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Despite changes in county, economy, Swint's succeeds with service

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Most small, family-owned shops and stores in the United States have had to face the rise of the big-box store and the coming of the corporate chains, a model of business that threw a lot of older enterprises into crisis.

For Swint's Feed & Garden Supply, though, that was actually the second challenging economic change. The first was the migration of cotton farming, after World War II.

"Cotton moved west," said Willis Swint, the second-generation owner of the oldest family-owned business in Clayton County. "Some of it moved to South Georgia, I guess, but most of it moved west, where you could irrigate and get the mechanical pickers into the flat fields ... We've gone from dealing with farmers, to the more urban type business."

Swint's, at 252 North Main Street in Jonesboro, started as a cotton gin in 1933, according to Willis Swint. Back then it was behind what is now Heritage Bank, and E.J. Swint served the area's farmers.

"The population doubled from 20,000 to 40,000, and then it was 60,000, and then it just went wild," Swint said. "Back then, in 1933, the only paved road -- and I mean the only paved road -- was this highway out here. Highway 41. And it went all the way from Miami to Chicago. Everything else was dirt."

Willis Swint started working full time for his dad in March 1950, when he was 21, and he soon saw a lesson in the way the economy changes. That year, he recalled, the Swints sold about 125 "big hopper cars of coal." Then, about 1952, natural gas came to the county and "everybody that could afford to change to gas did so." Willis Swint said he saw coal sales dwindle to almost nothing.

Today, celebrating their 75th year in business, Swint said they've succeeded by determination and customer service. "We try to be real helpful to people who come in," he said, "and I think they appreciate it."

On Thursday afternoon, as the sky got ready to storm, three men bought a flat of tomato plants, from where the young starts were lined up outside the front of the store. And a woman and her little girl were assisted by Willis' wife of 58 years, Beverly Swint.

Willis Swint said the business suffered a little, when the big-box stores moved in on the county, but Swint's Feed & Garden Supply has a lot of loyal, long-time customers and has weathered that economic storm.

"It's just personal service," Swint said. "You go into a lot of these box stores, and the people don't know what they're selling ... I don't profess to be an expert in anything, but I've been at it a long time."

Willis Swint, who's nearing 80, said he expects the store will successfully continue for a third generation of family operation as his son, Roger Swint, also a captain at the Morrow Fire Department, takes over.

"What I try to tell everyone," said Swint, going back to work as the rain started to pound the parking lot, "is, if you don't like what you're doing, get out and do what you do like, instead of just suffering. If you do what you like to do, you'll never 'work' a day in your life."