November 30, 2021

Women power hardware store

The DeRuyter shop has been a family business for more than a century

Photos by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Countryside Hardware of DeRuyter.

DeRUYTER — A three-woman team is in charge of the day-to-day operation of Countryside Hardware — a family-owned business for 101 years.

“We have always had women that run the store. No special reason why. That’s how it happened to work out, I guess,” said Sandy Wilcox of DeRuyter, president of the Albany Street store she owns with her husband, Ray.

Brenda Marvin and Teresa Rice, both of DeRuyter, work the store with Wilcox. The store has been in Wilcox’s family since her grandfather, Harold Cook, started it in 1920. Farmers, DeRuyter Lake summer dwellers and local people are its customer base.

The hardware store is huge, with tools, plumbing supplies, work clothing, gardening supplies, fishing and hunting gear and plenty of warehouse space. Wilcox said it specializes in maple syrup products, from evaporators to sap line, to maple jugs and cream jar caps.

“We’re starting to stock up. That’s main line there, a half inch to two inches,” she said, pointing to sap line in the warehouse. “That’s somewhat smaller, 3/16 to 5/16.”

Maple producers in the area sell their maple syrup to the hardware store.

“We have maple syrup, maple cream and maple sugar year-round. It’s always on the shelf,” Wilcox said.

“We sell Leader evaporators — my grandfather was an original stockholder of the company,” she said. It also sells hoses, cement, some automotive equipment, bolts and belts — more than people expect.

“We do everything that needs to be done around here,” said Wilcox, who also is a bus driver for the DeRuyter School District. “We’ve got to be good at plumbing, making hydraulic hoses, threading galvanized (pipe) and selling evaporators for maple syrup.”

Wilcox has worked full-time in the business since 1979. “I don’t know how many years that is.”

Forty-two years.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Sandy Wilcox, president of Countryside Hardware, owns the business with her husband, Ray.

“I was brought up with it,” she said. “It’s been in the family for years and years and years. We have a good array of people. It’s just a likable job.”

There is no Walmart or any other box store in town, but people do work outside of the community, she said. They might have access to those stores during their work day.

“But we are rural community. There are a lot of farmers, a lot of locals, too,” Wilcox said. “Plus, I think we give better customer service than Walmart.”

Maple syrup connection
Wilcox’s husband and son, Steven, work a maple syrup farm.

“We have 3,500 taps of maple. We have a farm and we do a lot, between corn and soybeans,” she said. “That’s what my husband and son do: farm and sugar.”

All three Wilcoxes are members of the DeRuyter Fire Department. “It’s a small community,” she said. “Anything we can do to step up.”

Her typical day: Get up, drive the bus, back to work at 8 o’clock, depending on the day, do the afternoon bus run at 2:30, return to the shop at 4, work until 5 p.m. and go home.

“Do whatever needs to be done,” Wilcox said. “My help is great. If they are both here, I can come and go as I please. That’s what’s nice about owning your own business.”

“I enjoy maple season. We are much, much busier. But I enjoy that busy,” Wilcox said.

Jill of all trades
Brenda Marvin is an officer manager and “Jill of all trades.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Brenda Marvin of DeRuyter, the bookkeeper and “Jill of all trades” at the store.

“This month I’m starting my 22nd year. When I came for my interview, Sandy asked me if I knew anything about hardware. ‘No.’ ‘OK, start Tuesday, that’s when the hardware truck comes. You will start learning.’”

She does the books in the morning and puts the hardware order in on Tuesdays.

“You might have to make a hydraulic hose, cut pipe. It depends on the clientele that comes in the door. Mostly farmers and lake people in the summer,” Marvin said. And local customers, Wilcox added.
Marvin said Wilcox told her in the beginning: “You are going to have to learn how to use the chop saw.”

“No way,” Marvin said. “’You have to,’” Wilcox said. It’s a piece of equipment used to cut hoses and other materials.

“So I did,” said Marvin. “Now it’s just a thing. You just do it.”

She doesn’t get any grief from male customers about her gender.

“Most of ours are local people. They know it’s just us women. There is no problem. They are getting their hoses mended and concrete, everything else they need,” Marvin said.

Family hardware stores rare
“When I was a child, I remember family-owned hardware stores,” said Bob Haight, executive director of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce.

“You remember Cortland Hardware? I just brought up Ginny this week. ‘Oh, if only Ginny was down the street,’” he said of Ginny Toomey, its last owner. She taught plumbing at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The store was in business 58 years.

And Cortland Hardware on Main Street, owned by Russ and Grace Bentley, ran for 40 years.

But local businesses are powerful when their owner is working on the premises, Haight said.

“That amplifies customer service.”

He said Homer Men and Boys, another family-owned business, is an example. “I have worked with Rob Garrison for years,” he said. Garrison’s wife, Leslee, daughter of Roland “Frog” Fragnoli, the late founder, owns the store.

“Poor service is not an option. That’s what we love about it. Most stores are like this: Bev & Co. They make you feel good because they give you such good service … While I don’t know the family that owns the business,” said Haight of Countryside Hardware, “I am a homeowner. I have to go meet these ladies.”

Women in hardware

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Teresa Rice of DeRuyter hauls a 60-pound bag of cement at Countryside Hardware.

Women who can lift a 60-pound bag of cement? Give advice on tubing for maple sap? Or a broken toilet?
Haight said: “I am not surprised. I applaud them.”

“I started my career as a dairy farmer,” Haight said. “There are so many women dairy farmers.”

He’s seen women in construction, in diesel mechanics. He has a daughter. He wanted her to know: “You can do anything you want to do.”

Marvin said in the fall, weather stripping and boots are big sellers. Summer: pool supplies, garden rakes, seed, trimmer line, lawn mowers. Spring: Maple time. Winter: snow shovels, rock salt. And sometimes, there’s frozen pipes. “We do pipes and stuff,” Marvin said.

Teresa Rice of DeRuyter is a hardware clerk with 10 years under her belt. In the warehouse, she whipped a 60-pound bag of cement to her shoulder and loaded it on a pickup truck for a gentleman, who was chagrined. “I could have gotten that,” the fellow said. Rice pooh-poohed the idea.

“You learn a lot quickly,” she said. Rice likes the maple syrup products they sell.

“In the beginning, I used to hide from the sugar part. Now it’s the most interesting, the sugar business. There’s so much to it. And it changes every year.”

“I still don’t like driving the forklift. I know how to, I just don’t like it,” Rice said.

“We keep busy. There’s always something to do. Even if it’s dusting. I learned everything as I came here.”

Plumbing for example. She knows the guts to the back of the toilet.

“You tell us what’s happening. We can figure it out. If not, I can ask Sandy.”