E.M. Brown & Son Celebrates 125 years
by Leanne Harple
BARTON — E.M. Brown and Son is celebrating its first 125 years in business this year. Art LaPlante, who co-owns the Barton business with his partner, Mark Royer, isn’t sure whether his store or the pharmacy down the hill is the oldest continually operating business in town, but he is sure that Browns, as it’s commonly called, is the oldest hardware and feed store in the area. And unlike the former Pierce pharmacy, which is now Kinney Drugs, it has always been in local hands, with each new owner adapting to the times.
The following history of the store comes from the personal collection of Mr. Laplante, who compiled it from conversations with the Brown family, as well as a written report by Nancy Brown and excerpts from an 1896 issue of the Orleans County Monitor.
The business was first opened in 1896 by brothers Amos. M. and George. C. Tower from Coventry. They operated a gristmill, with an oat grinder, a corn cracker, and grain blender. The machines were powered by water. The building is, in fact, the only one of the Crystal Lake area’s original grist mills to remain standing today.
In the beginning, the business was known as the Barton Feed Store. Farmers brought their oats to town with horses and buggies to get their feed mixed with corn bought from the store. There were stables at the basement level of the building, and farmers could leave their horses all day as they ran other errands around town, coming back in the afternoon to collect their feed.
Soon, the business became known as the Tower Company, and it diversified its product line to include, among other things, flour, cotton seed, cement, lime, sewer pipe, hay, salt and cereals. The Tower brothers also added a grain elevator with a capacity to store 5,000 bushels of grain. Upstairs, butter boxes were manufactured.
Unfortunately, the Tower brothers went bankrupt sometime in the early 1900s. After being seized by the bank, the Tower Company was eventually purchased for $10,000 by a former employee named MacFarland in 1912.
He then sold it for $12,500 to the first Brown, Dr. Edwin Brown, in 1920. Dr. Brown sold it for a dollar in 1930 to his son Fred, who then changed the name of the store to F.C. Brown. At that time, the store sold building materials in addition to agricultural products. The train that ran right past the store brought bricks in freight cars. Mr. Brown also bought logs that were trucked to Irasburg, sawed and dried, and brought back to the store for resale as lumber.
The business’ current name was bestowed on it by Fred’s son E.M. “Mem” Brown, who bought the store in 1954, and added a feed mixer and blender and a 30-ton molasses bin, along with a hot water system to heat the molasses. In the 1960s the store was mixing six different kinds of feed.
In 1962, Mem Brown’s son John began working alongside him at the store, and in 1964 the business became incorporated and the official name was changed to E.M. Brown and Son, Inc. John Brown was the final Brown to own the family store, buying it outright in 1976. He then sold it in the 1980s to Dave and Dottie Hathaway, who kept the name, and owned it for another 25 years.
When Mr. LaPlante and Mr. Royer purchased the store from the Hathaways in 2007, they were asked if they intended to change the name. Mr. LaPlante said firmly that he never had any intention of doing so. He considers the name itself to be an iconic part of the business’ success — the place that it holds in Barton’s history grants it the same name recognition and reputation for reliability as McDonald’s, he said.
However, that’s where the similarities end between E.M. Brown and a national chain. Mr. LaPlante is sure that the real key to the store’s longevity is the fact that it is not a box store or an online shopping site, and that it has a loyal customer base of people who recognize its value in the community.
“You think of the things that this place has endured,” he said. “You look at World War I, you look at the flood of ’27, you look at the Depression, you look at World War II. You get up through the years and look at box stores coming and coming online and now web purchasing. There’s a lot of reasons why these businesses go away. I probably don’t have the best answer, but I guess if you asked me, why is it still going, and why is it going to go another 125 years, I’m going to say because I think we’re doing a lot of the same things that those guys did when they were working here back then.”
The store offers a diverse array of products, such as paint, toilets, building supplies, clothing, and the largest selection of bolts and fasteners in the area. Mr. LaPlante’s employees are personally knowledgeable about the hardware they sell and always willing to answer a customer’s questions, in ways that box store employees often cannot.
This personal touch has apparently kept customers coming back for generations. Mr. LaPlante spoke about people coming in who tell him they are fourth-generation customers. He hears stories from grown men about how, as children, they used to stand on the platform scale that’s still across from the cash register, and now their kids and grandkids do the same thing. He’s gotten to know some of his customers to the point that he attends their family weddings and funerals.
“It’s really about the people,” Mr. LaPlante said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
He said that the community seems to have just as much of a sense of ownership of the store as he does.
As an example, he said that he noticed as soon as he bought the business that local farmers would come into the store, walk right through to the back room where the grain was stored, grab their bag, and walk out, shouting over their shoulder, “Put it on my tab!” He didn’t know who they were, but his employees did, because these same customers had been coming in and doing the same thing for years.
When he and Mr. Royer took over the business, they began by sending out a survey to community members about what they should keep and what they should change. They were flooded with responses telling them that they could never get rid of the window boxes of flowers that have decorated the building in summer for as long as anyone can remember. Though Mr. LaPlante said he’s not a flower guy, he has steadfastly continued to water them since he took over.
He said customers love to come in and share stories about the store from their past. One man told him that when he was a kid, back in the 1960s, the boys in the neighborhood would sneak into the basement by the river and make their way up to the store’s main floor, where they would run around and play hide-and-seek at night. They never stole anything, the customer said, and would pick up everything they knocked over, leaving the store in perfect condition to open in the morning. Mr. LaPlante said it’s amazing no kids ever got hurt or fell through the elevator shaft that was in the middle of the floor at that time.
“But you hear those stories,” he said, “and it just goes to show you what this business means to the community.”
Over the years that he and Mr. Royer have owned it, Mr. LaPlante has held many community events to bring people together, such as chili cook-offs, and mac and cheese and apple pie contests.
He looks for ways to invest in the community as well, by supporting local organizations, such as the Orleans County Fair, and the Glover meals program for the elderly that was begun by the late Gloria Powers.
He also takes part in work education programs for students at Barton Academy and Graded School, and adult workers placed by vocational rehabilitation programs. Mr. LaPlante spoke about how in these work-based learning situations, both with elementary students and those who are part of the voc/rehab program, he refuses to provide the workers with menial tasks such as sweeping the floor or making coffee, and instead teaches them about tools and how to take orders and run the cash register.
In 2019, Governor Phil Scott presented the business with the Spirit of ADA Award for the opportunities it has provided for Americans with disabilities by focusing on their strengths and providing them with meaningful work experiences.
Over time, Mr. LaPlante has seen some changes. When they first bought the business there was no Walmart in the county, and people were not yet buying heavily online.
And Barton and the surrounding area is no longer the thriving agricultural community that it once was. Most large-scale farmers, which there are fewer and fewer of, keep their own feed in silos. The customers who come in now looking for grain are mostly what he describes as “gentleman farmers,” or farm hobbyists — people who own a few horses, or maybe a pig or some chickens.
Recently though, Mr. LaPlante noted that some Amish families have moved to the area. They are revitalizing old farms and have provided the business with a more agricultural customer base. Just like in the old days of the store, they