Louis W. Gunby was an entrepreneur for all time


The Gunby hardware store has been a favorite highlight of downtown Salisbury history, not surprisingly given the impressive edifice that once dominated Main Street. But the store was not the only Gunby structure downtown, as there were two others, located at the large parking lot now slated for development.

Likely every household on the Eastern Shore during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th knew the Gunby hardware store. But more amazing than the wide-ranging business was Louis W. Gunby himself. Few can boast being a sole proprietor of a major business at the age of 18, yet Gunby did it.

Louis White Gunby was a Salisbury business leader at age 18.

Louis White Gunby was a Salisbury business leader at age 18.

Born in Fruitland (then called Forktown) in 1854, Louis, who was young when his father died, left school at 13 to support his family. He was 14 when he took a job as a clerk of a hardware store operated by John H. White. In short order, Gunby bought White’s business in 1872 and opened “Gunby’s Hardware” on Salisbury’s Main Street. The building, opposite from St. Peters Street, burned in 1886 with the rest of downtown.

Gunby rebuilt in 1888, the store replaced with a huge masonry structure with a façade unlike any other on Main Street. The building’s girth, ornate roof and protruding second and third floor show windows seemed almost a personal statement that no mere fire could keep L.W. Gunby down.

The business was more extensive than hardware, and included the sale of everything from water pumps to wicker sleigh baskets and windmills. The business of general hardware and machinery, with steam and gasoline machinery a specialty, expanded into a large inventory attracting customers throughout the peninsula and beyond.

Gunby sold hardware for every major economy of the Eastern Shore, including canning factories, fruit and vegetable crate manufactures and blacksmithing.

They had everything, with the Main Street store selling plumbing, painting, farming, and wheelwright supplies, pumps, seeds and glass. There was a huge stock of stoves, heaters, refrigerators and the hardware to maintain them all.

The business grew into an impressive complex of buildings, two of them on the south side of Camden Street where the large municipal parking lot is today.

The machine shop factory on Camden Street behind the store made sawmill machinery and hardware for canning factories, employing a large number of mechanics and draftsmen.

Another building took up a large piece of property at the corner of Camden Street and Division Street, built as a departure from the hardware business, for around 1908, Gunby sought to capitalize on the newly growing business of the automobile with a large dealership showroom.

The 3-story brick building with 24,000 feet floor space was devoted to both sales and repair. The space allowed the company to also display more of their large hardware items. Auburns and Fords were sold, followed by Buicks, Dodges and Nashes. The Gunby business particularly focused on selling Nashes.

In 1908, downtown was not the only site of their huge operation. The business had two large warehouses near the railroad tracks. The Wicomico News noted that the business used a large automobile truck to transport locally, described then as “the only one of its kind in town.”

The family automobile business ended around 1936. L.W. Gunby died in 1951. The family business continued and the Main Street business moved to Salisbury Boulevard in 1954.

Today, one could focus on the history of the once-thriving business, or of Louis’ wealth or the storybook life of his ancestors.  But my mind seems fixated on his youth rather than his later successes, imagining how Gunby managed to become quite the entrepreneur by his 18th year.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com



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