When John L. Clark opened Clark’s Farm Supplies in 1845, he likely had no inkling that his family would continue to supply the Ellicott City, Maryland, community with quality products and project advice nearly two centuries later.
Now known as Clarks Ace Hardware, the 171-year-old business remains a testament to the family’s strong work ethic, top-notch service and ability to evolve with the changing times.
History in the Making
Today, Andy and Jackie Clark own and operate Clarks Ace Hardware, and their daughter Margaret represents the seventh generation of Clarks to work in the business.
Andy Clark, who is the great-grandson of John L. Clark, says the store has been around through many ups and downs, such as both world wars, the Great Depression, fires and floods.
“Several times we almost went out of business, but nobody wants us to be gone,” Jackie says. “We went in, did the best job we could, and there were times I didn’t know if we could make it but we just kept going. Today, we have one of the best bottom line hardware businesses.”
The business opened in 1845, but the Clark family had been in the area many years before that, Andy says. Family members David, John and James Clark emigrated from Scotland as indentured servants to Charles Carroll, he says. Carroll was the largest landowner in the county and had the Clarks farm land in the area.
“Charles Carroll was a signer of the Declaration of Independence,” Andy says. “He started a flour mill in Ellicott City and owned 13,000 acres of land in Maryland. Eventually, Carroll was a nice account for the business and his heirs continue to farm the land and shop at Clarks Ace Hardware.”
Early on, Ellicott City was a thriving delivery and shipping center for local farmers and businessmen who came to Clark’s to buy supplies they needed to complete daily tasks.
Common items purchased at the business ranged from leather harnesses and tack for farm animals to Ontario Drill Carts and their parts, Jackie explains. The business also sold nails, and an old ledger notes show that nails were very expensive because they were handmade, she says.
In addition to stocking products farmers and other locals needed, the store also provided many services, and in 1866, a blacksmith shop was added in the back of the store. Later, when blacksmithing was phased out of the business, other services included coal and fuel oil delivery, machine repairs and parts replacement for farm equipment, Andy says.
Changing Times, Evolving Business
Shortly after Andy and his brother Ed inherited the business from their parents, Hurricane Agnes came through and washed out the store.
Many challenges came their way, but moving locations and gaining more parking space helped the store thrive, and they “doubled the sales the first year,” Andy says.
“We went to the National Retail Hardware Association classes and gained a good perspective on the hardware business,” Andy says. “We realized that we didn’t have a good mix of products. By just taking various classes and statistics from the NRHA, we were able to double business the first year.”
Andy was innovative, and in 1978, Clarks Ace Hardware became one of the first hardware stores in the nation to use computers for business.
“In the 1970s, we had a cash register that allowed us to sort our sales into about 30 departments,” Jackie says. “I remember having to write the totals for items like fasteners, paint, tools and sort it out for the day.”
Jackie was creative with marketing and Andy understood the significance of categorizing and looking at the details.
“We tried to make good management decisions, good purchasing decisions, and we were able to be progressive and do this by using technology and looking at the numbers,” Jackie says.
Moving away from transporting goods via railroad, integrating computers into the business operations and learning to use the internet were some of the changes they tackled over the decades.
Much has changed, but the Clarks plan to keep the business going as family enterprise.
“Our customer service and staying in communication with our customers still remains,” Jackie says. “You can see it in our social media accounts. The format may have changed a bit, but the relationships remain. We are still dedicated to customer service and customer needs. That is something that will take us into the next generation.”