Long before she was manager of Harrison Brothers Hardware, Cheryl Sexton said the downtown store held a special place in her heart.
“When our children were young, this was always our favorite spot to come to visit,” said Sexton, a former educator. “Of course, the marbles were the highlight for the children. And they continue to be the highlight for many children.”
Sexton, who joined the shop’s team six years ago, is one of many with fond memories of Harrison Brothers Hardware – and for good reason.
Throngs of people have visited the Huntsville mainstay since late brothers James B. and Daniel T. Harrison opened the current location in 1897. A cherished heirloom now owned by the Historic Huntsville Foundation (HHF), Harrison Brothers continues to delight customers of all ages.
“It’s a passionate place for me,” Sexton said. “I love the history and I’m thrilled that the Historic Huntsville Foundation has a mission to save this and preserve it.”
Harrison Brothers history
Harrison Brothers, the oldest operating hardware store in Alabama, started as a tobacco shop on Jefferson Street. In 1897, the brothers bought the current facility on South Side Square and the rest is history.
The space caught fire in 1901 and the store was remodeled. Alterations since then have been minimal.
Over the years, the brothers’ stock has evolved from tobacco through crockery, furniture, jewelry, appliances and finally into hardware. Harrison Brothers continues to sell American-made goods that reflect the store’s authenticity and tradition.
They really wrapped the Foundation in their arms at that time. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Historic Huntsville Foundation.”
“To me, that’s a big plus having those items to purchase,” Sexton said. “Whether it’s a local artist or a local pottery company, they can find it here at Harrison Brothers.”
Two generations of the Harrison family ran the business until the death of John Harrison in 1983. That’s when HHF, a nonprofit, voted to purchase the store and began fundraising to cover the loan.
HHF Executive Director Donna Castellano said the public’s support was instrumental during that period.
“The community wanted the store to be open,” she said. “They really wrapped the Foundation in their arms at that time. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Historic Huntsville Foundation.”
Authentic Harrison Brothers experience
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, Harrison Brothers remains a permanent fixture in downtown Huntsville.
Many of its original features are still present today. As you walk through the door, you’ll see the store’s first display shelves, counters, hardwood floors and fixtures.
Employees still ring up sales with the original cash register first used by Robert and Daniel. Their business desk, safe and coal stove are also in-tact, just as they were when the Harrisons were in charge.
Castellano said it was important to HHF to preserve and maintain Harrison Brothers as close to its original state as possible.
“We made the conscious decision that we’re going to put preservation before profit,” she said. “And that we’re going to do right by this building and the commitment we made to the heirs and to the community.”
When HHF transformed the west side of the business into an art gallery, stakeholders discussed how to do it while maintaining the store’s authenticity.
Castellano said the brothers had sold furniture out of that area and “it had always been a space that was yet to be defined.”
“It’s still a space that is yet to be defined,” Castellano said. “It can still evolve in the way that it needs to so the store remains relevant and that we have the customers we need to keep the store in business.”
Among some of the other hidden treasures at Harrison Brothers were over 70 years of old business records, which Castellano said are now part of UAH’s Archives and Special Collections.
As part of National Historic Preservation Month, the City of Huntsville is running an all-digital #ThisPlaceMattersHsv campaign through the end of May. The effort will showcase beloved historic civic buildings, public spaces, businesses, schools and houses of worship in Huntsville.
Sexton, who moved to Huntsville from Arizona because of her husband’s job at Raytheon, said #ThisPlaceMattersHsv spotlights the importance of preservation.
“In order to know about the history of Huntsville, these buildings need to continue to operate,” she said. “We need to educate the community and the tourists who come in about the history here.”
When we preserve the places from the past, when we preserve our historic resources … we are carrying those places forward.”
Castellano agrees. When HHF took on the challenge of preserving Harrison Brothers, the movement changed people’s attitudes about what makes Huntsville great.
“When we preserve the places from the past, when we preserve our historic resources … we are carrying those places forward,” she said. “We’re actively contributing to the future of another generation.”
Want to learn more about Harrison Brothers and its impact on Huntsville history?
Then don’t miss our live Instagram interview at 2 p.m. Friday, May 15, with Sexton and HHF Chair Leslie Walker. If you can’t make it, visit the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission’s Facebook or Instagram to watch it later.
You can also check City Blog every Friday at 10 a.m. in May for a new feature in celebration of Historic Preservation Month.