Ronnie Mills' story: from banker to feed and seed store owner
Ronnie Mills, owner of Riverview Farm & Garden, the old-timey feed and seed store in Canton, sat down by the wood stove in the historic building and reflected on the very day he fell in love with springtime gardening.
He was in the first grade that year at Allen’s Creek Elementary School when he walked the 100 yards home to eat lunch with his parents, Elbert and Mamie Mills, and his three brothers and four sisters. After the kids ate lunch that day, his dad, who was a mechanic by trade but raised a huge garden to help raise eight children, asked Mills and his brothers to help him plant onions.
“I fell in love with the smell out there in the garden when we planted those onions,” recalled Mills.
He never forgot that time of planting onions and spending time with his dad, but he never realized how much that spur-of-the-moment afternoon activity would influence his life.
After that first gardening experience, he became fascinated hanging out at the Cline Bradley store in Hazelwood, where, as a kid, he loved the smells in the store of seed and soil and feed and looked forward every year to the day the baby chickens arrived.
“I remember when I was about 12 years old, it was my goal to own the Cline Bradley store,” said Mills.
However, after he graduated from Waynesville Township High School (currently Waynesville Middle School) in 1965 and earned his associate’s degree in business from Haywood Community College in 1970, he was offered a job in the banking industry and took it – a move he thought would be temporary. He ended up staying in the banking industry 18 years, mostly as assistant vice president for Northwestern Bank, before he bought Riverview Farm & Garden in January 1987 when he was 40 years old.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Ronnie, how did you go from banking to owning a feed and seed store?’ and I tell them the real question is, ‘How did a country boy like me get into banking in the first place?’” he said with a laugh.
“When I bought the store, I knew I had gotten back to my roots,” he added.
He knows he found in niche in life especially in spring when the store is packed wall to wall as customers shop for a variety of country items like seed by the pound, feed, fertilizer, hay, straw, crossties, farm gates, wire, grass seed, lawn care products, hardware items, cut keys and glass, tools and, of course, those baby chickens, ducks, turkeys, guineas and geese.
But, the big thing that’s sold daily at the store is pure old-fashioned atmosphere and attitude, complete with Mills’ barn-style office, customers chatting by the wood stove and the “sales pets” – Rufus the store dog and Rosie the store cat.
Mills, a history buff, often likes to share the store’s rich history with his customers — a history which began in 1916 when the Felmet family originally built the building as a Ford dealership called Felmet Ford Motors, where they sold Model-A and Model-T Ford cars before they transitioned into selling Essex and Whippet vehicles.
After Mr. Felmet died in 1958, Champion Papers (currently Evergreen Packaging) leased the property as a mechanic shop until around 1964. Howard Myers operated it as a feed store from 1964 to1982, and then Harold Donaldson ran the store from 1982 to 1987 when he sold the store to Mills.
He keeps the top level of the building set up like the early 1900s when the Felmets lived in the upstairs apartment, complete with an historic newspaper on display that he found in an old upstairs trunk. That Asheville Citizen Times newspaper is dated Nov. 11, 1918, and announces the end of World War I with these words, “PEACE! GERMANY SURRENDERS, ARMISTICE TERMS SIGNED, WORLD WAR IS OVER.”
“I found that very interesting since that newspaper came out just two years after this building was built,” he said.
Mills adds his own history to the store with two marks on the wall – one mark is seven feet high on the wall symbolizing the seven feet of water that Frances, the first of the twin floods of 2004, brought into the store. The second mark is nine feet high, symbolizing the water level from Ivan, the second flood.
When Mills got the first glimpse of his flood-ravaged building from as close as he could get across the street, it still had five feet of standing water. He described that moment as “gut wrenching” and thought several times about closing the store, especially when he was immediately offered a job back in the banking industry.
He lost 95 percent of his inventory.
However, when he saw how the community stepped up to help him, their generosity pushed him to continue with the store he loved. “I remember Kenny Henson, Danny Heatherly and Kenneth McMahon among many other family and friends helped me and it kept me going,” said Mills, noting that Canton Hardwood gave him the lumber to re-build the inside of the store and that’s when he and his brother Jack built his unique, barn-style office.
“Customers in here aggravate me that they are sending this old goat to the barn,” added Mills with a laugh.
After 26 years in the feed and seed store, even amidst dealing with devastating floods followed by a downtrodden economy, Mills said he never regrets leaving the stable banking industry simply because it just wasn’t his lifestyle.
“Now I can’t go anywhere without people asking me when the cabbage plants are coming in or when the baby chickens will be here and I just love every minute of it,” said Mills.
To contact Mills, call 648-2164, email at email@example.com, or search “Riverview Farm & Garden” on Facebook.