Oh, Dang: A Story

July 15, 2014 § 13 Comments

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I needed a part for the tractor. One of the many small linkage pieces that comprise the three-point hitch, which is the mechanism at the rear of the machine that allows for the operation of numerous implements, had come loose and tumbled unnoticed into the forest duff. I’d searched for longer than was strictly rational; after all, it was a $20 part at best and the spot I’d been working was down on the furthest corner of our land, accessed via nearly a half-mile of tractor road. I walked the half-mile down and back again and down once more, before abandoning my quest and striking out in search of chanterelles, which I knew were popping because the day before the boys had come home with their pockets full. We fried them in fresh butter and ate them with even fresher eggs. Damn.

Not long ago, if I needed a tractor part, I went to Rowell Brothers, the tractor and farm equipment repair business on the outskirts of Hardwick. I always liked going to Rowell Brothers; it was cluttered and confusing and generally unkempt, and smelled of grease and rubber and cleaning solvents. The man behind the counter was named Morris Rowell and I’m not sure how old he was, but certainly older than 70. Maybe older than 80. If Morris didn’t have the part I needed, he’d write it down on a scrap of paper and promise to order it and when I’d call a week later to see if it’d come in, he’d say “oh, dang, I forgot” and then he’d order it. After a while, I learned not to wait a week before my first call. That speeded up the whole process considerably.

There was a two bay garage attached to the parts room and anyone could walk freely into the garage to ask a question of Chris or Fred, the mechanics. There was no “employees only” sign; I doubt Morris gave much thought to liability, though he probably should have, given the profusion of things heavy, jagged, and precarious. These things were invariably as old as me or older; Chris and Fred did not think much of newer machines, though to be fair, the owners of newer machines probably didn’t think much of the minor chaos that prevailed in the garage at Rowell’s.

Rowell Brothers closed last year. Morris spent some time trying to find a buyer but no one stepped forward. It was one of the few times I wished to be wealthy, because I would have loved to buy the place. I wouldn’t have actually wanted to run it, but since I was wealthy, I could’ve just hired someone. Hell, maybe Morris would’ve stayed on for the right deal. Maybe then when I needed a part I could still stop by Rowell’s and Morris would either extract the part from where it was buried under a pile of entirely unrelated parts where no one but Morris could find it, or write it down and then forget to order it and in a few days I’d call to see if it’d come in. “Oh, dang,” he’d say, and then I’d know my part was really on its way.

As it was, I got my part at Tractor Supply, which is sort of like the WalMart of farm and garden supply stores. I’m not sure how many Tractor Supply stores there are across the country, but I think quite a few. I know of three within a one-hour radius of our place, though I’d never really needed to visit one before. Indeed, this was my first visit to a Tractor Supply. I found the part I needed quickly, with no assistance from any of the clerks. It gleamed in a well-lit bin and was cheaper than I’d thought it might be, and I briefly considered buying two, so I’d have a replacement if I lost another. But then I had the irrational notion that maybe I’ll find the original after all and thus have no need for a back up (this has not yet transpired). I checked out and emerged back into the sunlit afternoon. During the entire transaction, I’d spoken only three words: “Cash” and “Thank you.” I suppose I could’ve talked more but to be honest, I just wanted to get out of there. It was making me sad. And it smelled funny. No bad. Just… funny.

People often ask me about what’s happened in Hardwick since my first book was published, if the local food movement (or whatever you want to call it) is still gaining momentum. And I have to say that to be honest, I sort of stopped paying attention a while ago. I mean, I know that new food-based businesses have popped up over the past few years and I’ve heard they’re thriving and I’m glad for them.

You’d think that with all the food and ag-related activity in the area, Rowell Brothers could have thrived. And maybe its demise – or at least a piece of it – was by its own hand. After all, I know I wasn’t the only one who had to call Morris to remind him to order the parts he’d promised. Jimmy and I joked about it more than once.

But I also wonder if there was an inherent mismatch between Rowell’s and the shiny new 21st century local food movement, with all its entrepreneurial ambition. That sort of ambition can’t afford to wait for Morris to remember to order parts. That sort of ambition can’t really afford to run the aging, breakdown-prone machinery that needs those parts in the first place. It doesn’t need the encyclopedia of arcane knowledge contained in the heads of Morris and his mechanics. Because for everything Morris forgot, he knew 100 things more.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe Rowell Brother’s was just another business whose time had come and gone, like so many before it. The world will keep spinning. The parts we need to keep our tractor and implements running will keep being made and I’ll still be able to find them in those well-lit bins at Tractor Supply or at the dealer, where I’ll pay twice as much for the same damn thing. That was the other thing about Rowell’s: The prices were real good.

The funny thing is, I actually drove by Rowell’s on my way to Tractor Supply. Someone’s making chairs there, now. They look pretty nice.

 

§ 13 Responses to Oh, Dang: A Story

  • Eumaeus says:

    I think something like the Amish is what you’re after. Admit they’ve succeeded better than the ‘back to the land hippies’ and I think they’ll probably be around longer than the shiny new 21st century local food movement too. Anyway, it ain’t a niche. But that’s the best I can come up with.
    I expect… change to never stop

  • Eumaeus says:

    And you can register yourself as an ‘agricultural enterprise’ at tractor supply and pay no 7% sales tax. And if you talk pretty you can even do it without providing your social security number. But wait, ya’ll don’t pay sale’s tax in Live Free or Die VT, do you? I’m messing with you…

  • Tres Jolie says:

    Great story. And by the way I am so jealous of your Green. It’s 110 here and dry as a bone. As Joan Rivers once said God Divides. For example He gives you lots of snow in winter and sub-zero temps but he gives you green. He gives us only rain in winter but doesn’t give us green but a very short time.

  • Kris says:

    The implement dealership in our very small town recently sold to a mega-monster dealership. The atmosphere in there has completely changed. Where my husband used to be greeted with “Hello! How are the kids?” or “How’s harvest coming along?” or “How is your dad feeling?” he is now greeted by robotic-like “What can I get for you?” We used to be able to rent equipment there for small projects that would take only and hour and two and that is no longer offered. It has gone completely corporate and lost the friendly, small-town business atmosphere. Times change but not always for the best.

  • Aaron A says:

    One of my favorite stores in my hometown (Gooding, ID) was Greg’s Terminal, a fastener supply store. You could literally find any nut, bolt, screw, or washer you could possibly need there. It, too, has gone the way of Rowell’s. Sigh. However, here in my current town (Los Alamos, NM), we still have a small-town hardware store and a good repair/rental place. Not everything fades with time, I guess.

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Our version of this is Burney Hardware. Even with a big shiny Lowes closer to us, we go to Burney instead. They offer services the big-box store doesn’t (like small engine repair) and have little odds and ends that are just interesting. They also know where everything is, as in your story. Above all, if you need one screw or nut or whatever, you can buy one. You do not have to buy 50 in a little plastic bag that, admittedly, cost less per item than buying one but, if I want one, I want one and that’s it. One of those little things about modern life that makes me crazy and places like Burney get that, I think. If they ever go out of business, I will go into mourning for sure.

    • Jennifer Fisk says:

      I totally agree with you. If I need 5 screws that is what I want to take home not a box. My local organic gardening center and hardware store has that option. They also carry grain so it’s one stop shopping.

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    Perhaps Morris just chose to retire. I too would much rather patronize the local business than the big boxes. TSC does smell funny. At the front door it is rubber tires, to one side the clothing area is leathery smelling,further in its chemicals for plant growing and in one area a tad grainy. I only go to TSC on a Sunday when I really need something and the others are closed.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      That’s true, no doubt. But I suspect the reason no one bought the business has at least something to do with the belief that it wasn’t really viable anymore. Or maybe the right person didn’t stumble across it at the right time.

  • ali says:

    On a positive note, how nice that another business has chosen to set up shop in the building, even if their products/services are not preferred. I feel far more saddened by the plethora of abandoned store fronts/buildings that litter the landscape. And chairs seem a “healthy” alternative to other enterprises.

  • I don’t think you’re reading too much into it at all. I think you’re onto something. I grew up with the 4-H kids on the outskirts of my small Colorado town and have felt this same tension between the slick, well-lit local food movement and the old dusty, greasy Basin Farm Supply Co-op, where every 4 Corners rancher’s brand hung from a nail on the rafters and there was always old stale popcorn in the popper in the back. The folks that work at the co-op wouldn’t be caught dead eating one of the locally sourced squash blossom tamales at the farmers market. Which leaves me feeling a bit hollow, because they have some things in common, and I love them both.

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