Customers rolling with the changes in Bear Poplar

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2012

BEAR POPLAR — Farmers spend their lives adapting — to the weather, technology, research and markets.

So change is something they can deal with. When Brian and Elsie Bennett decided to transform the 83-year-old Steele Feed & Seed to their own West Rowan Farm Home and Garden store, you would have expected the regulars to balk.

Instead, they’ve welcomed the facelift. Besides, the store still has a place set aside for farmers to gather and solve the problems of the world.

“It really needed this — a new face,” says Ted Luther, a farming partner with his brother Ben.

The Luthers stop in most mornings — and afternoons, if the truth be told — to sit in the new rocking chairs toward the back next to an old-fashioned cookstove.

They brag about the comfort of the Amish-made chairs from Ohio, which can be purchased, by the way. When all four rockers are occupied, other visitors will flip over some 5-gallon buckets for seats and join the circle of conversation.

“A lot of people call it b-s,” Ben Luther acknowledges.

A topic on this particular day related to a wreck the previous Saturday on Ketchie Road. “Somebody said they rolled,” Ben Luther says.

Three generations of Steeles, a family important to the history of both Bear Poplar and Rowan County, owned and operated this store on N.C. 801 at Graham Road.

When John Steele decided to sell this year, he offered the business to Brian Bennett, who had worked for Steele Feed & Seed for 16 years.

It was a big opportunity — and a major decision — for Brian and his wife, Elsie.

“We prayed a lot about it for a long time,” says Elsie Bennett, who worked full-time as a medical secretary and nursing assistant at Carolinas Medical Center-Northeast in Concord. “Once we handed it over to God, everything fell in place.”

Thanks to a loan from the Bank of North Carolina, the Bennetts purchased the business and closed the 1,100-square-foot store section for six weeks to reinvent the place.

As Elsie Bennett says, cows have to eat, so they kept the warehouse portion of the business running so farmers could still purchase their feed, seed and fertilizer.

What the Bennetts didn’t expect, as they went about making their cosmetic and merchandise changes was all the support they received from the community.

People would offer to sweep floors, carry out trash, stock shelves and donate things such as nails, time and even money.

“It makes me emotional,” Elsie says, apologizing for the crack in her voice. “It’s been very sincere and heartfelt.”

She carries a strong sense of the community’s wanting her family to succeed and keep the store’s doors open.

The Bennetts know many instances of people who first came to the store with their grandparents and how those folks want to bring in their own grandchildren today.

Several men in this Bear Poplar-Mount Ulla-Cleveland area of western Rowan County also were at the store as kids, so there is a strong connection there.

To stay in business, the Bennetts knew they had to make changes, but they also wanted to keep the feel of a general store.

“We don’t want to lose the old country store atmosphere,” Brian Bennett says, “because the guys back there make the place.”

Two weeks ago, the Bennetts reopened under a new name — West Rowan Farm Home and Garden.

“Farm” had to come first, Elsie Bennett says, because the store still provides the Deal Rite and Purina feeds, tools, boots, insecticides, fertilizers and seeds to customers.

But the new store features things such as a large case of homemade fudge, a cooler of DeLuxe ice cream products, 100 percent Jersey milk, old-fashioned candies, McLaughlin sausage and livermush, cheese, custom-printed T-shirts, toys, Western jewelry, women’s boots and an assortment of other gifts — many of which are sold on consignment for local artisans.

Gina Compton is selling her custom bridles, for example. And the store has David Allen’s honey.

A corner of the store also is devoted to Duck Commander and Buck Commander merchandise, made popular by the cable reality show, “Duck Dynasty.”

The boots include Georgia, Rocky, Muck and Justin brands.

“It’s nice to go to a feed store and be able to buy things not necessarily farm-related,” says Ryan Sloop, who visits the store regularly with the family dog, Macy.

Brian Bennett credits his wife for the shift in merchandising, aimed at bringing in more women, children and young adults.

The atmosphere they’ll find is much brighter. The front windows have been opened up. The store has a new tin ceiling and white pine paneling on the walls. The 83-year-old hardwood floors were refinished — the only job the Bennetts, their friends and family didn’t do themselves.

The outside was pressure-washed, sanded, sealed and painted a new color, with the help of Elsie’s brother, Joshua Barrett. Joseph Bennett, the couple’s son, laid brick for the chimney.

Inside, furniture such as old seed bins were repurposed to hold merchandise.

The Bennetts actually devised a rather long survey, with room for written comments, that they mailed to residents throughout Mount Ulla. It asked for feedback on what they wanted from a rejuvenated Bear Poplar store.

“People felt like they were a part of it,” Elsie Bennett says. “… It’s good to see the community excited for us.”

Just in two weeks, the Bennetts have seen new faces, especially women and high school kids after school.

Their new slogan for the store is, “It’s not just an old store, it’s a community.”

The Bennetts have set up a Facebook page for the store, and a website is on their to-do list, as is reconstruction of a greenhouse on site in the spring when they plan a grand opening.

They’ve also filmed a television commercial, which will be aired in the Mooresville, Troutman and Huntersville area. The Bennetts say they are the closest feed store to those parts of Iredell and northern Mecklenburg counties.

Brian Bennett said through the grace of God all the store changes happened while it wasn’t cold and there was hardly any rain.

Elsie says the store will be offering free popcorn on Saturday mornings, and she and Brian hope to offer free homemade ice cream in the summer.

“Little gestures go a long way,” Elsie says.

The old-timers in back recall a Bear Poplar with two cotton gins, three or four stores and a blacksmith shop.

The Steele store once served as the post office. The community’s outgoing letters would be placed in a mail bag and attached to a pole next to the railroad tracks. Conductors on a passing train would snag the mail bag as they went through Bear Poplar.

The first generation of Steeles started with a grocery store, which the second generation, Hall Steele (John’s father), changed to a feed and seed store.

But farming’s demographics have completely changed over the years. Ryan Sloop, who works on his family’s dairy farm, says you can now count the remaining dairy farmers in Rowan County on two hands.

The number of farmers in general is low, so Sloop understands why the feed and seed store had to adapt to new markets.

But the Bennetts and their store are still like old country doctors. Their customers know they can count on them anytime.

On a recent Sunday morning, a farmer rapped on the Bennetts’ door at home, asking whether Brian could sell him a cattle prod so he could move cows later that day.

Brian gathered his keys, drove to the store and located the tool.

“We ain’t ever closed,” he says.

And the greater Bear Poplar area appreciates that.

West Rowan Farm Home and Garden’s regular hours are from 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-noon Saturday.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or