Baileys' Hardware is as familiar a feature of Rochester's Main Street as is the Courthouse; some even would say it is more essential to citizens' contentment.

A hardware store, after all, is a necessity if people are to have the tools and other accoutrements that their daily work and lifestyles constantly require. This particular Bailey family began supplying those needs here 84 years ago and today a third generation still is at it. Brothers Dave and Bob Bailey are going strong at the store's location of 73 years, on the west side of Main midway between Seventh and Eighth Streets.

The store hasn't changed much in physical appearance after nearly three-quarters of a century but that's one of its charms, as are the disarming amiability of brothers Bailey and the courteous service they bestow on all who come in the door.

This particular branch of Baileys has been in Rochester for 128 years, since Elliott Bailey came from Ohio in 1873 with a family that included 15-year-old Stilla (pronounced "Stella") who in time founded the family's business ventures.

Stilla became a prominent citizen who first operated a planing mill and later a lumber yard, in between serving as city marshal and county sheriff (1903-07). In 1917 he went into the hardware business, opening a store at 704 Main Street, now the south portion of the Fulton County Medical Clinic.

Son Max Bailey joined his father in this new store and eventually bought out Stilla's share after which in 1924 he formed Black & Bailey Hardware with George Black.

Four years later, in 1928, Black & Bailey moved southward to the present 712-714 Main Street location.

Black died in 1943, bringing Byron (Beanie) Bailey into co-ownership with brother Max, his senior by 10 years, and the business assumed its final title of Baileys' Hardware. A third brother, Elliott (Bill), came in later as an employee.

Max retired in 1953 in rather eccentric fashion. As his nephews tell it, Max said to Byron as they were walking down the alley on a Saturday night after closing the store, "Well, it's all yours. I'm through." Byron had no advance knowledge of the decision and he was totally unprepared to take over management. Nevertheless, with brother Elliott and his two sons, "Beanie" ran the store for the next 20 years.

The three-story Baileys' Hardware building has an interesting history of its own. The site where it was built had been occupied by the Ditton House, once the two-story residence of Maggie Ditton that became a popular hotel and cafe in the 1890s.

The Bailey building was erected in 1912 by A. J. Dillon, a prosperous insurance broker whose imposing residence stands yet at the southwest corner of Main and 11th Streets. A hardware store has been the building's main tenant all of its nearly 90 years. The first was Stoner & Black, involving the same George Black who later teamed with Max Bailey. Stoner & Black was succeeded, in turn, by four successive owners in a 10-year period: Henry Schertz, Arley Morris, A. L. Clinton and Stehle & Shively. The last went into bankruptcy and had sold their stock when Black & Bailey expanded into the space in 1928. Indeed, George and Max fretted at the time about occupying a space where so many hardwares had failed.

The building's basement has contained a barber shop on the south from the very beginning and since 1963 it has been operated by Jim See. His 38-year run surpasses the 37-year tenure of A. Adams that began in the 1920s. Others who operated the shop include Harold Dittman, Frank Justice and John Inman.

The north basement space was occupied many years by Helen Gaumer's beauty shop with her longtime assistant Belle Raymer Bailey, Bill's wife. Later occupants were a weight loss clinic and a craft shop before Dave Bailey converted it into an apartment for his use.

At the rear of the hardware store once was an auto repair shop operated by Ray Yeakley and Oren Mathias; the space now is used by the hardware. On the second floor at various times have been Dr. Mark Piper's physician office and beauty, jewelry and millinery shops. Today it contains another apartment, once occupied by Bob Bailey.

In the beginning the third floor was used for Stoner & Black's display of horse-drawn farming equipment and for a paint shop. Its last use, surprisingly, was for a bowling alley owned by Dr. M. O. King, local physician. The alley operated circa 1939 to 1952 and was quite popular despite the difficulty of access. That was Rochester's second bowling alley, following one existing in the early 1930s at the southwest corner of Main and Sixth Streets.

Under Byron's control, meanwhile, the hardware made it through the lean years of World War II shortages and into the prospering economy that peacetime brought. Finally, after getting a particularly vexing tax bill, "Beanie" decided he'd had enough. He told the boys he was selling the business to them and on January 1, 1973, Dave and Bob became the third generation of Bailey owners.

Bob is Dave's senior by a year. The two started at the store when each was 13 years old, Bob firing the furnace, Dave sweeping the sidewalk. By 1973 they had families, were in their early 30s and were ready to take over. It's now 28 years later and their enthusiasm for the business seems undiminished.

Next up is an examination of that business, its persistence and its exceptional ambiance.

Published Nov. 27, 2001