We sat down with Rick and Iris Lewis, our parents, and the heart and foundation of the Homestead, to learn a little bit more about the story behind our family business. We were interested in hearing the story told from their perspective and to know what life at the Homestead has been like for them these last 36 years. It was a busy summer day, and we sat outside on the back patio over lunch to talk. What we learned was touching and gave us an even greater appreciation for what our parents have worked hard to build for us and our beloved community.
First, a little history:
The Homestead General Store was first erected in 1831 by a merchant named Hugh Major. Construction of the beautiful Delaware Canal that we’ve all come to love and enjoy had begun four years prior and by the time Major had completed the construction of the store, the Canal was opened to limited traffic. As you can imagine, the Canal provided a huge economic boom for our region and allowed many families to settle here, as they were now able to rely on a steady source of income. The store traffic came from the Canal side in those days, so the main entrance was where our back patio is now.
The General Store and residence changed hands many times over the years. Our property witnessed the lives of many families, the building of the Milford/Upper Black Eddy bridge, and the construction of the nearby railroads, which over time, contributed to a major decline in Canal traffic. The Canal continued to operate until it closed in 1931, nearly 100 years after it had first opened.
In 1913, the property was purchased by the Singley family, who continued to operate the store for the remaining 18-year period that the Canal was open. Canal boat families were known to frequent the store and it became a meeting place where boatmen exchanged talk of life. At this time a coal yard was also established on the property. The Singley family owned and operated the store for 67 years, until it was eventually purchased by our father and mother, Rick & Deborah Lewis, in February of 1980.
At that time, Michael, the youngest of us, was not yet born. With the purchase of our new property and the ushering in of the 80’s, there came a lot of changes for our family, and the beginnings of the Homestead General Store.
When our parents bought the property, our dad had a very specific vision in mind – he saw this as a great opportunity for the whole family to live and work together. At that time, the property’s coal business was thriving and it made sense to him that he would run it while his wife and children would run the store. However, as with many best-laid plans, they don’t always go the way we hope or expect them to.
When we were still quite young, our mom & dad ended up going their separate ways, and Dad found himself living here alone, running the store and the coal business, with us kids visiting on the weekends. When we asked Dad about it, he remembered grieving this loss, “I was just down in the dumps and I was ready to throw a match in it. You lose your heart and soul, you know. You do.”
“There goes his dream… it just ended. So, you have to recreate,” recalled Iris.
And that’s just what Dad did.
He continued to run the store and coal business, and a year or two later, he received a phone call from Iris, asking him to deliver coal to her property. We asked them to describe this early interaction.
Rick: “She beat me down on the price.”
Iris: “I called and said ‘how much is a ton of coal?’ and he goes ‘um, um…’ and I hear papers and he says ‘Oh, the price just changed.’ And I said, ‘Just? Like today?’ and he said ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Could you pretend I called yesterday and give me that price?’ ‘Yeah, I can do that,’ he says. But he still doesn’t know that I’m single.”
Rick: “So, I get there, the grass is this high, the fence is falling down, you know. I still don’t know what’s going on.”
Iris: “He talks a lot. I’m working as a nurse at this time and, you know, I’m there, a single mom with two children and he comes along to deliver my coal and I have one day off during the week – I gotta do my grocery shopping and run my errands and Rick is coming with my coal and I’m like, ‘OK, he talks a lot and I don’t want to get trapped here.'”
“So, he delivers the coal and I’m there and we’re standing outside talking and he’s looking around and he notices I have clothes on the line and there’s no men’s clothes and he goes, ‘You’re alone here, aren’t ya?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ Dead giveaway, yeah. (laughter) OK. Then he says, ‘Do you want to go out to dinner some night?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So that’s how it started.”
Rick: “That’s how it got started. Yep. And that was that.”
Iris: “So here we are.”
Over the next 3 and a half decades, Dad & Iris worked hard to build a life for themselves, experimenting with the business and witnessing many changes as it evolved. For a few years they owned and operated a successful, second location in Frenchtown called Homestead Too (located next door to the National Hotel, at 29 Race Street, where the Artful Collector & Studio is now). When that got to be too much to handle because they never saw each other anymore, they sold it and Iris developed a booming bakery/cake decorating business out of our current General Store. The coal business eventually came to an end, and they ushered in the beginning of the coffee business, which was born in 2006.
Rick: “I liked good coffee. And you couldn’t buy good coffee here. You know, we didn’t have access to it.”
Iris: “We went to Europe on vacation and the coffee was excellent and we came back and we were like, ‘Why can’t we get excellent coffee here?'”
So Dad started researching and decided to try his hand at coffee roasting.
Rick: “I burned the beans.”
Iris: “It was funny because where he bought the roaster, which was down in Delaware, he bought it from a fella there, and he was saying to him, ‘I read all these blogs and there’s hype on TV and everybody’s such a coffee geek and it’s gotta be this and it’s gotta have that and I’m getting myself nervous.’ So he goes, ‘Thousands of years ago they were roasting beans in a pan over an open fire. You can do this.'”
Rick: “It’s true.”
Iris: “I mean, obviously it wasn’t as great a coffee as what they’re doing (now) because, yes, they’ve become that coffee geek that we definitely needed to be and weren’t. But, it started the business and it was going well. I think we had it… 3 years before Michael came back (from living in Colorado). And when he was considering coming back we were like, ‘Mike we have a job for you, if you want it.’ So Mike came back.”
And Trevor also came back and the two brothers took over the coffee business.
When asked what has been the most challenging aspect of owning the Homestead, both Rick and Iris agree, it’s been finding a life/work balance.
Iris: “We did cut our hours back – I mean, we’d sit there until 10 o’clock at night. We had all kinds of ice cream lines here and it just wears on us. (Also,) I don’t feel like I could just pick up and take off for 6 months. I can’t do that. It’s a way of life. It’s really not just a job or a career – it’s a lifestyle.”
And as for the biggest rewards? Again, they both agree:
Rick: “There are a lot of big rewards, I think. You meet a lot of nice people. You do. You make a lot of new friends… they’re here every morning for coffee. It’s always ‘hello’, and ‘goodbye’, and families… You wouldn’t know some of these people if it wasn’t for them coming here. So that’s good. And one of the biggest rewards, too, is watching the coffee business grow and (having) the boys with ya, and making a decent living out of it. You get out of it what you put in. That’s the way life is.”
We asked them how they feel they’ve grown throughout their time with the store.
Rick: “Older and fatter. Life is good. Right?”
Iris: “Mhmm. I personally was much shyer. This definitely pulled it out of me. And not bragging, but people say to us, ‘You know what makes the Homestead is you two. Your personalities here when you walk in, you feel like you’re coming into somebody’s home – you’re welcoming,’ which is really nice to hear.”
Rick: “It’s what it is.”
Iris: “It is, you know, because when we are gone and if Michael and Trevor or whoever is running the store, or even if it gets sold, it will continue, but it will be different. It will just be different. But then they’ll add their flavor to it.”
So it seems that life on the Homestead now looks a lot like the way Dad had envisioned it to be, all those years ago.
Rick: “It just came later.”
Iris: “Yeah. He said it, he said, ‘I feel like I didn’t raise my boys,’ but you did and look where they are – they’re right back here. So, you did. It might have been only on an every other weekend basis, but you did and it worked.”
Rick: “Yeah. I’m surprised, in a way, that they’re back and (that they) came back and stayed.”
Iris: “And it appears that they’re happy with us.”
Rick: “They work hard at what they do. So, it’s good. We got two smart kids. They really are. But Iris and I said all along, we gave them the wrong business. We should have given them this (the store) business and we should have taken the coffee business – cuz they get the weekends off.”
Iris: “They get weekends off, they get holidays off and that’s when we’re really crankin’ and we’re like ‘What are we doing?'”
But would they do it all again, looking back?
Rick: “I don’t know, there were a lot of tough years. And I’m serious when I say there were a few times when I thought, ‘Man, I’d be better off throwing a match in this place and just go work for somebody.’ But I’d be doing something else.”
Iris: “You’re always burning everything up.”
Rick: “Would I do it again? I think so. Yeah. I don’t know what else I’d be doing. But yeah. Yep.”
Iris: “There’s an advantage to it. Even though it is this huge anchor around our necks and we aren’t as free as maybe at this point in our life we would like to be free – on the reverse side, we are free. I don’t have to show up somewhere at 8 o’clock and stay there ’til 5. Sometimes I wish I could, but…”
Rick and Iris live on the Homestead property, above the General Store. Trevor and his wife, Mandy, live just across the Canal. Michael lives in nearby Frenchtown, and Andi lives by our mom, in Louisburg, PA. Iris’ sons Troy & Sean live locally, as well.
We all hope you’ll stop in sometime and say hello.