Have you ever met Harrison the cat? He’s an animatronic kitty who moves his head as he watches over Harrison Brothers Hardware in downtown Huntsville. The hardware store is not really a hardware story anymore, but a museum and gift shop. Visitors who purchase items in the store can watch as the sale is rung up on the antique cash register and get a glimpse of Harrison, an automatronic plush tabby cat purchased by a volunteer in 1985. Harrison has watched over the store since that time, his head slowly rotating, despite the many transplants of his “heart,” a small motor. Below is an excerpt on the store from my book, “Forgotten Tales of Alabama.”
In the mid-1800s, brothers James B. Harrison and Daniel T. Harrison opened a store on Jefferson Street in downtown Huntsville to sell tobacco. In 1879, the brothers bought a small building on South Side Square for the tobacco business. They couldn’t have realized they had just established what would become the longest operating hardware store in the state.
A fire at the turn of the century burned the majority of the businesses on the south side of the courthouse square, leaving only the tobacco shop and the adjoining space, where another merchant sold furniture and other items.
The Harrison brothers, by this time including younger brother Robert S. Harrison, bought the fire-damaged adjoining building, knocked down a wall and expanded. Soon they were selling furniture, jewelry, appliances, crockery, and, eventually, hardware. It came to be called Harrison Brothers Hardware.
In 1901, a freight elevator operated by a specially made pulley system was installed to help lift furniture from the basement to the main merchandise floor. The elevator still works today. A skylight that was built above the elevator to let light into the store also remains intact.
The business was inherited by Robert’s sons, Daniel F. and John, who operated the store for several more decades. The Harrison brothers were notorious for shunning advertising and the younger Harrisons apparently eschewed change. Rather than purchase modern merchandising displays, they kept the ones their relatives bought many decades before. It operated almost as a time capsule.
The buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. When John Harrison died in 1983, the store became endangered. John had been the last of the descendants who wanted to operate the business. There seemed no reason to keep an old hardware store intact.
A group of Huntsvillians disagreed and took unusual measures to preserve this portion of Huntsville’s history. In 1984, they formed the non-profit group Historic Huntsville Foundation and purchased the store. The intent of the group was to preserve the business, while making it self-supporting.
The result is a “store museum.” Because the Harrison brothers were hoarders and threw few items away, the non-profit group has discovered many treasures within the store’s walls. Receipts from the brothers’ 1850s tobacco shop have been found and, as recently as the early 2000s, a collection of the brothers’ license plates were discovered. The oldest dates to 1919 and the collection likely is made up of plates used on the families’ cars not long after autos became common sights downtown.
On display in the store is the brothers’ ledger, a large accounting book set among other items that would have been found on the large original desk.
The upper shelves of the store contain the decades-old hardware and fixtures the brothers stocked, while shelves below include items of local interest, gardening tools, gifts, reproduction vintage toys, jewelry, and many other trinkets. The store is operated six days a week by a team of volunteers.
Today, Harrison Brothers Hardware is a popular tourist attraction in Huntsville. In 2001, it was designated as a Save America’s Treasures project by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Harrison Brothers Hardware is located at 124 South Side Square in downtown Huntsville. It is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 256-536-3631 or 800-533-3631.