Gwen Schoen / Bee file 2007

Placerville Hardware's aisles are packed with handy stuff old and new.

Discoveries: Lots of history and fun at Placerville Hardware

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

Look down when you walk in. That wood floor on which you trod in your squeeky Crocs or Nikes is the same that once supported the spur-studded boot heels of 49ers clomping through.

Scuff marks pock, but do not mar, parts of the surface. Other than some slight warping, the ravages of time actually have been kind to these historic planks, nary a knothole visible to ruin the glabrous expanse. Brass tacks are strategically nailed down, but those are functional – to measure rope the old-school way.

Now look up. Take a gander at the rest of Placerville Hardware, which turned 160 years old this summer.

It's an eclectic mix of old and new: wooden troughs of nails near the Snap-on tools; sluice boxes and wok-sized gold pans across from fancy "home furnishings" for the missus; rolling ladders that reach to the ceiling for just the right fix-it doodad that can't be found on the newfangled spinning racks of shrink-wrapped merch for home and hearth.

Now try to follow, if you can keep up, Albert Fausel as he helps customers.

He's way in the back, counseling a couple through a lawn-sprinkler exchange, assuring that he can "knock off" a couple of bucks. Then he's up front telling two kids that, sorry, but he doesn't carry the type of fishing reels they seek but, wait, let him check one last place. Nope, sorry. And, off he goes to take care of a modern-day miner who has come in to pick up gold-panning equipment.

Albert is the third generation of Fausels running the shop on Placerville's bustling Main Street with the can't-miss sign proclaiming, "The Oldest Hardware Store West of the Mississippi."

Strange to say, but Placerville Hardware has become something of a tourist destination, even for those whose skills lean more toward software. History resides here, in the very flooring as well as the Gold Rush lore contained within the walls of brick and rock straight from Hangtown Creek.

Fausel's family has owned the place for 60 years but, heck, that makes them mere newcomers. The store had a century of history before the Fausels took over. Joseph Smith and I.H. Nash opened for business in 1852, then rebuilt four years later after a fire leveled the building and most of the main drag.

The store certainly seems to be in steady hands under Albert, 34, who has staunchly maintained the rustic hominess while also staying trendy by upgrading the online presence and carrying the latest gadgets you'd find at big-box behemoths.

"I grew up in here as a kid," he said. "It was really fun. I helped them tear down the brick to expand the walls to build our ladies side. Have you seen our old rolling doors, where they used to go in and out (of rooms)? We used to have a counterweight elevator over here, but Grandpa took it out because (the city) wanted him to put a fence over it so no one'd get hurt. Now I've got to carry stuff upstairs. Thanks, Grandpa."

Fausel speaks with the breathy excitement of a kid, augmented by the Giants baseball cap, with his curly black mop of hair escaping out the sides, he likes to wear around the store.

When he gets to the ladders attached to ceiling runners that employees use to whip around to hard-to-reach shelves, Fausel doesn't just reminisce; he hops aboard and shows how you propel yourself forward, involving a scooting, push-pull maneuver.

"I crawl up and work my way down the line like this," he said, putting his hips into it. "Oh, I had a blast when I was kid. But I still miss the fireplace. Everybody'd huddle around it and tell stories.

"I'd come up to the nail bins. See, our cash registers were on this side (of the counter) and I'd dig through the nail bin and pull out money, because nobody'd want to reach down and get the change out of there and get hit by a nail. I'd get enough money to get chocolate milk down the road."

He moves on hurriedly, eager to show off more history.

"Here's the gold slot on the counter," he continues, "Back in the day, the miners used to put their gold dust on a scale. It's like (the film) 'Paint Your Wagon' – there may be gold dust in our floorboards still."

The gold fever is not some dim memory to Fausel and others in Placerville. High gold prices have revived forty-niner fever, and Fausel said he does brisk business selling panning supplies.

In fact, he himself has been known to crouch in the creek and swirl the pan.

"Oh, it's huge, big time," Fausel said. "We used to sell dynamite and blasting caps back in the day. Now, we do the gold pans, metal detectors, sluice boxes. A lot of these people are out of work, sold their houses, got a mobile home and dredgers. But the (state) illegalized dredging, so everybody's out sluice-boxing, gold panning and stuff like that.

"I joined the treasure seekers club in town. They get you into the good spots. I go every night after work. Last night, I went out with my buddy and got quite a few flakes."

Enough riches, maybe, to leave the seven-days-a-week grind of running a hardware store?

"Uh, no, you'd need quite a bit," he said, smiling. "It's a hobby. But I have collected enough to make a ring, you know."

You might say, if you wanted to get all sappy, that the most valuable jewel he could ever find is that wood floor under his feet.

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