For more than 70 years, Builders and Consumers True Value Home Center, also known as B&C, has served as one of the longest standing hardware and lumber businesses in Nevada County, giving community residents looking for home supplies and utilities a place to call home.
“Its been a good run and it continues to be,” co-owner Greg Fowler said. “You never know what you’re going to get, one day to the next. I think just the relationships you build with the customers and the memories we have from being a part of our family’s history, it’s something to be proud of.”
The Fowler Center, once a swampy meadowland, houses more than 20 local businesses and has been home to the Fowler family for almost 75 years, literally.
“Grandma and grandpa’s house was right over where the 76 station is, and they had little trails coming through the back of the swamp,” Gary Fowler said.
“There were raised platforms so you could walk back and forth. For us kids, when we were small we’d run back and forth on that trail and play with these little turtles that were all along it. It was a blast for us kids.”
James Fowler was born and raised in Springfield, Mass., and moved to San Francisco in the 1850s via the Isthmus Panama, a narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America.
In 1862, James Fowler married Emily Weaver and the couple moved to Nevada County, homesteading a 160-acre space between Grass Valley and Banner Mountain, to start a logging business. The two launched several saw mills and two lumber yards — the Grass Valley Lumber Co. and the Banner Lumber Co.
James and Emily Fowler had six children and built a home in the Hills Flat area, where they would retire before both passed away in the early 1900s. Their home on the 500 block of East Main Street still stands. Their son, Charles Fowler, took over the business with his son, Leland Fowler, who graduated from Grass Valley High School before enlisting in the Army.
In 1925, Charles Fowler died, and all of the family’s properties and businesses were sold to settle the estate. Leland Fowler married Faye Norton and the couple moved to Sacramento where they had three children — Shirley, Don and Charles S. Fowler.
The family moved back to Nevada County in 1940 and bought 14 acres of meadow between Grass Valley and Nevada City, now the Fowler Center. Leland Fowler then built a home for his family on the corner of West Olympia Drive and Nevada City Highway, where the Union 76 gas station is located today.
“This was a full-fledged swamp land,” Greg Fowler said. “This whole area connected to the Grass Valley sewer system and the swampland pretty much dried up.”
The company made the first all-electric sawmill in Nevada County, which was housed in the Glenbrook area, along with a planing mill and retail lumber yard. During World War II, B&C helped to provide lumber for the war effort.
“That lumber was rationed just like everything else during that time,” Charles S. Fowler said. “But we got a good start when the war broke out.”
The family also purchased more than 850 acres of timberland, furnishing lumber for Camp Beale and crating lumber for overseas shipments. They would eventually close the sawmill in 1959, one year before helping to supply lumber for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
“We got front row seats,” Charles S. Fowler said. “We saw the U.S. (hockey team) beat Russia, so that was a really good experience.”
In 1963 Leland Fowler died, and his sons, Don and Charles S. Fowler, began to operate the company in partnership. In 1967, a fire destroyed the original store. The brothers replaced it with an 8,000-square-foot steel building and would eventually add 3,200 square feet to the store in 1975.
Don Fowler’s sons, Gary and Greg Fowler, remember working at the family store at a young age.
“We’d climb up to the top of the store rafters, and the bees would be up there boring holes into the beams, and we’d be up there smacking them,” Gary Fowler said. “I’d get them and put them in a Coke bottle, take them home at lunch to present the bodies. We’d get a nickel a piece for those things, then we’d save up and run across where the Jolly Roger bowling alley used to be and play the pin ball machines.”
Greg Fowler recalls a time when his father asked him to assist in capturing a potential burglar trying to rob their store.
“The original store had a burglar alarm system that was wired to our house across from Grass Valley Florist,” Greg Fowler said. “It was a Friday evening, we’re watching TV and there was a ‘ring ring, ring ring.’ Dad says ‘Marlene, call the sheriff’s department.’”
Greg Fowler said his father handed him a Marlin 22 lever-action rifle and told him to camp out behind the store.
“He said, ‘If they flush out of the store and they don’t stop, fire a warning shot, and if they keep going, shoot at them.’ And I’m like 12 years old,’” Greg Fowler said. “So I’m hiding behind a fork lift, and I’m thinking, ‘I should load this thing.’ So for every one that’s going in the Marlin, three are ending up on the ground until I get the thing loaded.”
Greg Fowler said the police would eventually catch two brothers on parole who were trying to break into the B&C safe. The next day Greg Fowler went to work, and a co-worker asked him about the previous night.
“He says, ‘Hey Greg, Where were you camped out last night?” Greg Fowler said. “I said, ‘Over there,’ and he said ‘I know.’ We go over there and there’s a pile of bullets laying on the ground.”
In 1977, B&C joined True Value buying co-op to compete with larger stores by selling hardware and home and nursery products, along with lumber. The business partnership resulted in increased sales, causing the company to purchase a computer system to give daily sales reports and monthly profit reports, a more systematic method than the previous annual paper trail review the company previously did.
“That was a good move,” Charles S. Fowler said. “That helped us understand what types of products were worth keeping on the shelves and which ones we could take down.”
In the 1980s, B&C looked into selling or leasing space for businesses to use in the Fowler Center.
At the time, B&C was only using one-third of the company’s property.
In 1986, Albertson’s signed an agreement with the Fowlers to anchor a shopping center with shops and a new B&C store.
“There were big challenges,” Charles S. Fowler said. “Boy, that took us about two years to get the planning for it. We hated to mention that there were a few pheasant birds hanging out on the property, and we had to mitigate the wetlands to the public.”
In 1990, the brothers opened B&C True Value Home Center in a new 40,000-square-foot store, more than 10 times larger than the family’s original store.
“Comparing B&C from where it started to where it is now is like night and day,” Greg Fowler said.
“The company has grown so much more, to selling more than just lumber.”
Don and Charles S. Fowler retired from the company in 1996 and sold the shares to their children, Kim, Greg and Gary Fowler, who all currently run the company in different capacities.
Don Fowler died in July 2003, leaving a legacy that lives on through his family.
“We have always appreciated our customers making our business a success,” Charles S. Fowler, 87, said.
“And we try to give back to the community as much as possible by donating generously to numerous worthy causes. We’re proud of what we’ve done.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
“I think just the relationships you build with the customers and the memories we have from being a part of our family’s history, it’s something to be proud of.”
B&C True Value Home Center co-owner