Pegg Cassinelli-Beeson and her brother Tony Cassinelli, pictured in front of Wichita Feed and Hardware, grew up helping out at the store. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Pegg Cassinelli-Beeson and her brother Tony Cassinelli, pictured in front of Wichita Feed and Hardware, grew up helping out at the store. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

MILWAUKIE — On one aisle a contractor might select screwdrivers, while nearby a backyard naturalist peruses squirrel feeders, a DIYer scans swivel clamps and a jug-band musician picks up a washboard to give it a strum.

“There’s virtually nothing that they don’t have,” said Steven Hopman, standing near a set of wrenches and an assortment of light-switch covers. Nearby an American flag hangs above a nylon rope selection.

The venerable spot is Wichita Feed and Hardware, which opened on Johnson Creek Boulevard in 1937. Since then it’s been operated by three generations of Cassinellis, an Italian Catholic family with a proclivity for hard work, generosity, down-to-earth friendliness and fix-it hacks (shared readily at the request of customers flummoxed by home projects).

Hopman is a member of St. Michael Parish in Sandy and attended Catholic school with the Cassinelli kids.

“These guys really know their stock,” said Hopman. “If you need a certain kind of sewer fitting, they know right where it is and how you’d install it and so forth.”

When the store opened in 1937, it primarily sold feed to farmers in the region. As the area changed, the Cassinellis added more hardware. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

More than 84 years ago, when Peter Cassinelli embarked on his business venture, the surrounding community was known as Wichita and included large swaths of farmland.

“He sold feed to the farmers around here, but now it’s mostly industrial and backyard farmers — or aspiring backyard farmers,” said 69-year-old Pegg Cassinelli-Beeson, a member of Christ the King Parish and current co-owner of the store with her younger brother Tony.

Peter’s son Henry helped out at the store growing up and eventually took over running it with a U.S. Army pal.

Henry and his wife, Sally, had eight children — Pegg is No. 6, Tony No 7 — all of whom attended St. John the Baptist School. When Christ the King was established nearby, the Cassinellis were one of the original parish families, donating lumber for the church.

“They’ve been outstanding parishioners and benefactors of the parish, most recently supporting the parish school,” said Msgr. John Cihak, current pastor. “They have a great deal of generosity.”

Henry and Sally later were involved at St. Philip Benizi in Redland, and at age 81 Sally regularly volunteered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. 

Catholic values always have guided how the family interacts with its diverse customers.

“We were taught to treat everyone as equals,” said Pegg. “Certainly we [might] disagree, we [might] have different political views. But I believe it’s OK for them to think one thing and for me to think another.”

Hard work is also part of the family culture. “Right after Thanksgiving dinner we’d all come down here,” Pegg recalled. “We had an attic where we stored all the Christmas stuff, and we’d have a chain line goin’ and we’d throw stuff down and put it on shelves. And that was our Thanksgiving day.”

Pegg grinned, adding that sometimes there was payoff for the elbow grease as children. A small grocery store was located next door, and her dad often gave the kids a nickel or dime to spend as they chose; typically it funded a heap of penny candy.

“The store owners knew us, and we’d share with them and other neighbors if they needed something,” said Pegg. “That was a part of our Catholic upbringing.”

Such connectedness with locals continues, and many nearby business are among those with accounts at the store.

Even with its large collection of hardware items, Wichita continues to offer feed for livestock. There’s also organic chicken food, high-end dog and cat food, and grub for potbelly pigs.

Some customers are musically inclined and come in search of washboards.

“People use them for washing up in the wilderness, but a lot a guys use those for instruments,” said 68-year-old Tony, holding up washboard and giving it a few strokes.

Pegg, a member of the first graduating class of La Salle Prep, earned a degree in education from Oregon State University, then taught at a Montessori school before working full-time at the store.

She loves the job, but there have been rough patches.

“Not lately but early on, being a female in this busines — people think we don’t know anything,” she said. “I don’t know everything, but I do know enough to help most of the customers, and if I don’t know I’ll get help that does.” 

Pegg Cassinelli-Beeson lugs dog food on a recent afternoon. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

There’s also been financial stress. “My dad never told us he was struggling, but there were hard times and he had eight kids to feed,” said Pegg. And when big-box stores came into the area, “we were going month to month sometimes.”

In typical Cassinelli fashion, the family formed relationships with employees at the bigger stores. “We’ll now send people there if we need to and they’ll send us customers,” Pegg said.

The pandemic meant new challenges, such as complying with ever-changing health regulations. Nevertheless, people’s long stint at home was beneficial for the bottom line.

“Our feed business boomed, and you couldn’t keep enough planting soil or seeds in stock,” said Pegg. “I think every store like ours will tell you that.” 

Nearly every cranny and nook of the store is filled with diverse merchandise —from the nylon rope pictured here to horse feed, fertilizer, automotive equipment and painting supplies. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

Tony and Pegg have learned to expect the unexpected over the years. Cars whizz along busy Johnson Creek Boulevard, and three times a vehicle has crashed into the store. The most recent incident, in November, was the most destructive. A driver experienced a medical emergency and veered into the building, ploughing through a wall and shelving. For months Tony and Pegg were repairing the damage and reordering merchandise.

“Luckily no one was hurt,” said Pegg.

The brother and sister sometimes fret about the future. “We’d like the business to stay in the family, but the younger generation has other jobs, and we don’t really have any family to pass it along to,” said Pegg. They’ve been training one especially dedicated employee to possibly take over. “But I’m not really sure what will happen when we retire,” Pegg said.

Retirement is not in the works quite yet, though, and they still look forward to opening the store each morning (except Sunday — “that’s the Sabbath,” said Tony).

“I enjoy the people,” said Pegg. “Many customers we’ve known since we were kids.”

Tony said the job is most fulfilling when they can help solve a customer’s predicament.

“We don’t have a problem telling them if they are wrong,” said Pegg, laughing. “I think they don’t mind that. And if we don’t know what to do, we’ll send them somewhere that can help them.”

When asked why the store gets such high marks on Yelp and other rating sites, Tony and Pegg deflect the credit.

“It’s because we have a good clientele of regular people,” said Tony.

One regular customer is George Todd, whose been frequenting the store for 15 years. “They have the variety and all the hard-to-find parts and pieces and bolts and heavy duty stuff like a contractor or a farmer needs,” said Todd, paying for his pickax. “This is one of the go-to places, I’m telling you.”