Stone Bros. & Byrd: ‘Conglomerate of the past and future’

Jan. 24, 2014 @ 06:08 PM

Tired of the corporate world, George M. Davis Jr. teamed up to buy the farm supply business Stone Bros. & Byrd in 1976. He said they entered the business at a time when farming was on the decline, although it was still king, and tobacco was still the mainstay of Durham.

Tobacco farmers would leave the auction warehouses and come to the shop on Washington Street to settle their accounts, he said. Christmas came to Durham on Dec. 25 and at the end of October when the tobacco sold.
“It was always a sigh of relief when I saw those accounts paid,” Davis said.
Davis had bought into a business that he said actually started about six decades before in 1914. He and his then-partners bought the store from a group that included the son-in-law of one of the Stones, he said, which was one of the families involved in the store’s early history along with the Byrds. According to its website, the business sold wagons and buggies, churns, stones, as well as garden and farm supplies, in its history, and also would swap merchandise for corn, wheat and chickens.
There are records in the Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection – from Hill’s Directory Co.’s directory from 1922 -- showing a hay, grain and feed business operating on West Parrish Street downtown owned by a Byrd. Another record from a 1942 directory shows that Stone Bros & Byrd had already been established.
The store is just one of Durham’s long-operating businesses. Some of the others that have had lengthy operations are Public Hardware, a store on Mangum Street, which has been in operation in Durham since the 19th century. Durham-based N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. dates to 1898. And Durham-based Mechanics and Farmers Bank was organized in 1907. Budd-Piper Roofing Co. Inc. dates its start to 1914.
Davis, who eventually became the sole owner of Stone Bros. & Byrd, said he didn’t have a background in farming when he got involved in the business, but had a “real interest” in it, and attended seminars to learn more.
When it was a farm supply store, its customers were tobacco farmers as well as growers of soybeans, corn and other crops, he said. Company workers loaded up supplies onto trucks and hauled them out to the farms.
“It was very labor intensive,” Davis said of the work. “Considering I was 29 years old at the time, I could do it with the best of them, but it’s quite a workout. You learn little tricks in how to handle the bags, the stacking.”
But farming was on the decline, so Davis said the company immediately began broadening into lawn and garden supply.
“It was sink or swim,” he said. “If you were going to stay in agribusiness, you had to pick a new direction, and ours was lawn and garden. And as the city of Durham began to grow, and outsiders began to come in, then it was a natural.”
There was a decline in tobacco farming, as federal tobacco farming supply quotas and price support loan programs came to an end, and as U.S. cigarette consumption declined. In addition, Davis said the physical landscape of Durham County changed due to the establishment of Research Triangle Park and Jordan Lake.
In 1978, about two years after Davis bought the store, the state was producing about 842 million pounds of tobacco, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. By 2007, the total had fallen down to more than 365 million pounds.
There were 89,367 farms in the state and 11.35 million acres in farms in 1978, compared to about 53,000 farms on about 8.474 million acres by 2007. In Durham County, there were 350 farms and 50,010 acres in farms in 1978, compared with 242 farms and 26,150 acres in farms in 2007.
Buster Wall, the owner of Public Hardware, said the company sold supplies to tobacco farmers and along with brooms, wax, jars and other items to tobacco factories in its history. He said he started to see the decline in tobacco farming in the 1970s.
“And of course, back in the ’50s and ’60s, there weren’t any Lowe’s (Home Improvement) or Home Depots or Walmarts or Sam’s Club, or anything like that,” Wall said. “The business was completely different.”
Davis said Stone Bros. & Byrd shifted toward lawn and garden supplies, and has also begun selling online through its website, and has launched a landscaping division. But the store still retains pieces of its past. If you bring a jar to the store, Davis said they’ll fill it up with molasses from a 55-gallon container they have on-site. They also sell hams, cheese and sausage. They have an old cash register on site, and pictures and other memorabilia on the walls. 
“We are a conglomerate of all these years past,” Davis said. “[We’re] keeping what works today, and letting go of what doesn’t work …. it’s retaining our heritage, our birth right, without trying to just all of a sudden, evolve into something we aren’t. We are conglomerate of the past and future. We’re just an eclectic mix of small successes.”
Davis said he believes there was also a change as children of farmers and working-class people decided to do something different and move into the city, and now he said he’s seeing another generational flip-flop with many younger people taking an interest in gardening.
“I think they’re finding that it’s therapeutic and very rewarding to raise your own stuff, and do your own landscaping – or have us do it,” he said. “It’s an exciting time; it’s kind of like a renaissance of the dirt people.”
In addition, he said he’s also seen a resurgence in activity in the Durham Central Park area where the store’s located.
Lee Ann Tilley, a co-owner of Acme Plumbing Co. of Durham on Foster Street, which is near the Stone Bros. & Byrd, described the resurgence in the area around Durham Central Park that was “bleak” at one time.
“You wouldn’t walk the neighborhood,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to walk from my shop and downtown.”
But now she said there are people walking back and forth from downtown to the area “all the time.”
Geer Street Garden restaurant has opened in what was once a gas station just down the street from Stone Bros. & Byrd. The music venue Motorco Music Hall is nearby, and the barbecue eatery The Pit opened in a former bottling plant in the neighborhood.
“It’s almost like starting over again because the neighborhood is again vibrant, and there’s activity, and it’s 7 o’clock at night, and you cannot find a parking place out there,” Davis said.