Driving down a country road in Virginia on a winter afternoon, I was definitely not thinking of vintage kitchen tools. Which is odd for me, since the topic is often running quietly in the back of my mind in many situations, much to my family’s chagrin.
My husband and I were enjoying a beautiful wintry drive in the rolling countryside of the Virginia Piedmont when we passed a weathered storefront piled high with old furniture and an ancient sign that read “Farmer’s Service Center.”
The Feed Store
105 Church Street
Madison, VA 22727
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Suddenly I was thinking about vintage kitchen tools again.
While my husband was uttering, “That looks like an interesting place,” I had already swerved off the main drag and pulled into the parking lot. I was on a mission.
We were greeted at the front door by a friendly woman named Joan Tanner. She asked whether we were looking for anything special and I replied, as I always do in such places, “Kitchen tools.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with old kitchen tools. I don’t mind if these items are a little battered and worse for wear. In fact, I love them all the more because I know that some cook used and cherished this tool before I was born.
I always keep a mental list of kitchen equipment I’d love to find, and at the top of this list is a lid for my Guardian Ware 2-quart Dome Cooker. It’s a 60-year-old a pot with a glass lid that belonged to my grandmother. When I broke the glass lid almost two years ago, I wept. I’ve been on the hunt for a replacement lid ever since. And I thought this might the place to find it.
I wandered into a cramped room overflowing with sleds, vintage lunchboxes and collectibles jars. Tanner plucked something down from a large nail in the wall. “You might like to see this.”
She handed me a small rusted object with a handle and a crank. “Do you know what it is?” she grinned.
I must have appeared confused and she quickly told me that I was holding a nutmeg grater. I’d been sure it was a grater of some sort, but I’d never seen a nutmeg grater like this before. I knew at this moment that I’d discovered a very special place, but I didn’t know the full story yet.
Marveling at the collection
Joan walked me to the sliding garage door at the back of the room and said, “Be sure to check out the back room before you leave.” With these words, she slid open a heavy wooden door, revealing a massive warehouse behind the storefront, filled from floor to ceiling with rows and rows ancient, rusty, dust-covered treasures. When the door opened, I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz.
Within 10 minutes I found a lid to my grandmother’s pot. And it was aluminum, not glass, so I’d spare myself the agony of another lid-breaking incident. Soon after, I found a double-boiler that was nearly identical to my grandmother’s. I inherited this double-boiler and I now use it to make my grandmother’s classic seven-minute frosting for coconut cake. After my mother gave me the double-boiler years ago, she quickly regretted replacing it with the new non-stick version, which never again produced the classic taste created by the battered old aluminum version.
So I bought my mother the double-boiler. And because there was another on almost exactly like it, I bought that too. Just in case.
As we traveled through the tiny paths created between the towering piles of stuff, we marveled at the cider press, pottery jugs and the basket full of rolling pins.
This process took more than an hour and a half and if it hadn’t been so cold, we might still be there. When we reached the warmth of the wood stove back in the front room, Tanner and I talked about how she got started in the antiques business.
She and her husband Bobby originally opened the place as a feed store in 1956. On a fateful day in 1990, Tanner cleared off one small shelf in the front room to display her bottle collection. Her husband Bobby told her, “Oh, nobody’ll come in here to look for that.” He was wrong. Today, the store still stocks feed, but only in a small area behind the main building. As Tanner puts it with a grin, “You’ve heard of people dealing out of the back room?” Clearly, animal feed takes a back seat to Tanner’s beloved antiques. She loves her stuff and it shows.
Like Tanner, I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the making of these old tools and the love that’s expressed in their weathered hardware. Our society values the new, the slick, the shiny. But throughout the country you can find these secret treasure troves; the country stores and flea markets where love and heart and craft are still collected and kept. These tools are waiting for the next person to find and love them. I still keep my mental list of kitchen tools to find. But now I’ve also started a mental list of places to find these items and Joan Tanner’s Feed Store is at the top of that list.
Top photo: The Feed Store, owned and operated by Joan Tanner, in Madison, Virginia. Credit: Susan Lutz