Creekside Country at Miller's Store
Jun 29, 2019 01:51PM
The Irish have a term for it: “Down in the Country.” They mean off the beaten path, at the end of the road. By that definition, Miller’s Store, in the center of Blackwell, would certainly qualify. It’s on a state highway, but the kind of state highway that until this century was a gravel road in spots, has one-lane bridges, narrows down to less than two lanes, and has hairpin turns. The Narrows, a section just south of Blackwell, is frequently closed with rock slides. That makes Blackwell just a little more remote—a little more down in the country.
For Ruth Anne Miller and her daughter, Anne Miller, this location made for a problem, and also made for a delightful solution. For their store, open since 2011, is too far for delivery trucks. Tractor trailers cannot navigate Route 414 west beyond Morris. And there are not enough businesses for smaller delivery trucks to drive to Miller’s. The only delivery is the Genna Ice Truck. Even the ice cream is picked up in Slate Run from the Hershey Ice Cream truck in the Miller’s vehicle and raced back to their freezers. The temptation, with these kinds of challenges, might be to just get basic supplies that hikers and bikers on the Pine Creek Rail Trail needed and call it “good enough.” But Ruth Anne and Anne decided if they had to travel to stock the shop, they would purchase more unusual, better quality products.
And, they decided to support Pennsylvania products, and support Pennsylvania jobs.
So, it’s candy from places like Blaine’s Boring Chocolates, or Sarah’s Candies, the business that bought out Gardners and still makes the beloved peanut butter meltaways. It’s the cheese and the cream cheese dips from Penn State—and Rip Rap crackers to make the dipping and spreading even better. It’s Catawissa soda pop, which anthracite country travelers are delighted to see. It’s Zimmerman’s roasted nuts. It’s fresh roasted coffee from Way Cool Beans in Williamsport. And it’s Pardoe’s Perky Peanuts.
That doesn’t mean that larger companies are left out. The pink refrigerator in the back of the store, door wide open as a display, is filled with Heinz products (the more unusual ones, like Heinz original recipe ketchup). Hershey candy is there, as are Herr’s potato chips and pretzels. But there are some products they can’t stock, because “sometimes the factory won’t sell to us,” Ruth Anne grumbles.
They often discover new products through the people who stop in from the trail. On seeing the variety of Pennsylvania products, someone will mention one that Ruth Anne and Anne don’t know, and from there the procurement process—sometimes a lengthy one—begins. But it’s worth it for the pleasure of hearing folks comment, “I have never seen that”—and then buying it.
Perhaps one of the most unusual Pennsylvania products available graces their antique glass front counter. Big Bang Conestoga Company Carbide Cannons look like they have been transported from fifty or more years ago, when toys were cast in real metals. They have been in production since 1912 in Allentown. These gorgeous cast cannons create a loud bang and a flash using calcium carbide and water, all courtesy of a patented process. It works on the same theory as the carbide gas lights in the old Gillespie house, also in Blackwell, and later called the Blackwell Hotel (Ruth Anne has an old photo of the place, with the carbide gas lamps lit). They were marketed from the beginning as a safe alternative to reworks, as there is no fire, so it’s not only safer for people, but safer for the forest that surrounds Pine Creek. The store carries both the regular cast and the brass cannons in many sizes, earning the admiration and delight of children of all ages.
Every year, Ruth Anne and Anne set a goal for new products. Last year, it was looking for Pennsylvania products that were “no sugar added.” That’s a tall order for a state that has a serious sweet tooth, but the quest turned up Byler’s Relish House, which produces all sorts of no-sugar-added relish, pickles, and preserves. Every small company has a story, and the Bylers, an Old Order family, founded their company as a business for the daughters, who do all the production and have made the business grow by leaps and bounds. They’re located in western Pennsylvania, which would be quite a drive for the Millers. But the Bylers will deliver to Bloomsburg when they visit family there, so when they’re ready to travel, the Bylers call Ruth Anne or Anne and ask if they need anything. It ends up being both a business and a personal relationship, giving the entire stocking process a small-town feeling.
What to have with your snacks? Maybe a good read. The store carries many books (it’s a “fiercely independent” bookstore), both used and new, with a strong emphasis on the books that bring back memories. From children’s series books to the Little Golden Books, people stop, look, and often tell a story about when they were young. Two special new books are sold here, both Old Order Mennonite cookbooks. The Daniel and Grace Stauffer family had a cookbook, and, as a Pennsylvania product, it was sold at Miller’s Store. The arrangements to handle the book resulted in a friendship between the Millers and the Stauffers, who vacation in the Pine Creek Valley. Then the Wengers, who also visit Pine Creek and are related to the Stauffers, thought it would be a nice idea to have their family cookbook there as well. Anne, while trying to photograph horses outside an Old Order service, ended up taking a photo of an amazing wisteria vine covering a porch. Later, she found out that porch was attached to the Wenger’s home. That photo graces the front cover of the Wenger cookbook.
Anne herself has a small industry creating postcards. It began when she was fourteen, taking pictures up and down Pine Creek. People were delighted with these photos of the sights they had encountered while hiking or biking. When they travel to stock the shop, Anne brings the cameras, and is currently working on photographing every covered bridge in the state.
Supporting Pennsylvania products and jobs, and photographing the journey for the goods—you could call that the Millers’ mission statement, but travelers from all over call it a destination point filled with the things that make spending time in the Pine Creek valley extra special.
Hours vary, but Miller’s Store is open year round. Call (570) 353-2258 or visit millersblackwell.com.