CHINA GROVE — The smells, really, are what tease your memories. The sharpness of cedar shavings. The sweetness of molasses. The piquant aroma from the bags of fertilizers.
A lot may have changed over the last 50 years at Goodman Farm Supply, but the place smells pretty much the same.
There are so many smells, in fact, that when Alan Goodman’s grandson disappeared in the store two years ago, the search dogs didn’t really know where to go. The grandson, by the way, was fine. He’d crawled under some shelves and went fast asleep. Firemen from across the street at Station 43 found him, after they formed a line and inched through the store.
That’s about the most exciting thing that happened here in the last 50 years, says Alan, who manages the store with his father, Walter.
It’s not like the store’s been robbed, right?
“That, too,” Alan says.
About the time he got out of high school, thieves came in one night and took apart what he thought was a solid antique safe.
But that was a long time ago, and the rhythm of one day now pretty much flows into another.
Alan gets to the store every morning in time to open by 8. It’s dark and warm when he arrives, not unlike the inside of an oven after you’ve baked a cake and cut it off. But he throws open the doors on three sides of the building, and turns on any number of fans. In the early-morning hours, it’s actually pretty pleasant for awhile. The clanging outdoor bell that serves as the telephone ringer is the only noise to interrupt the solitude. Of course, that solitude only lasts a few minutes before customers start ambling through the doors.
Walter comes in later in the morning. The two men still farm about 170 acres.
“If you want a quality product,” Alan points out, “you have to grow it yourself.”
That includes barley, oats, corn, soy, fescue hay.
On Saturday mornings, Alan cranks up the giant vertical mixer on the store’s dock and makes horse feed. He adds salt, calcium and wet molasses to corn and oats. He mixes a ton — no, seriously, 2,000 pounds — two to three times a week. A horse can eat 50 to 75 pounds of feed a week, he notes.
Sure enough, the next week, customers come in and load up on horse feed.
The store also makes cow feed, chicken feed and pig feed, in addition to selling bags of packaged dog food from Southern States and Sportsman’s Pride.
When he was in school, Alan remembers trucks lined up at the dock, the local farmers waiting to have grain processed.
“Lifestyles have changed,” he says. “Nobody wants to stay home and do the dirty work of the farm. We’ve seen a decline. Southern States has shut down several feed mills.”
Goodman Farm Supply keeps plugging away on Main Street. According to a plaque out front, the building was constructed in 1881. It was originally an office area for Patterson Mill, and later became the company store owned by FCX. The store eventually went bankrupt, and Walter and his brother Elmer borrowed $1,500 to purchase the store in 1963.
“I was born in 1942, I got married in 1962, and we started here in 1963,” Walter remembers.
He still works every day, but he farms a lot of the time, too. Walter is deliberate in speech and manner, and he is organized. He’s the kind of man who wants ½-inch bolts in the ½-inch bolt bin, not the metric bolts. He’s meticulous about keeping all the nuts and bolts upstairs in the right place.
“This is why we don’t have open corn bins anymore,” he says. “People mix it up.”
You might wonder how a 20-year-old was able to buy a business. Walter had worked at the FCX fertilizer plant in Salisbury, but his brother was 31 when they went into business together.
“He had the experience we needed,” Walter says. “He had worked for the competition in Landis.”
Walter himself is a Landis man, a member of the last class that Landis High School had, before closing during consolidation. He knew the FCX store had been overstaffed, one reason for its demise.
“When you’re doing business in a one-horse town,” he says, “you have to do it in a one-horse fashion.”
In the early days, Walter and Elmer worked together, along with Elmer’s wife Evelyn, who kept the store in tip-top shape. Dennis Efird, Elmer and Evelyn’s son-in-law, and Homer Overcash, Walter’s brother-in-law, also logged many years at the store.
Today the store runs a lean staff: just Walter, Alan, longtime employee Mike Dennis and Chelsea Box, a junior at South Rowan who works on Saturdays, and Alan’s son Caleb, who helps out during the week.
Walter is happy to show off the store, from the hardware department upstairs to the fertilizer and feed and gardening supplies and seeds and bulk molasses downstairs. Garden tools hang from the railing between the two floors.
Near the cash register, bags of seeds sit neatly in wooden bins, some wrapped in commercial packaging, some wrapped in brown paper bags labeled by hand.
“In the ’80s, we sold loose seeds and worked at the counter, weighing seeds for weeks at a time in the summer,” Walter says. “If you do that once, you will never sell loose seed again.”
The store stocks local honey from Michael Boren. “We just can’t get enough of it,” Walter says, along with any number of other items — toys, for sale signs, metal cut-out signs, pet carriers, you name it. “There’s no end to it.”
Out back, Alan has developed a demonstration garden which is his pride and joy.
“It’s been Alan’s baby to show folks how you can grow things,” Walter says, gesturing to trellised green beans that have grown all the way up to the second floor. “These green beans have really shown off, as you see.”
Beyond the garden is a set of five warehouse spaces, leftover when the mill closed. Walter and Alan are in the process of buying these warehouses.
“It’s the biggest undertaking in our entire history,” Walter says.
Over the years, there was never any doubt Alan would join his dad.
Alan’s best memories are of going with his dad to the feed mill in Statesville to get supplies for the store. This was back before he started school. He’d ride home in the back of the truck. The bags were stacked so his father could see out the rear-view mirror, and in that spot was where Alan would situate himself.
“The majority of the time, I’d be asleep before we left Statesville,” he says.
Alan didn’t even want to go to college. He wanted to go right to work with his dad. His mother, the late Peggy Goodman, had other plans.
“She wanted me to broaden my thoughts and be exposed to different people, and bring different ideas back to the business,” Alan says. “Of course, she was correct.”
Alan went to N.C. State for two years, and received an associate’s degree in general agriculture. He says of working with Walter, “It’s one of the greatest blessings a father and son can have. He’s my best friend.”
Alan’s wish is to one day pass the business to Caleb, now 23, and do a little more farming like his dad does now.
“I’ve just always enjoyed what I’ve done,” Alan says. “I love people, and I love coordinating things, and doing what somebody says can’t be done. I like to get in new merchandise, display it and sell it before the invoice comes. To me, that’s better than Christmas morning.”
Going back to those metal signs, someone made one for the store — a farmer, a horse and a plow, with the words “Goodman Farm Supply, 1963-2013.” It’s on display as you go upstairs, and that’s the only indication you’ll find of the store’s milestone, which they officially marked on Sept. 2.
“We just didn’t plan no big hoopla,” Alan says. Instead, he and his dad will simply keep doing business the same way it’s been done for the past half-century.
Smells like success.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.
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