By Natalie Kammerer

The Omaha-based Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Wholesale Hardware firm was rather ubiquitous in eastern Nebraska for much of the 20th century. The company was founded by John F. Wilhelmy and H. Larson in Nebraska City in 1871. They functioned as both a retail and wholesale hardware supplier, mainly to outfit settlers heading west, as well as the peddlers who moved from homestead to homestead. They sold goods that everyone needed, and in their first year they grossed $16,000 (equivalent to $354,304 today).[1],[2] In 1876, Larson sold his shares in the company and W.S. Rector took his place. The company gained an additional investor in Nebraska City real estate man J.J. Hochstetler. (In 1880, J.J.’s son Frank would become the company’s first salesman, and by 1905, company president.)

As the Indian Wars continued through the 1870s, the company (now Rector & Wilhelmy) became an Army supplier, shipping blasting powder, nails, and various other materials to western garrisons.[3] By this point, they were a significant operation.

In 1880, the company had grown to six employees, including two salesmen who traveled throughout the Midwest with their catalogs and samples, visiting retailers, taking orders, and returning to Nebraska to fill and ship the orders themselves.[4] By 1883, the owners saw that the increasingly important railroad would make Omaha a much more strategic location for their headquarters, so they decided to relocate the company to a rented four-story building at 10th and Harney Streets.

An order submitted to Rector & Wilhelmy Co. in July 1884 from William Taylor in Rock Creek, Wyoming. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The Council Bluffs-based DeVol & Wright hardware firm owned by P.C. DeVol and William S. Wright consolidated with Rector & Wilhelmy in 1884, thereby becoming Rector & Wilhelmy Co. While DeVol remained in Iowa and continued to run a separate retail business under the name DeVol & Wright, Wright moved across the river to dedicate himself to the growing Omaha company. He was the impetus behind trade excursions and goodwill commercial trips to communities throughout the Midwest, which became a tradition in the early 1900s.[5] Wright also served three terms as President of the National Wholesale Hardware Association. In 1887, the company purchased land at the northeast corner of 10th and Jackson Streets to build their own facility in Jobber’s Canyon. Soon, they outgrew even their beautiful new building, and constructed a large warehouse directly behind it. Needing even more room, they then began using additional spaces at 8th and Howard and 10th and Jones.[6]

Exterior of the Rector & Wilhelmy Co. building at 523 S 10th Street, c. 1900. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Office workers inside the building at 523 S 10th Street, 1908. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Meanwhile, the company continued to grow and push boundaries. In 1892, the company undertook the massive project of issuing its first general catalog. The finished product contained more than 1,000 hand-illustrated product pages. It was the first catalog of its kind produced by a hardware retailer in the region.

William S. Wright was quoted in 1904 as saying “Our territory embraces everything eastward to the Mississippi, west to the Philippines, north to Manitoba, and south to Old Mexico.”[7] After that year, they listed $481,795.42 in assets (equivalent to $14,567,110.16 today).[8],[9]

Pages from the 1967 Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Catalog. At this point, they were using a combination of illustrations and photographs. Also, note the leather handles attached to the cover for easy carrying by a traveling salesman. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The company changed its name to Wright & Wilhelmy Co. in 1902 to better reflect current management. But they continued bringing modern conveniences and indispensable materials to people throughout the region. When automobiles arrived, Wright & Wilhelmy Co. added an automobile department, selling tires and other parts. They also outfitted their salesmen with cars, allowing them to drive through rural areas that weren’t accessible by train.

Salesmen’s Fords with sample phonographs strapped to the backs. From Wright & Wilhelmy 100th Anniversary, p. 11. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The company sold many major appliances, including Heatrola stoves, early refrigerators, oil heaters, and more. Display trailers brought model Youngstown steel-pressed kitchen showrooms around the region in trailers and vans. About midway through the 20th century, the company began to shift its focus away from large appliances, focusing instead on housewares, sporting goods, general hardware, and electrical and plumbing supplies.

By 1965, the company expanded again, acquiring the Omaha Paint and Glass Company Building next to its headquarters on 10th St. This added an additional 25,000 square feet to their operation.[10] In the 1970s, 100 years after the company was founded, it had 125 employees and served more than 2,500 general merchandise retailers in seven states. It also reported that the members of its sales team averaged about 20 years of company service.[11]

In 1989, the company moved from its Jobber’s Canyon location out to 11005 E St., where it continued business for about another decade. Wright & Wilhelmy Co. closed its doors in 2001, after 130 years of service. In all those years, the company had only eight presidents: John Wilhelmy (1871-1883), P.C. DeVol (1884-1903), Frank Hochstetler (1905-1929), Glenn E. Jennings (1930-1954), John C. Conley (1955-1977), Loyal Beavers (1977-1978), Warren R. Daasch (1979-1989), and James Wallert (1990-2001).


[1] “100th Anniversary 1871-1971.” Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Omaha, NE. p. 4.

[2] Conversion courtesy of https://futureboy.us/fsp/dollar.fsp.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] “A Successful Jobbing Firm.” Omaha World-Herald. January 3, 1904. p. 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Balance Sheet, Wright & Wilhelmy Co., January 9, 1905. Douglas County Historical Society Collection.

[9] Conversion courtesy of https://futureboy.us/fsp/dollar.fsp.

[10] “Paint, Glass Firm Moving: Wright & Wilhelmy Buys Building.” Omaha World-Herald. January 24, 1965. p. 17.

[11] Ibid, p. 14.

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