Chelsea Farmer's Supply
It’s still got the feel of its heyday
In 1987, Greg Raye suggested that Chelsea Farmer’s Supply be torn down. Two years later he and his wife, H. K. Leonard, bought the building to keep it from being turned into a parking lot. “I had no desire to run a business,” explains Raye. But today he and Leonard are still running it.
Built about 1855, Farmer’s Supply is one of the oldest buildings in Chelsea. A classic Greek Revival structure with a low roof and gable returns, it originally faced Main Street. It looks as though it had been built as a residence, but at some point it became Chelsea’s first hotel, the Chelsea House. In 1888 the Chelsea House moved into a new, brick building, and the old building was moved to its present location at 122 Jackson. There a woman named Line Downer and several subsequent owners operated it as a residence hotel for ¬thirty-seven more years, renting rooms to railroad employees and workers at the nearby Glazier stove plant.
In 1925 the building was remodeled as a feed mill. An awning was put on the front and a one-story wing added on the west. At the time most local farmers raised cattle and brought their pickup trucks to the mill to get their grain ground into feed. Ransom Lewis owned the mill until 1936, and for the next eight years it was run by Vincent Ives.
In 1946 Anton Nielsen, a forty-year-old Danish immigrant, bought the store. He ran it for the next forty-five years. Nielsen’s father was a farmer who became a hotel operator. When he was twelve, Nielsen started an apprenticeship to be a clerk; later he went to business school. At age eighteen he emigrated to Canada and did farm work. Two years later he moved to Detroit and worked in an automobile factory and then a paint factory. At a dance in Detroit he met his future wife, Dorothy.
Nielsen served on the Chelsea Village Council and was elected village president four times. For several years he headed the community fair, and he was active in the local Kiwanis Club. He enjoyed vegetable and flower gardening and the many cats who made their home in his store.
Longtime employee Allen Broesamle was devoted to the store and often ran it when Nielsen was ill or traveling. Broesamle’s widow, Ruth, says her husband never wanted a title or ownership, even though Nielsen offered to sell him the place.
Allen Broesamle grew up on a farm in Sylvan Township. His younger brother, Roy, says Nielsen originally offered the job to whichever boy wanted it. Roy chose farming but helped in the store when needed.
When Nielsen bought the store, the main business was the feed mill operation. “Some days he’d start the grinder at seven and never shut it off all day,” Roy Broesamle recalls. “Farmers were lined up all day.” The store made most of its money selling feed additives, such as salt, minerals, and vitamins. Current Farmer’s Supply employee Jeff Weber says Nielsen sold everything from an office in the front: “You’d tell him what you wanted, and he’d go and get it.”
Ruth Broesamle remembers that her husband greased the grinder daily and repaired it often. “The equipment was old, and it was hard to find parts,” she recalls. Each type of feed presented its own challenges. “Hog feed was not a fine grind. It gets into everything,” she says. Weber remembers coming in with his grandfather in the 1960s. “Grandfather would bring in corn or wheat,” he says. “In half an hour he’d be back at the farm.”
By the 1970s many farmers had moved away from the livestock business, while others had begun to grind their own crops or had switched to commercial feed. Farmers who diversified and needed smaller amounts of lots of things became Nielsen’s customer base. Nielsen began selling more supplies such as seeds and fertilizer, and he branched out into nonfarm items such as pet food. To make more room for the additional inventory, he and Allen Broesamle built a lean-to on the back of the building, using lumber from a former railroad freight house that stood where Heydlauff’s parking lot now is.
The wider inventory necessitated more trips to pick up and deliver supplies. Broesamle drove all over southern Michigan for seed corn, feed, fertilizer, and other items, and he made deliveries to farmers as far away as Northville and Plymouth.
When Nielsen was eighty-five, he sold the store. Broesamle stayed to help Greg Raye with the transition but retired after the first summer. Nielsen died in 2001 at age ninety-six.
In his 1987 University of Michigan master’s thesis in architecture, Raye had outlined a plan to turn the area around the Chelsea railroad depot into a pedestrian mall. His wife’s parents, Walter and Helen May Leonard, published the Chelsea Standard and Dexter Leader in the Welfare Building just across the tracks from Farmer’s Supply. Once a bustling commercial center, it became a largely ignored area when passenger trains no longer stopped in Chelsea. Raye suggested that the Farmer’s Supply be replaced with a new building to be used for retail.
But when nearby Longworth Plating eyed the store for a parking lot, Raye stepped in and bought it. Contrary to his original intent, Raye became not only the rescuer of the Farmer’s Supply but also its proprietor. He and his wife have tried to keep the store much the way it was when Nielsen ran it, complete with rough-hewn studs in the walls and air bubbles in the old windows. They’ve retained most of the decor too, keeping the metal signs and the blue ribbons that come with cattle bought at auction at the community fair. The biggest change they’ve made is opening up the lean-to, which had been used only for inventory storage, as sales space.
When Raye and Leonard first bought the store, they continued to run the feed mill. But “it made the whole building shake,” Raye recalls. “It was loud and dusty. The neighbors didn’t like it.” When it broke and they couldn’t get replacement parts, they stopped operating it. They’ve kept what’s left—gears, bins, belt drives—as artifacts.
Raye and Leonard have expanded the stock too. They still serve commercial farmers, but their customers also include hobby farmers and gardeners. An animal lover, Raye has vastly expanded the pet supply department, and he caters to serious bird-¬watchers. Chelsea Farmer’s Supply also sells locally made products such as honey and maple syrup.
Fresh eggs brought in by Allen Broesamle were a staple during the Nielsen years. The new owners have carried on that tradition: now Roy Broesamle supplies them.