Margaret Meenehan and Sharon Meenehan O’Brian shared with Cathy Farrell a brief history of the Meenehan family who owned a number of hardware stores in the DC area including the favorite one, Meenehan’s Hardware on M Street. From a large family of Irish heritage, the brothers built am impressive hardware business in early to mid twentieth century Washington that was a staple business to the Georgetown Community. The sisters reminisce about their childhood years and comment on taking inventory of the nails and screws at the store, one item at a time, and the poker games that were regular on the upstairs rooms at the hardware store.
Meenehan, Margaret and Sharon O’ Brian,
August 3, 2015.
Location: Georgetown Visitation High School.
Interviewer: Catherine Farrell
Cathy Farrell: I am Catherine Farrell, and I’m here today with Sharon O’Brian and Margaret, “Maggie” Meenehan. We are talking about Meenehan’s Hardware store. The recording is taking place in a room at Visitation Convent School on 34th Street?
Margaret Meenehan: 35th street.
Cathy: 35th street in Georgetown and the date is August 3rd, 2015. Ms. Meenehan, would you talk just briefly so we can identify your voice for the purpose of the transcription later?
Margaret: Hi, this is Maggie Meenehan.
Sharon O’Brian: And this is Sharon Meenehan O’Brian.
Cathy: They are sharing with us some primary sources and some pictures. Would you describe some of these pictures for us?
Sharon: Well this one is of our grandfather, grandmother, all of our parents, aunts, and uncles. And there were nine children. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…
Margaret: They were nine children.
Sharon: My father, Michael Francis, was the second to the youngest.
Margaret: My father was the youngest. Vincent Joseph Meenehan. This is the house that is…this is 1417 Euclid St., Northwest.
Sharon: I believe so.
Margaret: It was a “Wardman” house. [http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/whats_in_a_wardman/5419 ]
Some of the children were born in Ireland and some of the children were born in America. They were back and forth. They were all American citizens, but they were back and forth several times. Our grandfather came here. Let’s see, when did he come here? [laughs] I think I have it.
Sharon: I don’t have the year, but I believe he was quite young. He was only thirteen or something. And then stayed and worked. I think he worked in pubs and so forth. Then he met our grandmother. From what I understand, they went back to Ireland thinking it would be a nice place for children to grow up. I know my father was born in Ireland. I thought Vincent was too.
Margaret: Vincent was born in Ireland. My father was born in Ireland.
Sharon: Some of the older ones were born here in the United States. After they got married, they moved to Ireland to a little town called Ballinrobe, near Galway, not too far outside Galway. He had a lovely home, farm type home with all kinds of animals. My father remembered, besides the normal horses and cows, they had all kinds of things.
They brought their maid with them. It was quite unusual to have an African American over there, helping them with all the children. I’m not sure if they had five or how many of them they had when they decided to go to Ireland.
Then after our fathers were born…I think my father was maybe six…
Cathy: Out of nine?
Sharon: …No, Six years old when he moved back to the States. Our grandfather decided, “No, it’s better to be back in the States.” Then everybody moved back and stayed.
Margaret: Which would’ve been about what year?
Sharon: Well, let’s see. Dad was 98 when he died a year ago. I think it was 1915, was it? When he was born. I’m guessing, right around…
Margaret: So he was two years younger than…?
Margaret: Cesar, so…
Sharon: That’s about right, 1915. So he was born in Ireland in 1915. It was 1921 when he came to the United States. But, he hadn’t lived there long enough to have the brogue like the older ones. Yes, they picked up their brogue when they were over there.
Margaret: My cousin Seth was one of the ones that worked at Meenehan’s on M street. He was called Bo Meenehan. His name was Michael Patrick.
He said my dad was born here. His father carried US citizenship and was therefore immune to search and seizure by the British. He bicycled messages from Ballinrobe to Calmore, after school every day while living there.
After he and Maurice were shot during the Eastern rebellion, someone approached our grandfather and said, “If you want your sons to live, leave the country.”
That’s one of the reasons…
Margaret: Our grandmother served the callers tea. I remember hearing the boys, the other boys, were upstairs hiding. She wouldn’t let them go in. “The black and tans” they were called then.
She wouldn’t let them in. She served them tea. They had never had tea with an Irish woman before. They stayed 3 or 4 hours and the boys were upstairs hiding.
Cathy: Hiding, for safety?
Margaret: Hiding and for safety. So, when they came back, grandfather came to the US as a teenager, during the potato famine. It can’t be because that’s too early. He worked for the Morris family in a saloon that they owned at 14th and Rhode Island Avenues. I heard he was a pretty “fisticuffs” guy.
Cathy: Oh yes, yes he was a boxer.
Margaret: He was a boxer, and that they liked having him behind the bar so he could crowd people.
Cathy: Keep control?
Margaret: Keep control. He decided to go into the hardware business because John was already working in a hardware store further up 14th street. So our grandfather bought a hardware store and the rest is history. He owned many properties in DC, and the family home was 1319 Euclid Street.
And they all went to Central High School. They all danced out at the Rod ‘N’ Reel before the Bay Bridge. The three brothers inherited the hardware stores, and all the girls inherited all the property. And my father left the hardware business, this business, probably in, I’m guessing, 1968 or ’67…
Cathy: And your father’s first name?
Margaret: Vincent. And he went off to have his own hardware store
Cathy: Which one is…?
Margaret: Brookland Hardware, it’s going out, now. I don’t know if you’ve read…
Cathy: Is that the one?
Margaret: Yeah, that one’s going now…
Sharon: But he stayed in the hardware business…?
Margaret: He stayed in the hardware business, but he just, you know…
Sharon: He decided to do his own thing.
Margaret: His own thing.
Sharon: Then my father and John stayed together. Now, did Vincent go to college at all?
Margaret: He went to one year at VMI.
Sharon: My father, Frank, went to the University of Maryland for a year or two. He was studying architecture when I understand granddad said, “You better come back and start running this business.” So, he left the University of Maryland and never left the hardware store again. And they really expanded it, I don’t know…
Margaret: They did expand it?
Sharon: Granddad did, all the stores. Because maybe he had one or two, but they expanded it to five, at least five.
Margaret: Yeah, at least five, there was Glenmont…
Sharon: And Tyson’s Corner…
Cathy: Seven Corners.
Sharon: And Olney, and 16th street. Wasn’t there one on 16th? That is the one that got burned down. So you remember that?
Margaret: That was 14th street, my father kept that one.
Sharon: The Martin Luther King riots?
Margaret: Oh your father did keep that one.
Sharon: In the riots, they…
Margaret: They burned all that area down.
Sharon: But they didn’t. My father put a sign up, “Soul Brother Store.” As my father didn’t keep… You know how you keep tickets on people? And you, you know, jack up the price when they can’t pay that month, and he never…
Cathy: He charged interest?
Margaret: Others charge interest. He never, he never did that. And he was, he’d…
Margaret: …people who were very honest…
Cathy: And ethical?
Margaret: And ethical. That was very important to him. He’d put the trash cans in the Resurrection City. I don’t know if you’ve been in the city for a long time. He donated all the trashcans for Resurrection City, and so they didn’t burn him down. He didn’t lose any… he didn’t lose any of his property.
Sharon: He didn’t lose any inventory?
Margaret: No, but my mother wanted him to leave it.
Cathy: Oh yeah, it was dangerous.
Margaret: It was dangerous. Yeah… we did soon after the riots, leave 14th Street.
Cathy: And when was the M Street store opened? Do you know?
Margaret: I’m trying to think, let me see… It had to be really early.
Sharon: Well, I don’t remember it not being open. I don’t…
Margaret: I don’t remember it not being open.
Sharon: … as a child, so I don’t know when it actually…
Margaret: It had to be, yeah, it had to be very early.
Sharon: But it had the beautiful tin roof and the creaky wooden…
Sharon: It was just a beautiful store.
Margaret: Yeah, it had to be quite early.
Sharon: Well that was one of the oldest ones.
Cathy: Now, when was it closed?
Margaret: I would say probably in the 20s, wouldn’t you?
Cathy: You think it was…?
Sharon: Opened in the 20s.
Margaret: Opened in the 20s…
Sharon: But closed, yeah it closed, it wasn’t closed even after…
Cathy: It was the 80s wasn’t it?
Margaret: Something like that, yeah, so it was quite a long time…
Cathy: Was there a specific reason for closing it?
Sharon: Well, I think all the stores closed, there were not many…
Margaret: Everybody aged out.
Sharon: There were not many males able to do it, and the women didn’t necessarily want to get involved in running it. We didn’t mind helping out inventory and doing that. But, we didn’t want to get involved on a daily basis making that our business…
Cathy: It was just the end of an era, for a family?
Sharon: I think it was the end of an era.
Margaret: And they did not own that property. Some of the other properties they owned but they did not own Georgetown.
Cathy: The M Street?
Margaret: The M Street, they rented, so the rents…
Cathy: Do you know who owned it at that time?
Margaret: I don’t know.
Margaret: The Rents, just, you know…
Sharon: …Went way up, because it was Georgetown.
Cathy: That’s still part of the issue with Georgetown.
Margaret: That’s right.
Cathy: And only the big stores can afford them. How do you feel about the changes that you’ve seen in Georgetown merchandising or retail over the years? Do you have any personal reflection on…?
Sharon: I frankly don’t get down to where the store are much at all. I used to go down there. I liked Georgetown Park. I hear they’ve redone that, so I hope that’s nice again. It ran down. I don’t know some of the shops. I like the more sophisticated antiques or jewelry or nice clothing places.
We do have a number of them in Georgetown not necessarily…I don’t even know what’s in there where our father’s store was.
Margaret: It was at…
Sharon: There is more than one though because…
Sharon: It was a bagel shop for a while, but there must have been another shop too.
Margaret: They were two. It was a bagel shop…
Cathy: I am not sure what it is now. I’ll drive by this afternoon and see.
Margaret: It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to tell, but I know it was…
Cathy: Do you know anything about the clientele that used to shop there? Do you have any stories or recollections that you’ve heard about various different events in the store? Apparently there were a great many very famous people who shopped there.
Sharon: Oh yes. I didn’t get the names from dad that much except for there were a lot of the wealthy Georgetown families that would order from him and get big items, lawn mowers or whatever they needed for their house. My dad supposedly became an…what would you say, an unofficial mayor of Georgetown.
Margaret: Mayor of Georgetown.
Sharon: You’re right, that’s right. He wasn’t voted in, but he was by popular demand.
Cathy: Do you know if there was an association of retail people like there is now with development committees? Was there any kind of retail association in those days? Did you ever…?
Sharon: I never heard of that although I know they were friendly with a lot of the other good solid owners in the area. What was the other hardware store that was up here that they were friendly with?
It was a different type…
Margaret: It was a different family. It was also…
Sharon: Oh, they are a different family.
Margaret: They didn’t sell the same things that we did. They were more into other facets of the ebusiness.
Sharon: I think they are still there.
Margaret: Are they still there? It’s not Restoration, but…
Sharon: It’s not up above. It’s not Restoration Hardware…I can’t remember the name of that.
Margaret: The people at Martin’s Tavern…
Cathy: Weaver Brothers?
Margaret: I think it was Weaver Brothers. Check on that to see if they were on Wisconsin.
Sharon: Close to Alibris Bank down there. They were friendly with…There were two Martins, there was the Martin Tavern which is still there, but then there was another beautiful Martin’s Restaurant. Do you remember that?
Cathy: I don’t.
Sharon: Oh, was quite lovely and they had wonderful branches and they had a piano player in the backroom. They were just called Martins and the Martin’s Tavern was the one up in the corner which is more casual and which is also historical. They were friends with all of these other substantial businesses, but…
Margaret: My father did say that he remembered seeing horses and carts when he was a little kid…
Cathy: Oh! Really?
Margaret: …come up and pull across the way to what is now Dean and DeLuca’s. Dean and DeLuca as it’s now called. They would have been farmers coming in from Virginia.
Sharon: [whispering] Oh! My God.
Margaret: He does remember seeing that and that was…
Cathy: Unique from our perspective!
Margaret: My husband, actually, said he went and played poker with some of the boys upstairs in the hardware store. They had a poker game once in awhile around lunch time. He was working somewhere, the Door Stores or somewhere, and he would go over there and play poker with them. Not knowing that, we were not together at the time that he was just moving around here and working around here too.
Cathy: Tell me about the street-cars.
Sharon: I thought they had a lovely ambiance to them, but they were noisy and they couldn’t drive all those tracks very easily and so forth. I think that part of the stores wanted to get rid of them, but now they are trying to get them back, I think.
Cathy: Were there streetcars on M Street and Wisconsin as well as the tracks that are still on P Street?
Sharon: I think there were.
Margaret: There are some on the old street too. So, I think…
Sharon: I think they were on M Street. I think they were.
Margaret: Because they went all the way out to Glen Echo Park. There was a lot of consternation about it, though, because Glen Echo…they would let black people go in the swimming pool so people stopped taking a line there to Glen Echo. They didn’t support that. And Glen Echo died because of that.
Cathy: How would you describe the inventory of the hardware store? Would you compare it to what’s in a hardware store today?
Sharon: Oh, Gosh. I remember counting all those nails and bolts and screws and all these little items. They were all in these bins. For the inventory, we had to hand-count each one and report it on this grid. I remember all that. I know there were the bigger items. I happen to know where those were actually located, but we were put to count all these detail things.
Margaret: One thing. They were very customer oriented. They would come to your house and help you with your leaky faucet or your toilet…
Sharon: They brought the items to you. My dad would show up with big items.
Margaret: My dad would bring the items to you. They would do that on their way home.
Cathy: House chores?
Margaret: House chores. They explained everything. Everyone that worked there really knew the business. They really knew their business. They really understood the business. They pretty much had everything in stock or they would order it for you. If they didn’t have it they would order it.
Cathy: Did they deal with lumber supplies and things like that or primarily…?
Margaret: I believe so…
Sharon: No, no lumber.
Cathy: Garden supplies?
Sharon: I remember the great big cast iron pans that dad bring would bring home for mom to cook in. They weigh like the Creuset, that kind of heavy.
Margaret: I remember my father telling me he wanted me to take over the housewares department.
Cathy: No, way…
Margaret: Not interested. I like to cook, but I don’t want to do that.
Cathy: It was pretty much a general all-purpose hardware store?
Cathy: A little lawn furniture, maybe?
Margaret: Yeah, and plumbing, electrical and all that.
Sharon: You’d come and find it there.
Cathy: Would you remember what the hours were?
Margaret: I want to say morning till evening to be precise, past five. I don’t remember.
Sharon: I don’t remember.
Margaret: Seems like dad was down there by at least 7:30AM. In those days, I don’t remember that they had the extended hours like they have now all these stores.
Sharon: … five, don’t you?
Margaret: I don’t think they had Sunday hours either.
Sharon: No, I remember it was hard when the Sunday hours came.
Margaret: Yeah, I remember that too.
Sharon: Then the smaller stores like ours would have to compete with the bigger ones, so you had to open up.
Margaret: The Hechinger’s did open up, right? In Tenleytown, I think…
Margaret: …took a hit from there.
Sharon: Because they were bigger and they couldn’t accommodate it, yeah. We didn’t have parking. They had parking on the roof.
Cathy: How many stores ultimately were there with the name Meenehan’s?
Sharon: I think they were at least five. Our fathers expanded what granddad had. I think he had maybe the two, and then it went from there.
Margaret: They advertised on WMAL.
Sharon: Yes, Harden and Weaver.
Margaret: Harden and Weaver. That’s right. Harden and Weaver. It had a jingle I think. I don’t know it.
Sharon: “Meenehan the hardware man, the hardware man is Meenehan.”
Cathy: That was the jingle?
Margaret: That was the jingle.
Cathy: That’s wonderful…great memories.
Sharon: Yeah, very definitely great ones.
Cathy: I was a librarian for a number of years. As I was explaining earlier, Anne Lindbergh included Meenehan’s in her book The Children of Pineapple Place, a fantasy that is set near O and P Streets, west of Wisconsin Ave., in Georgetown.
The children walk in front of Meenehan’s and then cross the street where the horse stood on the corner in front of what is now Dean and Deluca. Remember the horse there? I think it interesting, the fact that Meenehan’s pops up in so many different places when you read about the history of Georgetown. Many people, reminiscing, mention it when they talk about mid 20th century Georgetown.
Margaret: Isn’t that great? We never knew that. We just thought it was important to us.
Cathy: In collecting history, I hear of it frequently. We were delighted to get your voluntary offer to be interviewed.
Margaret: I’m not the best person to be interviewed on this. That’s why I brought Sharon. I thought Sharon…
Sharon: I think between the two of us we have some good memories.
Margaret: I think it’s fun that Sharon and I both are Meenehans. We worked through lots of memories. And we are still in the neighborhood.
Sharon: Not that far from where our story takes place.
Cathy: The family doesn’t really drift away?
Margaret: No. I worked at the City Tavern for quite a while. For a few years, and then had my children, and then came back here. The City Tavern’s still there on M street, lovely club.
Sharon: I lived on S Street for 20 years.
Margaret: You did?
Sharon: Next door to the house at John’s end, on S Street, which [laughs] I didn’t know at all.
Margaret: It was hilarious. I lived on S Street for 23 years. Two or three years into living on S Street, I was in college. One of my cousins, or actually the person that they sold it to said, “We bought this from your uncle.” The house next door to me and I said, “Oh, really?”
Sharon: They said, “Yeah, we used to call him “mean Mr. Meenehan.”
Sharon: Uncle John took the refrigerator out before he sold the house.
Margaret: Maybe he liked that refrigerator [laughs].
Sharon: I think in and around there’s a different place that…I’ve driven by this 14th and Euclid street house several times. Obviously with so many children they owned a lot of property in the Washington area. They all settled here, correct?
Margaret: Yes. Uncle John was in Virginia and he had a large family also. I remember seven children? I can’t remember. He was the oldest except for Mars.
Sharon: They all settled here.
Cathy: How many Johns were there in the three generations? Was there a John for each generation?
Sharon: I think so.
Cathy: Thank you so much for your recollections. The Meenehans were an important part of Georgetown’s business community for years.
For more information, Follow the link below to a Washington Post article, “Meenehan’s Wake” January 24, 1980.