worked 50 years at the same job in the same hardware store in Dassel.

“I love what I do. As long as I’m able to do it, I’ll keep doing it,” Mortenson said at the store, now called Hansen’s Our Own Hardware & Rent-It Center.

Back in 1956, though, it was called Holm Brothers. Mortenson, a Cokato native, saw a help wanted ad in the local newspaper. She was working in the Cokato feed mill at the time. She was tired of always having to do sit-down office work, so she applied, Mortenson said.

“Here, I did everything,” she said.

Not only did she work with customers, but also did the daily charges and took all ambulance and death calls. Kelly Johnson, one of the managers of the store, was the local funeral director, she said.

Holm Brothers also sold furniture. There were 23 employees when Mortenson first started there.

Johnson and Clarence Palson were flexible employers, too. One week after she was hired, Mortenson was allowed to go on a previously planned vacation with her girlfriend.

“I never thought I’d last. I didn’t know anything about hardware. Nothing.” Mortenson said.

She had to learn what everything was in the store, every nut, bolt, nail and plumbing part. Building and electrical contractors needed specific hardware for their occupations. Farmers did too. Mortenson also had to learn how to meet the needs of the customers with all their different personalities.

“The customer is always right,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson wasn’t married the first few years she worked at Holm Brothers, part of a five-store chain. She always wore dresses and nylon stockings, even though she had to climb ladders and move heavy loads. By the end of every day, she had holes in her stockings, Mortenson said.

Across the street, where Wells Fargo Bank is now, there was a shoe repair shop, a butcher shop and a produce building, where they candled eggs, Mortenson recalled.

Mortenson married Gary and they lived in Dassel. Before he retired, he drove a truck for Midwest Hatchery. While they were building their family, Mortenson continued to work at the store while she was pregnant.

Mortenson developed many friendships with the customers. “I liked meeting the people,” she said.

Her pregnancy led to a humorous incident. Whenever a local man came into the store, he’d ask Mortenson “When are you going to have your baby?” as if he could never remember her due date.

One day, he came in and questioned her again. She told him she had her son two weeks earlier. The man was so embarrassed, he turned every shade of red, she laughed.

Now, her son, Kurt, also lives in Dassel. He is employed by the Wright County Highway Department in Cokato, and is a Dassel firefighter. Kurt Mortenson is married to Mary, and they have two children, Kristina, 14, and Daniel, 5.

Mary Mortenson is the sister of Mortenson’s employer, Chris Hansen. Hansen’s family has been in the hardware business for a long time also. His grandfather, Art Hansen, started a hardware store in Darwin in 1922.

Norman and Marilyn Loven bought the Holm Brothers store in 1970. Then, the Lovens sold the store to Hansen in 1986, and he changed the name of the store to Hansen Hardware, just like his family’s store in Darwin.

Another longtime employee is Pauline Nelson. She has worked at the same store for 33 years. The three of them have more than 100 years of experience in the hardware business.

“We’re a hometown store,” Mortenson said.

If a customer needs something in an emergency, even if it is Sunday, they come down to the store and open it up for him, she said.

Times have changed a lot since Mortenson first came to work at Holm Brothers. She wears slacks and jeans to work now. There are very few dairy farmer customers anymore.

“Now, there are three of us employees,” Mortenson.

The best part of working at the same store, though, is seeing the grandchildren of her first customers from 50 years ago.

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