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Frigidaire Week at Grayson & Brown

This photo was taken in the early 1950’s when businesses in Columbia were booming after WW II. | RVHS Photo: 1996.068.0003

This is one of my favorite photos and I have it pinned on the wall in my home office. It is a nostalgic reminder to me of our family business that started in the heart of Columbia City in 1904, just 13 years after the first lots were platted and sold in Columbia City. It was the first development in Rainier Valley. 

It all started in a small, one-room store-front facing Rainier Ave., in a new brick building constructed by Simion Toby. The Toby Building, as it was called, had been built the year before in 1903 and was located on the southeast corner of Rainier Avenue and Edmunds Street. The business in that little space was known as the “Grayson Brothers Hdwe. and Furn.” and was run by Ed and Doc Grayson and their Dad. 

Their business grew during those first years and in 1911, needing additional space, they moved into the ground floor of the Brown building to the south. A vacant lot separated the two buildings. It had been constructed by my granddad, Will Brown, and was leased to the Record Publishing Co. that produced the local newspaper,  “The Rainier Valley Record.” That space had become available about 1911 when the owner of the publishing company was killed in an explosion involving his kerosene operated printing press.  

Will Brown started as a laborer laying the tracks in the Rainier Beach area for the new street car line coming out from downtown Seattle. When the line started operating he was a motorman and worked his way up to superintendent. It was the only privately owned street car line in the city. About 1915 he could see another bankruptcy looming for the company that owned the rail line. It had become a regular occurrence for them. He decided to accept the offer from Ed Grayson to join him as a partner in his hardware and furniture business. 

The partnership negotiations were proceeding nicely until my grandmother, Edith, got involved. She was called “Nannie” by all of the family members. It seems that Ed Grayson owned another business in Columbia, in fact right across the street. It was a funeral business and it was quite common in the early days to find funeral and furniture businesses combined. There was a logical reason for this. In those early days, furniture and caskets were made by the local cabinet-makers and they had to have a wagon and a team of horses to transport their products.

 “Nannie” said no way would she be involved in the funeral business and that was final. Ed sold the funeral business and the partnership of Grayson & Brown Hardware & Furniture was formed. The year was 1915.  The funeral business survived, however, and is known today as Columbia Funeral Home, owned by Paul Lewis.

After the first world war my dad came into the picture when the navy sent him to Seattle from his home in Minnesota.  He met Leora Brown, Will’s daughter. They married and he went to work for Will and Ed Grayson in the hardware and furniture business. Then I came along and started working in the store for spending money of 25 cents per hour while I was attending Columbia Grade School. 

My jobs consisted of sweeping the oiled wood floors with sawdust and filling 1 and 5 pound paper bags with either powdered asbestos or a powdered wallpaper adhesive we called “Tic paste”, and restocking the store shelves with them. Another job of mine consisted of filling glass pint bottles with paint thinner, turpentine and boiled linseed oil from 55 gallon drums.

Occasionally, I had to fill those bottles with the very corrosive muriatic (hydrochloric) acid from a big glass carboy encased in a large wooden crate. Diluted, it was used to clean newly installed brick but undiluted, it would “smoke” if I spilled any of it on the cement floor while pouring. I had never heard about safety goggles or resperators.

The pay was enough that I could afford to buy a vanilla malt or a green river drink at the soda fountain in Ed Kinnee’s Drug store on the corner about two times a week. The one thing I really didn’t like about that job however was having to wash all of those bottles in the sink before filling them with whatever product was needed on the shelf in the paint department. 

The empty bottles came in sturdy wooden boxes with dove-tailed corner joints. The company’s name, “Dodge Chemical Co. Boston, Mass ” was printed on each box above their logo and the contents were printed on the ends of the box. In plain words it meant “embalming fluid.”

We would regularly go by the funeral home and pick up those wooden cases of empty bottles for free. I love to collect and use old and particularly odd items so I am comfortable using two of those saved, old wooden boxes as mini bookcases  on my computer table, embalming fluid logo included.   

That was about 65 years ago and I still occasionally run into some past customers that tell me they still have some of those bottles in their basement or garage with the Grayson & Brown labels that I had glued on. 

The business began to expand and a two story addition was added to the north in 1924, filling in the empty lot between the Brown building and the Toby Building.  The floor and roof joists were just secured to the exterior wall of the Toby building forming a common wall between the two buildings. I guess that was the way they did things in those early days. Must have been ok as both buildings survived all of our quakes. 

 Then in 1946, after college, I was working for my dad, Arthur, and his partner Henry Peterson when another two story addition was added to the back of the building. About that same time we knocked a hole in the Toby building wall forming a doorway to a large display area and giving us a side entrance on Edmunds Street. We also put in a stairway to the basement of the Toby building and that space became storage for our large giftware inventory. We needed space for our used furniture and appliances and rented the building across Edmunds Street where the post office was located in the 1920s.

 Then about 1970, the second floor apartments and doctor’s offices in the original building were converted to a furniture sales area., We had 22 employees and about 15,000 sq. ft of floor space.

We were one of the larger Frigidaire appliance dealers in the city in the early 50,s. when the above photo was taken. We started to sell refrigerators on the “meter” plan, an innovative financing method for those days,  particularly suited for customers who had credit record problems. When we would deliver a refrigerator, (when I say “we” I am referring to myself and my brother-in-law George Razwick ), we would attach a metal meter box with a timer and a coin box inside, to the electric cord. To keep the refrigerator operating, the customer, every 24 hours, had to insert a quarter or more depending on the amount owed. Every month the customer would remove the interior coin box from the meter box with a key we supplied and bring it into the store where the cashier in the office would open the coin box with another key, count the quarters and issue a receipt for the payment.

I have thought about that meter box concept many times over the years. The thing that amazed me was we never had anybody try to cheat. All they had to do was cut the cord, install an electric attachment cap and plug it in, but no one ever did. Our customers were honest people. 

Unfortunately we didn’t save any of those meter boxes. I remember the day we were cleaning out the basement and I couldn’t see any practical use for them anymore so they went to the dump. I wasn’t into collecting old stuff in those days like I am now. Probably a good thing but the box and its’ story would have made an interesting artifact for our display cabinet at the Historical Society.

There are many more stories to tell about the business before and after the Frigidaire Week photo was taken but that will have to wait for another photograph and another day.

Days Gone By 

South District Journal 6/12/2002

By Buzz Anderson


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