Generations of Success
from a Ten Dollar Bill
Over 100 years ago, Charles Eastman set in motion a local business that still serves the Falmouth community today
A Falmouth landmark, Eastman’s Hardware, at the end of Main Street, has been an invaluable resource for generations. The following story was produced by local writer Kathy Sharp Frisbee for the Woods Hole Historical Museum in 1997. Today, the owners are delighted to steward the business into its second century.
Seventy-eight years ago, in 1913, when Falmouth was a small country town with horses and buggies clopping and rumbling along Main Street and steamers plying the local waters, a 37-year-old resident named Charles Eastman, known by everyone as “Charlie,” made a momentous personal decision based on confidence in himself and his conviction that bicycles would continue to be necessary for transportation. He resigned his position as manager of the Falmouth Plumbing and Hardware Company, where he had worked for seven years, and promptly invested a ten-dollar bill in his own small enterprise. In a barn behind his home on Gifford Street, he opened a modest bicycle sales and service shop and called it simply “The Old Bicycle Shop.”
Charlie was a gentle man with the grit, wit and trading instincts that contributed to the kind of business success few people have known, but everyone values. It was successes based on hard work, honest effort, respect for others, and dry humor. While Charlie’s goal was to provide for his family, it was likewise to serve his community by selling a wide assortment of basic products, providing value for his customers, and using trustworthy business practices. The dream he dreamed in 1913 has become an enduring reality on Main Street and a tribute to traditions. Its character and integrity have been upheld through three generations and are maintained today by his grandson, Charles Elwood Eastman, Jr., know to everyone as “Chuck.”
Charles Thomas Eastman was born in February 1876, to Thomas C. and Sarah Gardner Eastman of Milford, Massachusetts. Like most of his generation, Charlie cut his baby teeth on industry and ingenuity from watching his mother manage home responsibilities and his father run a gristmill, a pasteboard and shoe box manufacturing industry, and a watch repair service. As a young man, Charlie learned to repair bicycles while working at a Milford bicycle business. In 1903, at age 27, he struck out on his own to experience a wider scope of hardware business operations in Uxbridge, Massachusetts and Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In September 1904, he married Lura Sturtevant of Milford, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin C. Sturtevant.
In 1906, Charlie and Lura moved to Falmouth, where Charlie had accepted a management position with the Falmouth Plumbing and Hardware Company. They arrived in April on Patriot’s Day, a day they long remembered for the inviting band music played on the Village Green, the colorful flag decorations, and the air of gaiety that excited the whole town. The next year, 1907, brought the birth of their first son, Thomas A. (Tom).
Six years later, on April 4, 1913, Charlie took the big leap from serving as store manager for a large, established business to starting his own business endeavor. By mid-July, Charlie saw that business expansion would soon be necessary. Plans were made for construction to begin in the spring of 1914 on two stores that would comprise the Eastman Building on Main Street east of the Village Green.
Charlie’s property was sizable enough to accommodate more stores. In 1916, he added another shop and the post office moved in. An idea for the Eastman Block’s next development phase came during one of those informal business meetings of the times. The result of that meeting was the opening of the Ipswich Hosiery Shop, later known as The Lady Pepperell Shop, which carried fine linen Pepperell products manufactured by Russell’s firm. Shortly thereafter, Miriam Gould opened a beauty shop next to San Souci barbershop, Charlie’s hardware store expanded, and new rooms were built above the shops for additional tenants.
The distinctive English Tudor front of the Eastman Block resulted from an architectural recommendation to Charlie by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard in the mid-1920s as part of their agreement to acquire store space. While on a trip to Falmouth, England, and strolling the streets of that English seaside resort in Cornwall, from which Falmouth, Massachusetts took its name, the Leonards photographed a 17th-century fishmonger’s shop, and later shared the photos with Charlie. He agreed with the Leonards that a touch of the Old World rightfully deserved a place on Main Street in the New World, and so they commissioned architect Joseph D. Leland to direct the construction of this classic English design.
During the construction, a coin was discovered that bore the engraved signature of George III and was determined to be more than 100 years old.
Between 1929 and 1938, more shops were built. The new tenants were Dr. K.A. Bohaker, a dentist; George Sands, a monument builder; Herbert Hunziker, an attorney; Gilbert Boone, a specialist in Cape Cod architecture; and the Succanessett Club for businessmen.
As the years passed, Charlie’s two sons, Elwood and Tom, were born and ultimately joined the family business. “My earliest memory of going to the hardware store was when I was three years old, the day my father agreed to get me out of my mother’s hair and rode me to the store in a little wooden on the front of his bicycle,” said Elwood. “Another thing I recall about my father is that he would sell anything. I remember he told a man who was very interested in buying his copper tub in the kitchen at home that he would sell it to him Saturday evening after our baths. He kept his word, and my mother was furious,” laughed Elwood.
Both boys kept the memory of their mother fresh throughout their lives by maintaining small, formal English flower gardens at their homes, just as she did at the family’s Gifford Street home. Her garden, which had been laid out by her brother, Frank, was of such color and variety that she often received garden club awards. The boys’ gardens were likewise captivating, leaving no doubt that they had inherited her green thumb touch with horticulture. “How very well I remember Mother, especially on Saturdays,” said Tom. “That was the day I always had to pare apples for her pies.” Tom became more fully involved in the family’s business when he was fourteen. Active in school in both classwork and sports, he took to business management just like his father.
While Elwood focused on the mechanical services of the business, Tom expanded the operations into sporting goods, clothing and gift items, prompting some people to call the store the second L.L. Bean Company. Their diversified inventory now encompassed hardware, paints, kitchen furnishings, electric refrigerators, oil burners, fishing tackle, a complete line of sporting goods, farm and garden seeds, lawn mower repair service, and bicycle sales and service.
The largest segment of their clientele was the caretakers of the area’s ever-growing number of summer estates. The Eastmans’ found that their busiest season ran from June 15 to Labor Day.
After Christmas, winter business trickled in those early decades, often bringing in only $10 a day. Locals would frequently charge their purchases, making handshake agreements to see Charlie “at strawberry time,” when they could earn enough wages to pay him by harvesting the local strawberry fields. To keep busy, Charlie would sell crates of apples up and down the Cape. Years later, Tom carried on the tradition of outside sales during the slow business months, but instead of apples, he sold sporting goods.
In those early decades of the century, Shivericks Pond abutted the hardware store and skaters often stopped by to have their skate blades sharpened. Later in the war years of the 1940s, Friday nights were the big shopping nights, attracting many of the soldiers and their family members assigned to Camp Edwards in North Falmouth.
“I remember we would have batches of popcorn loaded with butter for anyone coming in the store and we would all just stand around and talk with people as they came in,” recalled Tom in an interview in 1989, just a few months before his death at age 82.
In the middle of the century, World War II broke out. Elwood enlisted, was assigned to the Seabees, and was shipped out to the Marshall Islands. Tom continued to run the store with Charlie, Harry Gould, Ted Czepiel, and John Ellery.
In 1944, while Elwood was still away at war, Charlie died of a heart attack. His loss was felt far and wide. An editorial in the Falmouth Enterprise lauded Charles Thomas Eastman as a man who “became a dean among our businessmen, a veteran of Main Street, knowing everybody, and known to everybody.” Tom kept the business going until Elwood’s return in 1945.
Ten years later, in 1955, Tom decided to focus solely on operating the lawn mower side of the business and to sell area real estate on his own. Elwood thus assumed full responsibility for the store’s daily operations.
In the mid-1960s, a number of Falmouth businesses experienced a rash of arsonist attacks, which left storeowners tense and fearful. One Tuesday night, the arsonist threw a Molotov cocktail through the Eastman’s hardware store window. The resulting smoke and fire damage was enough to cripple but not stop operations for two weeks. While repairs were made, a fire sale was held and merchandise was restocked.
A committed community response to Eastman’s was a natural reflex to the genuine concern the Eastmans’ generations had shown the community, and not just through the family business.
In 1978, after Elwood’s son, Chuck, had finished college and had tested the business world’s waters beyond Falmouth for a few years, he decided to return to the family business. “I realized that I wanted to be self-employed rather than working for some big corporation,” said Chuck.
Chuck has since rejuventated the store’s clothing and sporting goods department. In 1988, he reopened the family’s sport fishing tackle business in a shop across Main Street and called it “Eastman’s Sport and Tackle.”
Though Chuck says he enjoys seeing the business come full circle to the trade character his grandfather developed, today he confronts a very different marketplace. “I’ve seen Falmouth go from a small town to a small city, and a lot of community closeness as well as sporting terrain has been lost in the transition,” said Chuck. “I’ve learned that bigger is not always best, and so we strive to retain a manageable size in keeping with the image of a friendly, family-owned business.”
The Eastman Hardware Store still retains much of its turn-of-the-century character with tin-pressed ceilings, carved wood trim, polished hardwood floors, and antique tools displayed as wall art. The family business is notable not only for its historical and architectural distinction, but for being one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Falmouth. Hanging in its back office is a gallery of family photos and memorabilia that mirror the times of each Eastman generation.
Then there’s the big iron bull’s ring hanging just above the customer counter, a reminder, Chuck says, of Charlie’s humorous, no-nonsense business manor. As he stared at the ring and hefted it, he seemed suddenly drawn back in time. As a smile began to inch across his face, he said with a barely concealed chuckle, “my grandfather would hand this to a salesman when he realized the man was giving him a lot of just that.”