Special Reports

Morse: A business name that has endured

If you're going to cut down trees, turn them into lumber and build a house, you're going to need hardware.

Robert I. Morse arrived in Whatcom County in 1884 ready to ride the wave of homesteading here. He brought his wife, Etta, their son Cecil and about $3,000 worth of paints, oils, guns and wallpaper. Then he opened a store near the waterfront and moved his family in above it.

Business was slow at first, but Morse capitalized on any opportunity using his business acumen. His motto, "Sell 'em low, send and get more," created a loyal customer base, and his networking landed him enough wholesale business to really get things rolling.

"You can't get much more historical in Bellingham than Morse Hardware," said Jeff Jewell, photo historian at Whatcom Museum of History & Art. "It's the longest-running continuously operating business in Bellingham, and R.I. Morse was one of the great boosters of Sehome."

By the time the railroads arrived in the early 1890s, Morse was poised to take advantage of the market they brought.

In 1902, the company's headquarters took shape at 1025 N. State St.

When World War I started, Morse supplied lumber and other materials for shipbuilding. When new technology made the mass canning of seafood viable, he jumped into that industry, too.

He had an eye for potential markets and the drive to make the connections. He died in 1920, leaving the business to son Cecil.

Like his father, Cecil had a nose for good business. When the Depression hit in 1929, Cecil battened down the hatches and survived the economic gale without closing shop.

The loyalty of his employees, willing to take a pay cut so the business could survive - and they could keep their jobs - didn't hurt during the lean years of dwindling customers and outstanding bills.

World War II brought the same kind of advantages for Cecil as the first great war had for his father. Down at Bellingham Shipyards, located where Bellingham Cold Storage is today, workers were building ships for the war effort - lots of them. Cecil kept them supplied with the hardware they needed.

When Cecil died in 1958, his younger brother, David C. Morse, assumed leadership of the company and continued creating a client list of large industrial companies while phasing out retail sales. During his tenure, he signed contracts with Mobil Oil, Intalco Aluminum, Georgia-Pacific and Atlantic Richfield.

In 1979, Bob Morse stepped into the well-worn shoes of grandfather Robert, uncle Cecil and father David to lead the company into the 21st century. Last year, another generation stepped forward. Bob Morse's son, Mike, became president and chief executive officer, with Bob becoming company chairman.

Today, the family business is Morse Steel Service, supplying carbon steel products to heavy industry and operating out of a warehouse in Bellingham. The company's offices, however, remain in the original building on State Street nearly 120 years later.