When Ned Houst left the Navy in 1965, after serving on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, he had job offers from Firestone Tire and Mobil Oil, but H. Houst & Sons, his family’s Woodstock hardware store, needed a new manager. “I decided to try it for a year,” he recalls. “It’s been a long year.”
As the business, an icon of stability and utility in Woodstock, celebrates its 80th anniversary, Ned, just turning 74, has been gradually handing the business over to Jody Bryan, his wife’s daughter, and Jody’s husband, John Despres. With Jody now president and general manager and John serving as vice president and manager of the equipment rental division, Ned and his aunt, Ruth Houst Kelley, have been looking back over the history of the business that sits smack in the center of Woodstock and has been a presence in the town since 1932.
Ruth describes how her father, Henry O. Houst, weary of New York City and his job as a master electrician with Holland Tubes subway company, moved his family to Sullivan County to try his hand at dairy farming. By the time it became clear that farming was not his ideal occupation, there were six kids in the family. The next stop was Woodstock, where Henry O. and Anna Mae decided to put down roots.
In the depth of the Depression, with Anna Mae suffering from cancer, Henry O. opened a shop on Rock City Road, where he sold and repaired electrical appliances, calling his business the Tinker Shop. He also had a small movie theater with a 16mm projector where he showed movies at 10 cents a seat.
“Dad, as sheriff, also had many calls to go to the Maverick Festivals to deal with a variety of ‘incidents,’” Ruth remembers. “Sometimes I went with Dad but always had to remain in the car — it was a bit wild out there.”
In the late 1930s, Ruth’s oldest brother, Henry L., became interested in the business. After adding hardware, tools, and paint to their stock, the Housts moved to a bigger store on Mill Hill Road. Anna Mae completely recovered and worked as bookkeeper and financial manager.
Another brother, Milton, became involved when he returned from service in World War II. Henry L. bought the building that currently houses Houst & Sons, at the bend where Mill Hill Road turns into Tinker Street. Ruth and her sister Dorothy hand-carried much of the merchandise across the street to the new store. “Dottie and I also worked at the new store part-time,” Ruth recalls. “Our husbands were both involved in the war, and we each had a baby, so we took turns babysitting and working.”
At Henry O.’s death in 1950, his sons became co-owners of the business. Milton sold his share to Henry L. in 1956 but returned to manage the store in later years. Henry L. supervised at a distance, hiring a manager so he could pursue a career with Firestone, where he became a vice president.