Kent’s Supply at 125
May 18, 2017
In the 1870s, Ira Hebert Kent may have heeded the call of New York City newspaperman Horace Greeley when he wrote in an 1865 editorial, "Go West, young man …" and take advantage of the opportunities as the nation expands toward California.
In his late teens, Kent developed a strong passion of wanting to head west to explore the opportunities possibly awaiting him.
"His parents were in the mercantile business in New York City," recalled Karla Kent, owner of Kent's Supply in Fallon and the great, great granddaughter of the intrepid Ira Kent. "As a teen, he wanted to move west, so his dad, who was a merchant, helped him load up a wagon, a spring wagon, so he could sell it once he got out there to make money."
Ira Kent departed New York in 1873, and eventually, his journeys took him to Oregon and California, but in 1875, horse-trading brought him to Nevada. Karla Kent said he spent some time in Virginia City, where he stayed a few months checking out the Comstock, and then traveled to Austin, where he spent the winter of 1875-76 working on the Dalton Ranch near Eastgate. The harsh Nevada winter of the mid-1870s may have persuaded the young Ira Kent to head west again, arriving in Stillwater, the then-county seat of Churchill County where he set up a shop, became a rancher and served as county recorder.
"The rolling green fields of Churchill County made him stay," Karla Kent said with a laugh.
For a small community, everyday life bustled in Stillwater, but after the turn of the century, the county seat moved to Fallon due in part to the Reclamation Act of 1902 that proposed the Truckee Carson project as the state's first federal irrigation site. The Newlands Project, which eventually resulted in the construction of Lahontan Dam and a canal system to move water throughout the valley, changed the county's dynamics. Sen. Warren William sponsored a statute to move the county seat from Stillwater to the emerging city 20 miles west.
So, in 1906 despite his objections, Ira Kent felt he needed to go to Fallon, a town that would eventually outgrow Stillwater. A team of horses pulled his 25-foot by 30-foot store building, which was placed on skids, to Fallon near the corner of Maine and Center streets. According to family history, Karla Kent said her great-grandfather later constructed a building at 240 N. Maine St., to handle the growing call for delivering wood. Also in 1914, Reclamation finished construction of the Lahontan Dam west of Fallon. Three years later Ira Kent acquired a large metal building from the Fairview mine, disassembled it and hauled it to the Maine Street store where he reassembled it. For years it operated as a seed mill.
"The farmers could bring in their crops in at the end of the season to pay for the merchandise they had purchased throughout the year," she shared from an account of the operation. "By the way, I.H. Kent has been accredited with introducing the barter system during the Great Depression and helped Churchill County through the depression."
Ira H. Kent saw the nation beginning to climb out of a devastating depression, but he died on April 23, 1929, shortly after his 60th wedding anniversary.
Through four generations starting with Ira Kent and then moving down the line to his son, Ira Longfellow Kent, grandson son Thomas and now Karla, Kent's Supply has operated continuously for more than a century and is celebrating its quasquicentennial this weekend.
Karla Kent became company president in 1984,and when her father died in 1991, she began a process to buy the family out. In 1996, she became sole owner. The store has endured many changes since her great-grandfather established a general merchandise store in Stillwater near the turn of the century to the year Karla Kent took over. After the company celebrated its centennial in 1992, Kent's Supply experienced growth before the 2008 depression wiped out most of the gains.
"We opened a store in Fernley in 2001, but had to close it in 2008 because of the recession," Karla Kent said. "The recession hit hard."
She shuttered the store and let employees go. Kent's in Fernley was considered a pro-yard business and mainly served contractors with home building supplies. What was once a thriving company with 60 employees was now operating with nine. Of the staff she currently has, which now numbers 16, Karla Kent is grateful for her employees' dedication.
"We've had a core group here for a long time. It's a good group," she said.
That move to close a store and lay off people pained Karla Kent. To add further anxiety, stores such as Lowe's, which opened in Fernley, and Home Depot in the Reno-Carson City area didn't help; yet with the hardships, Karla Kent found a way to reinvent the business and make it prosper again.
"It's cyclical," she said. "Now we're coming back. We have competitive prices. People want to shop locally and check out our prices. Live Local Fallon helps because we have seen people bring in their books (passport books that merchants stamp)."
Furthermore, Karla Kent said the store narrowed its inventory and specializes in doors, lumber and specialty woods for outdoor structures such as pergolas kits and gazebos.
"We're more building supplies … no paints, and we sell lumber with everything that goes with it like fasteners," she pointed out. "What started out as a general mercantile business but over time, we're niche marketing."
Karla Kent said the store returned to its roots and sells feed and chicks. During the flood preparation this spring, she said the store has sold poly sheeting and helped deliver sandbags on pallets to homeowners and businesses living near the river corridor. Her crews used a forklift to remove pallets from the truck.
The fourth-generation owner sees the supply store meeting the needs of future growth in Northern Nevada. She said plans call for remodeling the warehouse and building a new store adjacent to it. She envisions more expansion.
"With Tesla and USA Parkway, they're changing the face of Northern Nevada," she said of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. "I can see Kent's and other businesses grow. I think it will go this way, first to Fernley and then to Fallon."
With expansion on the horizon, she sees nothing but growth and improvement to one of the area's oldest businesses, serving the community beginning before the turn of the 20th century.