Cliff's True Value Hardware

Larry Tonjes helps Linda Mielke, a longtime customer of Cliff’s True Value Hardware in Lake Wales. The store closed its doors for good recently after more than four decades in the community.

LAKE WALES — For 44 years, Cliff’s True Value Hardware has been a constant in downtown Lake Wales, providing common and not-so-common hardware store items at fair prices.

Over time, staff there endured and found success despite obstacles including location changes, a fire and competition in the form of big box stores and other mom-and-pop shops.

But, earlier this month, the family-owned and operated business closed its doors for the last time. Looking forward to retirement, Larry Tonjes — whose father, Cliff, began the store — said he felt their success might have been due to their work ethic.

“We enjoyed being at the store – every aspect of it,” Larry said. “We had faith in downtown Lake Wales, too.”

Originally from Indiana, the Tonjes family moved to Lake Wales as owners of a hardware store. They had opened a Western Auto Hardware Store in their hometown of Tipton but after visiting central Florida on vacation, Cliff – the patriarch of the family – thought living in Florida would be better than just visiting.

So, in 1976, Cliff and his wife, Carol, settled their three children into what became home for the Tonjes family. Cliff’s True Value opened in its first location at 140 East Park Avenue and, after a couple of years, moved two doors down. In 2003, the building was destroyed by fire, along with all the contents. That’s when they opened in the third and final location — on the corner of Park Avenue and First Street.

The hardware store is known for having most anything one would need around the house at a fair price — plus a few unexpected items, as well. Yard flags, puzzles and greeting cards once lined the shelves next to common hardware items.

“I have enjoyed going to (trade) shows and finding deals,” Larry said. “We’ve had a willingness to try other things than the typical hardware store carries.”

The family also found ways to get customers through the door, such as providing five cent copies, fax services, knife sharpening and keys made – buy one, get one for $1.

Cliff and Larry were both active in the community and local government. Additionally, Cliff started the Murals and Enhancements Program in the downtown area. This project is responsible for the several murals painted on buildings in efforts to make the area more aesthetically pleasing.

Cliff’s Hardware employed only family members. Carol Tonjes often worked for the store at home by assembling Sauder furniture.

“She must have assembled thousands of pieces of furniture,” Larry recalled.

Larry said he started helping out when he was in eighth grade and never considered working anywhere else as an adult. After graduating from college with a business degree, he continued his career at the hardware store. And, since 2003, his sister, Debra, drove every workday from Brandon – 60 miles each way – to help in the family business. The other Tonjes sibling, Dawn, lives in Titusville and has helped when needed — just like Cindy, Larry’s wife.

And, although Cliff retired in 2003 after the fire, he still came to work every day as a “consultant.” When word got around town that Cliff’s would be closing, lots of folks stopped in for the sale.

But, then, there were a few who just came by to say thanks. Residents will still probably see Larry around town volunteering at the Lake Wales Care Center, where his wife now works part-time.

“Over the years, it’s hard to remember the names of all the hundreds of customers we’ve had — but we appreciate them,” Larry said. “We’ve enjoyed the years.”