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Boreal Community Media

Buck’s Hardware Hank sold to Maryland couple

Jul 05, 2019 05:56AM ● By Editor

On the left, Buck Benson shakes hands with Stephen Skeels, the new owner of Buck’s Hardware Hank. After 42 years Buck Benson is calling it a day and retiring. He plans on spending time working in his garden, visiting friends and riding his bike. As for Stephen, you can find him at Buck’s. He and his wife Jean are purchasing a house on Devil Track Lake in the next week and should be settled in with three of their four children here initially. Photo: Brian Larsen

By Brian Larsen of the Cook County News Herald - July 5, 2019

On June 26, 2019, Buck’s Hardware Hank was sold to Stephen and Jean Skeels, a married couple who are in the process of moving to Grand Marais from Forest Hill, Maryland.

Stephen and Buck Benson stopped by the News-Herald office on July 1 to share some details of the sale and share what they hope the future holds for each of them.

Stephen was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he majored in political science. After graduating he proceeded to get his MBA at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After living the corporate dream for more than 25 years, Stephen said he and his wife were looking for a place like Grand Marais to call home for their family for a long time.

When they found Buck’s Hardware Hank was for sale they came to visit last January during the Polar Vortex and despite the nasty weather, they fell in love with the community, the school, forests, rivers, lakes and land.

“This area fits us. We like to run trails, bike, kayak and we wanted to buy a business we understand and can grow. I have been in the tool industry my whole life. We wanted to make a change, and after looking around, this place fits us the best of the places we explored,” Stephen said.

Jean will work in the store some, said Stephen, but he added that she also wants to look at other options. She is a yoga instructor who teaches people how to become yoga instructors, and she is an end of life Dula.

In her free time, Jean likes to run trails and compete in marathons and ultra marathons, he said.

Both Jean and Stephen have retail experience. They spent five and one-half years working for Sears and Target in retail. One thing that will stop is moving from place to place. They have lived in Franklin, Wis., Augusta, Wis., Mendham, New Jersey, Glastonbury, Conn., Manlius, New York, as well as Australia, Thailand, and Shanghai, and other places as well in the U.S. as the family moved for Stephen’s career as an executive for Stanley Black & Decker. 

“I have been in the tool industry pretty much my whole career,” Stephen said.

The couple has four children. Meg is 29 and lives in Rockford, Illinois. Mason, who is 20, is taking a year off from college to spend a year here in the community and work at least part-time in the store. Avery is 18. She will be leaving to attend college in West Virginia early this August, and then there is Harper. Harper is 14 and will attend Cook County High School this fall.

Initially, Stephen said there wouldn’t be any changes at Buck’s. He is keeping the staff, and he added, “They are training me right now. There’s a lot for me to learn about the store.”

Like Jean, in his free time, Stephen pursues kayaking and mountain biking, and he is a trail runner. The couple is closing on a house on Devil Track Lake on July 8.

As Stephen said, “If you don’t live on a lake you can think you are going to kayak a lot, but in reality, you can throw your kayak on top of your vehicle and never get out kayaking unless you live right next to the water.”

As for Buck, through the years he has been noted for his adventures around the globe, whether they are hiking, long-distance biking, mountain climbing, kayaking, etc., he said he plans to stay in the community this summer, work in his garden, ride his bicycle and try to let retirement sink in.

“I will help in the store if Stephen and Jean need me to,” he said. 

A little history

Two brothers, Sherman and Harold Benson, bought Midway Service in 1946 from Butch Shermer.

Sherman, Buck’s dad, and his uncle, Harold Benson, sold cars, boats, snowmobiles, guns, gasoline, heating oil, dry ice, and had a shop in back where Fred Holmes worked on small engines, and along with Bernie Larsen fixed thousands of flat tires and performed countless oil/ lube jobs on vehicles. There was also an attached laundry mat with an attendant in the back of the building, and then as now, they sold a lot of bait and tackle.

After attending Saint Cloud State and graduating in four years, Buck took a job with Sperry Rand Corp. However, his dad and uncle were aging, and his mother would call and ask him to come home on weekends and help at Midway, as it was called then, which he faithfully did.

The last call from his mother made to him, she asked him to come for a year, and, “now it’s been 42 years,” Buck said with a laugh.

Buck added hardware in 1985 when he and his family bought out Everett Bushman’s Gamble’s hardware products when Ev decided to close up his shop.

Midway burned down in 1988 and it was a total loss. “We didn’t have enough insurance money to cover the business, let alone have enough money to put up a building. We got a loan from the county for the building, and I took out a mortgage on my home and borrowed $38,000. There was a hardware store in Pine City that was going out of business. I bought the merchandise and an old pick-up truck with it and rented half of the building from my parents.”

To make a go of it office space was developed and rented to John McClure, and insurance broker, and later to realtor Mike Raymond. As Buck could afford it, he grew his business, eventually purchasing it from his parents and relatives. When Holly Nelson decided to retire Buck bought out his Radio Shack business and made a store back where the paint supplies are now located. “I had 18 years, good years, with Radio Shack,” Buck said.

When asked what he will miss most, Buck didn’t hesitate.

“Over the years I formed lifelong friendships with employees and customers, which are a big part of my life. It’s what made me want to go to work.

“I had some great employees. There are still great employees there. Greg Montgomery was with me for 29 years, he retired on March 4, 2019. It was the end of an era. He meant a lot to the business.”

As one era ends, another begins. Stories of big fish caught and lost echo in the walls. Deer hunters will still come to weigh their bucks. Arguments about which bait works best to catch certain fish will never diminish. And after all of the changes and more to come, Midway, famous for where the sportsmen and sports women meet, the halfway point between Duluth and Thunder Bay, will remain a place where friendships are made, memories will grow and then fade, but never really leave.

Editor’s note: In grade school I dug worms and hunted night crawlers, selling them to Midway, fetching 12 cents for a dozen night crawlers and 35 cents for 50 fat angleworms.

At age 14 I began the first of five summers working for Harold and Sherman. They were great bosses, kind, hard working men who expected a lot but gave more back if the effort was there. Near the end of my time as a Midway boy, Sherman told me I was the only employee he ever had that never made even a single mistake on a credit card purchase. The next day I made a 50-cent mistake against the company and offered to pay it back. Sherman, wearing a bemused smile, said no. “You have two days left and I had to open my big mouth. I cursed you,” he said, and then we laughed until our sides hurt.

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