Kelley-How-Thomson

South 5th Avenue West c. 1911, showing Stone-Ordean-wells in the foreground and Kelly-How-Thomson behind. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)
South 5th Avenue West c. 1911, showing Stone-Ordean-wells in the foreground and Kelly-How-Thomson behind. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

In 1901 A. D. Thomson, Thomas D. Glaskin, and Edward G. Hilliard organized the Thomson-Glaskin Company, wholesalers of “commercial rubber goods, mine supplies and heavy hardware” and specialists in asbestos pipe covering. In 1902 Thomson-Glaskin merged with Kelley-How to form Kelley-How-Thomson, which went on to be one of the midwest’s largest hardware wholesalers. Kelley-How-Thomson merged with Duluth’s Marshall-Wells Company in 1955.

The following history of Kelley-How-Thomson from 1896 to 1910 is from Dwight Woodbridge & John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present:

The Kelley-How-Thomson Company is doing business today on twenty times the capital it started with fourteen years ago. That ought to tell the whole story of this house, which has made for itself such an eminent place in the hardware trade of the Northwest. Location-with ships and rails at the warehouse doors-had something to do with this success. Energy, intelligence in direction and administration, and giving the trade the goods that were needed, did the rest. There is no house in its line in the Northwest that can show such proportionate and substantial gains as have been made by the Kelley-How-Thomson Company. It has been able to keep its business always increasing, not spasmodically or in a small way, but steadily and in such fashion that each year has shown a substantial increase over the preceding one.

The company was established fourteen years ago [1896] as the Kelley Hardware Company, with a capital of $25,000, plenty of energy and a knowledge of the business. The business from the start was only limited by the resources of the company, and in five years these were substantially increased when B. F. How was taken into the company and the capital was made $150,000. With these enlarged resources the company extended its field and made such great gains that two years later it absorbed the Thomson-Glaskin Company and became known as the Kelley-How-Thomson Company, with a capital of $300,000. In the summer of 1905 it became evident that the company could use still more capital, and in July of that year the stockholders voted to increase the capital to a half million dollars.

This progressive development is indicative of the movement of the company in trade expansion, and it is now and has been for some time in a position to utilize the great advantages it has in a magnificent plant located on the water front, where the cost of handling is minimized and delivery is facilitated.

The high reputation of the house is built upon a solid foundation in the splendid line of hardware to which it has given the title of the “Hickory Brand,” and which is known as absolutely dependable from the lakes to the Coast. The greatest care has been exercised in applying the house brand only to products that would stand up under any test that they might be subjected to, and this, together with the fact that prices could be made that were reduced by reason of the elimination of a considerable part of the cost of transportation and handling, has created an immense and growing demand for this brand.

The home of the Kelley-How-Thomson Company is in a fine building with a great equipment. The last thing in electrical devices for the facilitating of business is installed. The resources that have been drawn upon for the installation of this electric system have also been made to provide for the housing, care and handling of the big stock of the house and there is no finer example of the possibilities of a wholesale hardware house of the first class than this home of the Kelley-How-Thomson Company.

The trade of the house is extended into all territory between and including northern Michigan and Montana, and this country is covered by a large force of traveling men.

The officers of the company are: M. H. Kelley, president; J. F. Killorin, vice-president; George W. Welles, secretary and manager, and B. W. How, treasurer.

Shortly after the information above was published in 1910, K-H-T announced that its capital had been raised to $2 million and that it employed 300 people in Duluth and more than 100 traveling salesmen. In 1913 K-H-T purchased a 470-foot site adjacent to its property along 5th Avenue South below Michigan Street to be used for a large addition to the plant. This gave the company a total of 560 feet of frontage along the 5th Avenue Slip. (This purchase forced the Gowan-Lenning-Brown Company to build a new facility on Lake Avenue South, known today as the Paulucci Building.)

K-L-H would continue to grow, become one of the largest hardware wholesalers in the northwest, yet always in the shadow of Duluth’s giant hardware wholesaler, Marshall-Wells, the largest wholesale hardware firm in the world. By 1954 K-H-T served more than 6,000 hardware stores and hardware departments within larger retail establishments in eight states: Minnesota, Iowa, Northern Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. They offered over 47,000 items, “from housewares to major appliances, from toys to industrial mining supplies, from tools to outboard motors.” K-H-T also ran branches in St. Paul and Billings, Montana. By then the company employed 369 people, 320 in Duluth; the roster included 79 salesmen. During the early 1950s its sales volume averaged $12 million.

In 1955 Marshall-Wells acquired K-H-T, which continued to operate independently as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Marshall-Wells. That same year the Marshall family sold Marshall-wells to New York’s Ambrook Industries, which reorganized the company and dumped its Canadian market. In 1957 M-W and K-H-T merged to form Marshall-Wells-Kelley-How-Thomson. By then the reach of both companies was reduced to the Upper Midwest. The merger did not help the organization succeed. In 1958 M-W-K-H-T was liquidated. The K-H-L facilities along South 5th Avenue west were demolished, likely c. 1982, the same time the adjacent Flame restaurant was demolished. The site is now occupied by Playfront Park and the parking lot of the Great Lakes Aquarium.

Sources:

  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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