All cities, no matter their size, have at least a handful of small businesses that nearly everyone knows. Whether it’s a diner or mom-and-pop store where dogs and cats greet the clientele, small businesses are important threads in a city’s economic fabric.
Such was the case with Lewter Hardware, which closed its doors in October 2022 after serving downtown Huntsville for 94 years. The decision to close came soon after the passing of Donnie Lewter, the third generation to operate the respected establishment.
The legacy will live on, however, as the Huntsville Planning Commission recently voted to rename the 350-foot section of Meridian Street between Washington and Jefferson streets Lewters Way. The measure was introduced at the May 11 City Council meeting and will come before the Council for final adoption on May 25.
“I, like a lot of people, were saddened by the closing of this iconic Huntsville business,” said longtime customer and Mayor Tommy Battle. “Multigenerational businesses like Lewter Hardware are a rare thing, and we were fortunate to have them serve our community for 94 years. Renaming this street ensures we don’t forget the Lewter name and all they did for our community.”
Mac Lewter, Donnie’s brother, said he was tickled by the City’s gesture to honor his family. For most of his and Donnie’s lives, the store was all they knew.
“Our mother would take us down there as babies and we’d hang out among the nail bins,” Mac Lewter said. “There are just thousands of memories I have. We spent our lives there.”
A long history
Located at 222 Washington St., Lewter Hardware’s modest brick building was a bridge to a simpler time. No matter the year or decade, it was a revered institution. In 1980, the store was among many downtown landmarks listed on a National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
Though the business opened in July 1928, a portion of the building dates back nearly 150 years. An antique freight elevator was still in use when the store closed.
“I didn’t know I’d spend most of my life pulling that rope elevator up and down,” Mac Lewter said with a laugh. “Somebody told my granddaddy in the 1940s he could motorize it and he said, ‘No, it does just fine.’”
Over the past decade, downtown developers have provided updated spaces to live, work and play. Still, Lewter Hardware offered shoppers something they couldn’t find anywhere else – friendly customer service and advice on everything from tools to gardening projects.
When asked about the store’s longevity in the face of progress, Mac said Lewter Hardware was simply unique because his family genuinely cared about customers.
“I think we lasted so long because of how our family treated people … we took care of them,” he said. “We had a bunch of really good customers and people who cared about us, too.”
History lives on
Shortly after the store’s closing, Lewter Hardware donated its ledgers, which date back to the 1930s, to the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Archives, Special Collections and Digital Initiatives. Donna Castellano with the Historic Huntsville Foundation helped facilitate the transfer.
Castellano said the ledgers are valuable because they capture a history that is independent of the building. Though the ledgers mostly detail sales, customers and types of merchandise sold, they also reflect Huntsville’s evolution from a small, cotton town to the Rocket City.
“Records such as this are incredibly useful to historians as well as individuals who may be interested in family histories,” Castellano said. “Conceivably, one could consult Lewter records and determine the purchases made by a grandparent.”
When asked what would become of the Lewter Hardware building, Mac Lewter said it was purchased by a development team. He believes the main part of the store will be redeveloped as a fine dining establishment. There are other development plans in the works for the site.
Castellano said she would be happy to work with the Lewter family and new property owners to place a historic marker at the site of the store to recognize its importance and role in Huntsville’s history. She added the loss of the store leaves a hole in the heart of the city.
“There are things that can’t be replaced, and Lewter’s is one of those things,” she said.