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Gone, but not forgotten
by Mary Atkinson/Jacob Lane · December 11, 2013

After decades of hard work his chair is now empty. Having started Fred's Feed and Supply in 1966, Fred Miller and his business have become icons in West Liberty, his hometown of Atalissa, and other surrounding communites.

Unfortunately, he passed away Nov. 25., leaving both a legacy and a community in mourning.

"He was a great guy, I've always thought he was one of the best supporters of West Liberty I've ever known," said Jim Conrey who has known Fred for 40 years.

Conrey opened Jim's Foodland in 1968, where he became well acquainted with Miller. Their friendship grew, as well as the partnership between their two West Liberty businesses.

"He did a lot of things over the years for West Liberty, and he really supported school activities," Conrey added.

The office where Miller's chair sits is cluttered with everything from papers, toy collectibles and cookie jars - things that seem to define the humble man who loved his business and his community.

Last Friday before the beginning of Miller's visitations, his son closed the store's doors at noon and sat in that same chair, where he reflected on the type of man his father was.

"A post on Facebook said he is the patriarch of a family that has been in town a long time," Larry, 55, proudly said. "And he was. He was a longtime businessman here and still basically belonged here."

When Miller started the feed business it was located where Designer T's is now. Later he moved it to its present location and began adding merchandise as requested by customers, as well as a few other 'odds and ends'.

In 1996, Miller turned the business over to his sons, Larry and Bruce, who ran it with the same small-town atmosphere as their father. Their sister, Rhonda, worked there a while as well.

Even in retirement, Miller came to work everyday, where he greeted customers with news of the weather or just talked crops and farming. However, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis made some days very difficult.

"If you saw him in his office with his head in his hands then you knew it was a bad day for him."

Meagan Z. of Los Angeles, Calif, did a review of Fred's Feed on 'Yelp,' a business review website. Fred's success has been recognized beyond the state of Iowa.

"Have you ever seen movies where there is a town general store and the store owners are really helpful? You think this place can't exist. But it does and it's called Fred's Feed... This is just a wonderful place!" she wrote.

People in town looking for a place to purchase a particular hardware item were usually told "If Fred's Feed doesn't have it then you don't need it!" (Or they can order it)

"We always had hats and shirts saying 'Your town and country store,' and that was our main slogan," said Larry.

Watching his father for years, Larry said the one thing he learned was the way his father treated people, even if they were late paying their bills.

"He always treated people with respect and dignity," Larry said. "He treated everyone the same."

Larry said the farm crisis had a significant impact on customers, which trickled down to the store. However, Fred handled it with care and conviction.

"We carried some people. It was a hard time for us." Larry said. "We had a few good customers that we carried through because they were having a tough time. People paid us when they could."

When his sons took over, they carried their father's legacy.

"We just saw how he did things and that's how we did things, when we took over the business we weren't going to be as easy as dad. We were going to be tougher," Larry laughed. "We were not."

He agrees treating people well in business goes a long way. However, Larry said his dad was not a man of many words, but taught through example, which he believes has helped with the success of the store.

"You learn by doing, good habits - bad habits. But mostly good." Larry said. "Our customer service comes entirely from Dad."

Darren Brooke, who operated TrueValue Hardware during the 1990s agrees, and said that the two stores had a friendly competition.

"If one of us didn't have an item we always thought we could refer customers to each other," said Brooke. "He was a great business man."

Brooke attended the visitations last Friday and said the lines to greet the family lasted about 90 minutes.

"It is a great loss to the community." He said. "But the boys (Bruce and Larry) will carry on with what they learned in the past."

Fred's impact on local groups will last as well. He has been president of the Chamber of Commerce and of the WL Lions Club, as well as a member of the fire department and a member of the Muscatine County Fair Board.

"I'm a member of the Rotary Club," said Conrey. "I was absolutely tickled when Fred received the integrity award, they first one they had ever handed out. He was a really strong Chamber leader."

Even though he has passed away, his work will always be remembered by the many costumers and friends Fred made over his many years

As for the empty chair and that cluttered office, well that will remain Fred's domain - at least for awhile.

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