Poor Farmer’s Market
Article written by Felecia Shelor, Owner
Poor Farmers Market actually began as a roadside vegetable stand across the road from where the business is now. I was working as a farm hand when I got the idea that I would buy the vegetables we were growing on the farm and sell them on weekends to the tourists who were coming to the mountains and to the Parkway. To say that my little farm stand was a success would be an understatement. I was amazed by the interest and response to it. At the end of that first season I had saved up ten thousand dollars which was unfathomable money to me at that time. I had always been very poor. I was working twelve hours a day at the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. I had to pay six dollars a day for a babysitter. It was a hard life. I was a single parent. I had to leave my little baby crying for me when I left and crying for me twelve hours later when I returned. The first word she ever spoke was the name she had come up for me on her own, Shasha. I would hear her crying “Shasha” when I left and hear that word as I stepped on the porch when I returned. She was not happy where she had to stay and that really hurt me. But I had no choice.
After that first season in 1983 I realized that my little business could not last where it was. It had outgrown it’s location. The owner of Meadows of Dan Food Market, Willodean McAlexander, had graciously allowed me to sell my vegetables on her lot free of charge. I could see that my customers were taking up all her space, all her parking lot. I have an old photo of me in that little produce stand carrying a bushel of apples. In the background is an old Gulf service station with a handmade sign in the front with the words “For Lease” scratched on it. Little did I know that my destiny was behind me in that picture.
That following January, 1984, I leased that old cinderblock building with it’s two service bays. I spent two months cleaning and painting and fixing it up as best I could. I was not heavy at the time but I remember I had lost ten pounds after those two months from the constant work. And then on March 1st, 1984 I opened for business. My hands were trembling from excitement when I made my very first sale, five dollars in gas. I remember who my first customer was too. I still see her all the time. She works at Mabry Mill.
I worked for four years twelve hours a day seven days a week. That business was my life. The best part was that my little daughter could come with me to work. I laid a mat behind the counter where she could sleep. She grew up in the store.
The store began to grow, in income and in size. And I have to say that I had a lot of help. People would show up, friends or employees who had a vision for something we could do better, something we should be selling, or a new recipe. It was not all me. Not even half of the ideas were mine, I must admit. But I did have the good sense to get out of the way when an employee wanted to try something new, and listen when a friend made a suggestion. Every year we would add a new room. The cinderblocks were covered over with rough cut pine to create a more rustic look.
The property had come up for sale in 1986 for $50,000. This was a huge problem. I didn’t have $50,000. I didn’t even have the $8,000 I needed for a down payment. When I look back over my life I can clearly see the Hand of the Divine looking out for me. I lived in a little rough house that a farmer friend had used for his migrant workers. When he found himself in financial duress he let me take over that little house for $10,000. That was when I was working for minimum wage and paying a babysitter. I had walked into the First Bank of Stuart in Meadows of Dan and asked Noel Wood whom I have known all my life to lend me the $10,000 for that house. Thanks be to God (and Noel Wood) he said yes. So I owned a home. But as I said I didn’t have cash for a down payment. I was in my store one morning, grieving somewhat because it appeared that I was going to lose my business because I didn’t have the down payment and the property was going to be sold right away. In walked Thomas Scott, whom I have also known all my life. I said “Thomas, you need to buy my house”. He said, “Alright, I will.” And I had enough equity in it to come up with the down payment for my store. The owner financed the rest to me for twelve years at eight percent, $562.88 per month.
The property had a little white cottage behind the store and my four year old daughter and I moved in it in 1986. I remember it was just after my great uncle Matt Burnette, a legend here in Meadows of Dan, had died. And oh my, we thought we had “arrived”! We actually had a thermostat and we could just turn up the heat. We had always had to keep a wood fire going. That had been hard before I moved behind store. I would get up in the morning and the fire would be out. By the time the cold house warmed up it would be time to leave. When I got home twelve or thirteen hours later the fire would be out. The house would be cold. So the tiny little house behind the store was a grand home to us. We lived there fourteen years. It was an ideal situation for a single parent with a small child. When she was older she could stay out back and watch television or do her homework and I could run back and check on her often and that is how we lived. She would come to the store whenever she wanted and go home when she wanted. I was always there for her, within reach. And I never again had to leave her with a babysitter who was just keeping her for the money. I never again had to leave her with someone who didn’t love her. I should say that after that first babysitter from hell we found a wonderful woman, Monte Bell, a Jehovah’s Witness, who loved Casey. She was a fabulous babysitter and woman who also adopted unwanted children with emotional and physical problems. She died at an early age from cancer but I will always remember her. I think highly of Jehovah’s Witnesses because of her example. She truly walked the walk.
My business was slow at first. Sometimes I sat in the sun in a lawn chair waiting for a customer to stop by. But the fall produce season was a boom from the very beginning. I have had a lot of help in the form of employees who brought what they had to the business. I have had thousands of employees over the years, each leaving their mark, some not so good, but most by far left an indelible positive mark. I am almost hesitant to name names because there are so many. I would not have traveled this path if I had not known and worked with Ronnie Greene when I was 20 years old. He helped me and taught me. He was the farmer I worked for. He played a major role in my life at that time. He was by far my superior in business and intelligence. I think I always had it in me to succeed but I would not have done it in this way if not for Ronnie Greene. I wish him all the best. Linda Mize worked for me a few years after she sold the Mountain House. She added a lot. Helen Smiley managed the deli for years and shouldered the load. Like I said I hesitate to name names because there are so many. I’m bound to leave someone out. I will name three more. Leslie Shelor, Buford Wood, and Trinity Goad.
Leslie worked for me when she first moved back home from Maine. Like Ronnie Greene, what she brought to my life and to my business is so great that I can honestly say that I would not be where I am and who I am if not for Leslie. She now has her own business, Greenberry House, in Meadows of Dan. Buford Wood. My unique friend died on June 4th 2007 just before his 64th birthday. His impact on my business and my life and his death are so important to me that I intend to tell his story separately later. Look for Buford Wood at this site. Buford handled all the building and maintenance for Poor Farmers Market for 20 years. And Trinity Goad. Trinity came to work at Poor Farmers Market when he was fifteen years old. His mama drove him to work. He has been with us for 15 years and is now General Manager. He took over as general manager when Leslie left to do her own business. I spend a lot of my time now here on the farm and managing (and cleaning) my rental cabins while Trinity takes care of the daily details of Poor Farmers Market.
It was 1993 when I had the idea to expand the business. I must say that it was Buford and Leslie who better had the vision as to how to build and I just trusted them and let them run with it. The store doubled in size. We built a new kitchen in the back, a huge floor space, major storage (including storage upstairs) and an office for me! My business doubled seemingly overnight. Sometimes I wonder just what have I gotten myself into. It “ain’t” easy running a business of this size. Something I had not really intended when I was young. I only wanted to make a living and provide for my child.
But these days, in these worsening economic times, I feel so very fortunate and I will say destined, to do what I am doing. Poor Farmers Market provides a job and a way of life for 16 people, not including the people who make a living by selling their products to us. The people who work here are very close, like family. They all care about the business and feel they are a part of it and are making a vital contribution to it, which is the truth. We are central to the larger community. People come to see us from far and wide. Locals gather here to share their day. More and more we are making connections with the Amish and Mennonite communities in order to have better products to sell here and more importantly to help sustain their economy and way of life. A way of life that I think is an example for us all, simple and clean and pure.
Our intention for Poor Farmers Market is “to keep on keepin’ on”. The older we get the better we get. We want to make a good living for ourselves but also and more importantly we want to contribute to our community and provide an atmosphere for our customers that they cannot find anywhere else. My greatest reward in business, and this happens all the time, is when I walk up unnoticed behind a group of customers and overhear them saying how much they LOVE this store. I often hear customers say something like, “This is OUR store. We stop here every time we come to the mountains”. A couple of years ago a huge tour bus stopped in my parking lot. I went out to greet the elderly group of black senior citizens as they stepped down off the bus. “Where are you all headed today?” I asked one of them. “Here” was her reply. They had traveled two hours from Greensboro to come visit my store. For me, it doesn’t get any better than that.