don’t read this unless you like historical mysteries that leave you with more questions than answers…or you’re looking for a spot to stop on your next road trip.
Okay, it may not be that big of a mystery. Still, the details are vague, and everything you read says the same thing about the Bonebrake Hardware Store in Erick, Oklahoma – which isn’t a lot. While it is promoted as a museum, it is also a historical landmark that gives you a little glimpse into the past.
If you did a quick internet search of the store, you’d only find a few reviews or articles rating it as a stop along Route 66. The fascination with Bonebrake seems to be that in the 1960s, the owners simply closed the doors without removing a thing. Today, you can’t go inside of it, but instead have to peer in through the windows at the unchanged past left behind.
There was once probably someone who could tell us every detail and bit of town gossip about the Bonebrake and the family who owned it. But, they’ve gone on, and we’re left wondering why the owners closed shop and abandoned the inventory.
Here’s what we found:
Howard Edward Bonebrake, also known as the “Oklahoma Hardware Man,” along with his father, John Elijah Bonebrake, were the original owners of Bonebrake Hardware. The research wasn’t conclusive, but it seems that between 1890 and 1908, Howard Bonebrake moved to Oklahoma, after successfully mining gold in Colorado, to enter into business with his dear ol’ dad. At some point, they moved to El Reno, where the first hardware store began. Prospering, they branched out with a store in Weatherford.
Then, thanks to the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad (CO&G) extending further west, Howard had the chance to head a townsite company and establish new towns along the railway. He promoted Foss and Sayre and helped with Elk City, Indianapolis, Clinton and Erick. While promoting the towns, he also established hardware stores in all of them. Before long, there was a chain of the Bonebrake family business across Oklahoma, 13 stores in total. When John Elijah Bonebrake decided to move to California, he left his son in charge of the company.
There are probably many reasons why the chain didn’t keep expanding. According to an ad in The Texola Harold’s February 2, 1906 edition, Bonebrake Hardware toted that it could and would save you money on all hardware. Did that lead to money troubles and store closures? Additionally, an article in the Carter Express published May 31, 1912, suggested that not all was well because the business owed lots of back taxes.
As time went on, the chain of stores continued to decrease. At his death in 1940, Howard Bonebrake only owned the store in Erick, which was managed by his son, John Henry Bonebrake.
Upon his death, however, Howard was still highly regarded throughout Oklahoma. This was printed in the El Reno American on March 7, 1940:
Pioneer Townbuilder, Hardware King, and Trapshoot Champ Dies Suddenly: Howard Bonebrake Was National Figure in Auto and Good Roads Development in Early Days.
Oklahoma lost one of her most colorful citizens on Saturday night when Howard E. Bonebrake, who probably has sold more hardware in this state than any other single citizen, died suddenly from a blood clot in his heart after he had made such a remarkable recovery from a recent operation that he was expected to be discharged from the hospital Wednesday of this week.
That’s where the historical information ends. We can only assume that John Henry Bonebrake retired in the 1960s and didn’t bother to sell or remove the items in the store. Maybe it was too difficult to part with the last standing evidence of his father’s work. All that exists publicly on John Henry Bonebrake is his birth, and then death in December 1993 at age 88.