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Storing Up History : Fulkerson Hardware, Serving Farmers Since 1912, Symbolizes Rural Past of Somis

August 24, 1992|DOUG McCLELLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The farmer was walking slowly down an aisle of Fulkerson Hardware with that perplexed look customers get, so Jack Fulkerson stepped up to help.

"You guys have a 3-by-2 1/2 bushing?" the farmer asked.

"Yes we do," Fulkerson replied instantly.

The aisle was lined with several dozen bins full of fittings for copper pipes, brass pipes, galvanized iron pipes and plastic pipes in sizes ranging from half an inch to six inches.

But Fulkerson didn't hesitate. He stepped up to a spot and moved a few boxes that had been stacked on the floor to reveal a bin of bushings marked "3 X 2 1/2."

"One of them?" he asked.

"Just one," the farmer replied.

"It doesn't take too much to make you happy," Fulkerson said.

Fading paint on the outside wall of the Fulkerson Hardware store reads:

"Tools"

"Paint"

"Pipe"

"Plumbing"

To the list could be added, "History." The town of Somis this year is celebrating its centennial, and there is no better symbol of its past than Fulkerson Hardware.

It was 1892, the year Somis became a township, when Jonathan F. Fulkerson joined his brother's blacksmith shop in Las Posas Valley. Twenty years later he founded what is now Ventura County's oldest hardware store. It is also one of the most complete.

"We have the reputation that if you can't find it anywhere else in Ventura County you can always find it here," Jack Fulkerson said.

Three generations of Fulkersons have tended to Fulkerson Hardware. The founder, who abbreviated his name Jno., ran it until 1947. His son Jack Fulkerson, now a spry 78, had the store for 30 years until he retired in 1977.

The Fulkerson now behind the counter of Fulkerson Hardware is Jack's youngest son, Bob, 38. Like his father and grandfather, Bob Fulkerson works six days a week to serve the community's ranchers and farmers.

Development is hard on the heels of Somis. Camarillo housing tracts and strip centers have crept to within blocks of the town. But Somis still holds tight to its rural roots.

"We're still plunked down in the middle of agriculture, so we still sell what they consider agricultural-type stuff," Bob Fulkerson said.

Neither father nor son will even guess how many items the rambling store carries. But ask them where any one thing is and they will take you to it immediately, whether you want a Brazilian machete with a sheath, a can of ether, a washboard, a gopher trap, a grape knife, a snake catcher or what the label identifies as a "bell, cow," in your choice of lengths from 1 5/8 to 7 inches.

Need a shovel? The store offers nine varieties of round-point shovels, six kinds of square-point and five sizes of trenching spades.

The variety sets Fulkerson Hardware apart from the chain department stores in suburbia.

"Instead of getting one choice of splitting wedge, he gives you six different varieties to choose from," said Lynette Buchanan, an avocado farmer who came in one afternoon for tools to put up a chain-link fence. "All of the tools for the farm I can buy here."

She thought for a moment when asked whether she's ever wanted something the store didn't carry.

"Dishes," she said. "I think I asked for dishes once."

Bob Fulkerson grinned.

"No dishes," he said.

The two of them discussed the merits of fence tools--he had two for her to choose between--and she decided on one. Bob wrote out her bill on one of a dozen receipt books he keeps lined up on a counter.

Like nearly all of his customers, Buchanan has an account, so she signs the receipts and gets a statement at the end of the month. Hardly anyone pays cash or uses a credit card at Fulkerson Hardware.

"I don't think I ever lost $500, all told, in 30 years from bad credit," Jack Fulkerson said. The one exception was a fellow whose tomato crop spoiled just before he took it to market, at the same time his dad took ill. "I never bothered him for it."

People haven't been quite as honest in Bob Fulkerson's days as owner, but his problems have been minimal.

What little cash changes hands during the business day is kept in a 1913 National cash register that the founding Fulkerson bought new. Its brass housing is stamped with rows of small fleurs-de-lis. The largest sale the machine will ring up is $1.

"We've used it every day of the year since 1913 and never spent a penny on it for repairs," Jack Fulkerson said. "That's the way they used to make things."

Jack Fulkerson is the kind of old-timer who will cross his arms, rock back on his heels and tell stories all afternoon: about how lima bean thrashers used to work and why farmers never built windmills in Las Posas Valley. He pronounces Los Angeles "Los An-gul-eese."

But Bob Fulkerson is not one for chitchat. He fidgets if he sits for more than a minute, but never gets a chance to anyway. He runs the store by himself Monday through Saturday, and it's rarely empty.

He stalks the store with a tape measure clipped to his belt and a pair of scissors stuck in the back pocket of his jeans, point down.

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