By Reggie Ellis
exeter – The large glass panes running along the front of Exeter Mercantile Co. are windows into the proud past of a local family and a reflection of hometown history.
Through those windows, Exeter residents have seen the evolution of farming from mule to horsepower, and conversely, the employees have seen downtown transform from dusty dirt roads to bustling city streets.
For 100 years, Exeter Mercantile Co. has been an Exeter landmark at 258 E. Pine St., serving as a commercial constant in an ever changing scene. Like its name, there has been little change in the look of the store, even as the signs, names and marquis of the surrounding businesses have all changed. On Monday, April 11 Exeter Mercantile will celebrates a century of customer service and quality products that the Schelling family began just a few years after Exeter became a city.
Setting Up Shop
Originally, the corner of Pine and D streets was the home of Ben Schmidt Studebaker Garage. According to John Mangini’s book “Exeter Now-Then,” Schmidt opened the auto shop in 1913 with frontage on D Street. In 1915, two new buildings adjoined Schmidt’s garage with apartment suites on the second floor. This new storefront was home to The Exeter Hardware Store. Originally owned by A. W. Livingston and Charles A. Hahn of Bakersfield, Calif., the two men incorporated the business as the Exeter Mercantile Company, Inc. on April 11, 1916. In the beginning they sold mule/horse driven plows consisting of a wooden frame and a single blade. The company then experimented with motorized equipment as it was introduced onto the market. Soon the Mercantile became one of the first International truck and farm equipment dealers in California. International products, which in the past included appliances and autos, became signature items of the Mercantile. Their front window still features a 1907 International high wheeler (horseless carriage). And while International was later bought out, the name can still be found at Exeter Mercantile, along with many other brands.
Sidney Schelling, Sr. began working at Exeter Mercantile when he was in high school. After graduation, he attended UC Berkeley but when World War I broke he enlisted in the Navy.
“When they asked if anyone had been to college he stepped forward and they put him in officer training,” said Sid Sr.’s daughter, Elizabeth “Betty” O’Keefe. “They made him captain of a ship transporting troops to Europe.”
Upon returning from the war, Sid, Sr. went back to work at the Mercantile and became its manager. Before long Schelling bought out all partners and became sole owner in 1919. He married his wife Ruth Evangaline Kasuth on Feb. 15, 1927. Together they had three children – Sid, Jr., Robert and Elizabeth – who grew up counting hardware parts each day after school or sweeping the floors on the weekends.
“The store pretty much looks the same as it did when I was growing up,” Betty said.
The Schelling Family
Sid Sr. was active in running the business and also the community serving on the Tulare County Fair Board, March of Dimes, World War II Draft Board and was named Exeter’s Man of the Year in 1959. He was a member of the Exeter Kiwanis Club and the Exeter Masonic Lodge, eventually becoming a 32nd degree Mason. He even served as head of the California Retail Hardware Dealer’s Association for a few years in the 1950s. Sid Sr. was the most well known of a family of local business owners. His five brothers were community pillars in the area as well. Arthur Schelling was a pharmacist in Woodlake. Leo Schelling owned a haberdashery (a men’s clothing store) in Visalia. Ivan Schelling owned a haberdashery in Exeter and Orval Schelling owned a grocery store outside of town. And while all of the brothers were referred to as Mr. Schelling, Sid Sr. held the title among his siblings.
“Because two of the brothers owned clothing stores daddy was always well dressed,” Betty said. “I remember the Louis Roth suits and black boots he would always wear when he went on sales calls. Even if he was going to a farm to sell equipment, he always had a nice shirt and tie on.”
Robert “Bob” Schelling remembers the early days at the Mercantile and some of the philosophies of business passed down by his father. He said Sid Sr. installed the offices with windows where the sales force works today in order to make eye contact and greet every customer who came through the door.
“He was always building bridges to people,” Bob said.
Bob worked for Standard Oil for some time, until his father became ill. When Sidney Sr. passed away in 1964 his two sons took over running the Mercantile. Sidney “Sid” Schelling Jr., an New York University graduate, was working at Macy’s in New York when he came home to man the family store. Bob oversaw the farm equipment and agriculture side and “Sid” Jr. oversaw the hardware and gifts side. Their mother Ruth also assisted in setting up the house wares and gift section of the store. The Mercantile became an Ace Hardware affiliated store and expanded its selection of merchandise.
“There are still holes in the floor from when they used to pull up ropes coiled in the basement that they would measure and cut for customers,” Betty said.
In 1990 Bob’s son, Brian Schelling joined the family business alongside his dad overseeing farm machinery and truck sales, parts and service. The second and third generation of Schelling’s management played a huge part in Exeter Mercantile being named Small Business of the Year for the 34th Assembly District in 2007. Sid, Bob, Brian and Elizabeth traveled to the state capitol to be honored by the Small Business Association.
“We have a lot of great customers,” Sid Jr. said. “Now we have our customers’ children and our customers’ children’s children buying from our store.”
And every Christmas, the Schellings run the same, classic ad in the newspaper that represents the small town charm of Exeter’s Christmas Open House on Thursday nights each December.
Today the Exeter Mercantile features everything from large equipment to firearms, a full bridal registry to children’s toys and everything in between. Wandering the store one can find some of the same items they would have carried decades ago alongside modern versions. Vintage place settings, retro toys and Hammonds ribbon candy are just steps away from LED lights, riding lawn mowers and a cappuccino press.
But more than products, Exeter Mercantile is a family-owned business that treats its employees and customers like family. Betty said some of their employees, both past and present, have worked at the mercantile for nearly 50 years.
“I enjoy working with family,” said Brian. “And all the employees are just like extended family. What’s interesting is it continues onto our customers because many of them are like family as well. That’s what’s nice about small towns.”
Exeter Mercantile will celebrate its century of hometown commerce with a long weekend of events. On Saturday, April 9 the Exeter Mercantile will have a sidewalk sale, paint demonstration, free hot dogs and sodas and a wine tasting. On Sunday, April 10 the store will have an ACE Hardware bucket sale and on Monday, April 11 (the 100th anniversary of incorporation) KJUG Radio will broadcast from the store, a free knife sharpening clinic, a grill drawing and more free hot dogs at the store.
The Exeter Mercantile Co. is located at 258 East Pine in downtown Exeter. For more information call 592-2121 or visit www.exetermercantile.com.
– Sheyanne Romero and Mo Montgomery contributed to this article.