Journeyman Meat Cutter to Feed Store Owner Garry Burks Reflects on Nearly 50 Years at Santiam Feed and Supply
August 16, 2023
By Scott Swanson
For The New Era
Garry Burks was a journeyman meat cutter in need of a new job when his life took an abrupt turn.
It may not have seemed abrupt at the time, but 49 years later ... well, hindsight is 20/20.
Burks, now 77, was a young married man, recently returned to Sweet Home, in 1975, after working for a decade in grocery stores and slaughterhouses around the Willamette Valley and northwest Oregon.
He'd grown up locally, with three siblings, and had graduated from Sweet Home Union High School in 1964, moving on into the meat cutting industry, where he'd risen quickly to journeyman status.
"I could have gone to work at a new store in Springfield, but I didn't want that drive and I didn't want to move again," he said in a near-whisper, which as any regular customer knows, is Garry's way.
He'd been working part-time at Mid-City Grocery but he needed more hours and full-time wasn't looking promising, he said.
Burks said his wife Cathy was at a Tupperware party in late February of 1975 when she was approached by Donna Ego, who owned Santiam Feed and Supply with her husband Stan. They'd purchased the business, at 13th Avenue and Long Street, from her parents, Dan and Daisy Ashton.
Ego asked Cathy Burks if Garry was working.
"She told Cathy to have me stop by and see Stan. 'He needs someone for the spring season,'" she said.
Burks followed through after church the next Sunday, swinging by the Egos' house.
"I had a couple of questions, like 'How much can you pay me?' and 'I wonder if I can handle 100-pound feed bags.' I'd had surgery on my back in 1973.
"'Oh yeah,' Stan said. 'You'd be able to handle the feed bags.'"
He told Burks he could start the next day, Monday morning.
And, Burks said, he liked it. A lot.
"When I was in meat cutting, I (worked) in a small area, which is OK. But one thing I noticed when I came here, Stan could have me across the street doing something in the nursery, around here with him in the store, or taking the truck and going after supplies or making deliveries.
"I thought, 'This is great. I get outside, I get such variety and now I can learn how to make those animals look like they're choice. I knew how to cut them, how to merchandise them."
Plus, he said, Ego was paying him more than he'd anticipated.
A couple of months later, after the spring rush wound down in 1975, Burks rode with Ego and a fellow employee, Ruth Haverkut, to a training meeting conducted by Scotts Co., maker of fertilizer and lawn care products.
En route, Ego, who was at the wheel, spoke up: "Garry, I would like to consider you full-time and not just spring season."
"I'd worked in grocery stores and I knew how to merchandise, and he could see that. I could tell he liked my work," Burks recalled.
"That was March of 1975 when it started and it's going on 49 years now. I had a lot to learn that I was excited about."
He and Cathy purchased the business in 1984 and have run it since, with help from their four children, Daniel, Amanda, Melinda and Joel, and 15 grandchildren, nearly all of whom have participated. Dan worked full-time at the store for a few years after getting married, his mother recalled.
"Each one of our children have worked here," Garry Burks said. "Overtime. Here in the store or at the nursery.
"This came along and I've really enjoyed it," he said. "It's it's been good for my family and it's good to work with people who like to come in here."
In 2005, when he had an issue with his back, his sister and brother-in-law from Salem and helped Cathy run the store.
Cathy managed the nursery merchandise through the years, though she said she wasn't enthusiastic at first.
"I was a stay-at-home mom and I loved being a stay-at-home mom, and so it was a real challenge to start working, you know, pretty much full-time. And we have four kids, and so trying to fit them in and the housework and everything. Oh my goodness, I don't know how women today do it."
She said she got her start in plants from her great-grandmother.
"When I was in, probably, early grade school, she came to stay with us for part of the summer, and we planted mums and I don't know what all, and I learned about heliotrope and just lots of stuff," said Cathy, noting her mother called her "Petunia" when she was small.
"I don't really have a green thumb, but I love flowers. And so it was really interesting and it was fun seeing all the different varieties and the people and what they liked, and their plans for their gardens and everything."
She said customers' preferences have changed over the years.
"When we first bought the store, people were doing a lot of big gardens. And now it's small, little gardens. and stuff. Even flowers; there's a lot of people wanting to do container flowers. And I think they've kind of cut down on a lot of the shrubs.
"We used to sell a lot of azaleas and rhododendrons and that kind of phased out and not so much of the evergreens. They kind of phased out and our lot shrunk. So that kind of worked in our benefit."
Garry said he's particularly enjoyed just chatting with customers over the years, some representing multiple generations of local families.
"Sad to say, the older ones have gone, but younger ones have replaced them," he said.
"There will be guys come in that are grown men. And they say, 'You've been here a long time. I remember coming in here when I was young. And I remember the mynah bird and you were here then.' And they're in their 40s."
Bill, the mynah bird, resided at the store in the 1960s and '70s, Cathy Burks recalled.
"He'd greet people by saying, 'Coffee Time.' I remember one time I was talking to him and asked if he was a chicken. He said, 'I wouldn't be surprised.'"
One of Garry's favorite memories, he said, was when, in the summer of 2011, he heard a commotion at the front door and went out to see what was going on.
There stood longtime resident Frank McCubbins with his Bacterian camel, Big Mac, for whom Burks had provided feed when the two had hiked the Oregon Coast Trail.
"Frank said, 'I want to get a picture of you,'" Burks recalled. "Before he put that camera away, there were about 50 people in a circle in front of the store.
"He was an unusual customer.
"A couple of weeks later I heard the door open and close and I come up here, and on the counter was that picture, in a package."
The photo has adorned the store's wall since shortly after that moment.
Burks said he's particularly enjoyed serving his former high school teachers over the years, including Jerry Stevens, who still lives in the area; Myrtle Gates, who died in 2017 at age 106; Virginia Payne; Nelson Jones, who taught science and who owned a farm where local kids picked beans in the summertime; Doyle Johnson.
"I really enjoyed sitting with him because, like I told him one time, in school he used to talk about the Constitution, and I didn't realize why it was so important," Burks said of Johnson. "That I know now."
"It was just good to visit with my former teachers. Jerry Stevens still comes in, so I get to visit with him."
Another favorite has been now-retired local dentist Henry Wolthuis.
"Henry grew up on a dairy," Burks noted, adding, "He would come in and take a look at the alfalfa (bales) and just smell it. It takes him back."
Paul Lewis, who took over Santiam Supply from his parents before retiring in 2011 and selling the parts store to O'Reilly Auto Parts, has been another regular.
"He would visit just about weekly."
In recent years, though, age and medical issues have taken their toll at the store.
Cathy, who is 75, had to step back from managing the nursery lot, across the street from the main store, after falling while carrying a tray of plants.
"2021 was the last year we had plants in the nursery," Burks said.
Late last year he had to undergo an operation that put him on restriction – no lifting of more than 20 pounds for six weeks. The store closed for two weeks during that time and then his brother Stan from Philomath and Leroy Luttmer, a local friend, helped with the loading and unloading.
"Stan loves coming over and meeting people," Burks said.
But the clock has been ticking.
"People I went to school with, they know my age. So they ask, 'Garry, when are you going to retire?'
"I know that I should retire, right? And I had a really hard time making up my mind because there's things about (running the store) that I really like, but then on the other hand, there's things that are simple, that I can't stand it any more."
The store building and the nursery lot, caddy corner at 13th and Long, both have For Sale signs on them.
Burks said he's hoping for a buyer who will take over the business, if they can do so without a lot of training.
"I don't know what the store is gonna end up being. It could be a feed store," he said.
The ideal candidate, he said, would be someone who not only understands farming, but also "you'd like to visit, you'd like to work with people."
Meanwhile, the Burkses are planning some visits to their children and other relatives, who are scattered across the country.
Plus, Garry said, he's looking forward to a less restrictive schedule and a chance to get some things home on the seven acres they've lived on for 50-some years.
"I've been buying a few pieces of equipment, but you've got to be careful about the weather because it changes on you. When you've got a working schedule, that takes precedence."