BEAR POPLAR A steady stream of farmers, retirees, grandparents and grandkids filed into an 83-year-old country store in Rowan County on a recent morning to buy everything from feed to soda pop and to sit for a spell in Amish rockers hand-built from hickory and oak.
“You sit in these things and you don’t get up for a couple of hours,” patron Jim Misenheimer said at West Rowan Farm Home & Garden, as other customers bought fertilizer, tractor supplies, die-cast model farm machines and newly introduced homemade fudge.
And to think that several months ago, the store was about to be boarded up, its owner set to retire.
Brian and Elsie Bennett decided the old store needed to live on, for the rural community to which it’s been so indispensable.
The 1,100-square-foot store is on N.C. 801 between Mooresville and Salisbury, about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte. Locals quip that unincorporated Bear Poplar is a “suburb” of Mount Ulla, which is a “suburb” of Mooresville.
To get to the store, take Interstate 77 to Mooresville Exit 36. Head east on N.C. 150 to N.C. 801 and go north eight miles to the store. You’re three miles away on N.C. 801 when you pass a giant red Coble Homogenized Milk carton on the right.
Brian, 45, worked for the store for 16 years, back when it was known as Steele Feed and Seed. He was offered the chance to buy it. He and Elsie knew the economy was bad. They knew the number of full-time Rowan County dairy farmers had declined precipitously and that the feed business was highly competitive, with low margins. They realized the store needed a major face lift.
But the couple also knew what the store meant to the community, Elsie, 38, said. “We found out that this little store means so much to so many people,” she said. “You can compare it to a little Mayberry, where all of the farmers stop by and check in once a day to see what’s going on.”
One customer after the next tells them of special childhood memories coming to the store with their parents, grandparents and great grandparents, she said. Customers remember when the store also had the Mount Ulla Post Office inside. The old mail slots remain.
For 1 1/2 months this fall, the couple worked from early morning to late at night refurbishing the store. They kept the business open by moving all of its inventory to a warehouse attached to the store.
Customers leant a hand with the labor and even donated materials, Elsie Bennett said. “The support and love that we have received has been a true blessing, and we could have not done it without them,” she said.
The Bennetts scrubbed clean the original hardwood floors, which had turned black from decades of dirt. They added tin to cover the ceiling and white pine to the interior walls. They added fresh paint, reorganized the aisles and added taller glass front windows to give the store a more open, inviting feel. “We wanted to take it back to the look of an old general store but at the same time give it a well-needed face lift,” Elsie Bennett said.
“Maybe I should remove my shoes,” longtime customer Travis Hampton, 32, joked after entering the store’s new rear doors. Hampton’s family owns Lazy 5 Ranch, a statewide tourist attraction on N.C. 150. Hampton and some workers pulled in with a horse trailer to buy feed for the horses they take to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte for nightly Christmas carriage rides.
The Bennetts also added numerous new items, including homemade fudge and candy, Mooresville-based DeLuxe ice cream, Case knives, jewelry and other gifts, farm toys, all-Jersey cow Duchess Dairy milk from Rural Retreat, Va., and Duck Dynasty’s Duck Commander and Buck Commander merchandise. They expanded the selection of Purina Feeds and Georgia, Rocky, Muck and Justin boots.
Cole Price, 6, bought a bottle of Nehi orange soda on Wednesday, like he does most every day of the week with grandfather Ben Adams, 65. Cole also used his grandfather’s credit card to buy a die cast model farming disk. Little did he know, his grandfather had visited the store without him earlier that morning to buy Cole a die cast tractor for Christmas.
“This is just bait for his good behavior,” Adams said, bottle of Nehi in hand as he bought the tractor.
Elsie Bennett said she and her husband took “very seriously” the responsibility of running the store. They put a lot of time and prayer into the choices they made, she said. After all, as the store’s new motto says, “It’s not just an old store ... It’s a community.”