The Chippewa Valley continues to benefit from the generosity of the Hobbs family.
Hobbs Supply Company started in 1885 when the newly-married William H. Hobbs purchased the stock of D.E. Brown of Nicholas and Brown Co. Located at 213 S. Barstow St., the wholesale distributor changed its name to Nicholas and Hobbs and sold hardware and lumber mill supplies. Though the partners, buildings and businesses changed over the years, William remained at the helm of the business and by the early 1900s expanded with the purchase of Eau Claire Mill and Supply Company. In addition to hardware sales, the company did general contracting business in heating, plumbing and tinsmithing.
By 1907, William was the sole owner of the company and incorporated it as the W. H. Hobbs Supply Company. His son, Roswell, also known as Rossie, joined the business as vice president.
William had many firsts. In addition to being the first plumbing and heating contractor in the city, he was the first automobile dealer in Eau Claire, offering Ford, Chalmers, White and Stanley. At the time, car owners venturing outside of the city limits were dependent on local blacksmiths for recurring repairs and garages were nonexistent. Preferring to stick to more familiar lines, William abandoned the car business in 1913, but it didn’t stop his entrepreneurial spirit. He reportedly was the first to introduce steam heating in this part of the country.
A five-story building was built downtown for the Hobbs Company in 1919. After purchasing Phoenix Manufacturing in 1925, the business also began offering steel-fabricated products.
When William passed away in 1936, Roswell assumed the position of president and his sister, Jessie, became vice president. With the purchase of the A.A. Cutter shoe factory building, the company eventually expanded its operation to an entire block in downtown Eau Claire.
The pair sold the Phoenix Steel Corporation in 1945 and concentrated their efforts in the wholesale supply market once again, departmentalizing into five divisions: hardware; sporting goods; industrial and creamery supplies; electrical supplies and appliances; and plumbing, heating, water systems and air conditioning materials.
Roswell was very community minded and was active in the Kiwanis Club and Masonic organizations. He was a member of the advisory board for the Shrine Hospital for Crippled Children.
Roswell died in 1966 at the age of 75, and Jessie followed in 1976 at the age of 91. Since neither sibling married or had children, they established the Hobbs Foundation to benefit community projects, with a special emphasis on helping children.
Eau Claire Attorney John Wilcox, whose father helped set up the Foundation, admired Roswell, who he said was not only a good business man, but was an avuncular gentleman with a good sense of humor and an interest in the welfare of children.
“I think he had good business sense and vision. He had a pretty good idea of how to move Eau Claire forward as a community,” Wilcox said.
The Foundation awarded about $3.5 million dollars to various community organizations, including $241,000 to Hobbs Ice Arena when it was first built in 1976 and then an additional $528,500 when it expanded in 1985. Other major contributions included $330,000 for a computer training program for the Eau Claire public and parochial schools and $250,000 for the childcare center addition to the District One Technical Institute (now known as Chippewa Valley Technical College). The Foundation also supported the Hobbs Altoona Sports Center, UW-Eau Claire, Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, the Eau Claire Drum and Bugle Corps, Chippewa Valley Museum, the public library as well as a host of other causes. In addition, for 20 years the Foundation provided a college scholarship each year for one graduate of all three Eau Claire high schools.
Although the Foundation was terminated in 1993 as designed, through their hard work and generosity, the Hobbs family legacy will continue to live on.
Article Credit: Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame. By Becky Seelen.