Exeter Awards: In With The Old
If you are going to buy a business in town, who better to buy it from than a Man and Woman of the Year. That’s what Don and Cathy Rowlett did when they purchased By the Water Tower Antiques from Floyd and Roberta Brown in 1990.
“I never realized what they were training us for,” Cathy said. “She was so thoughtful and lovely.”
Roberta and Floyd opened the antique business in the old house on the corner of Rocky Hill Drive and B Street in Exeter, within the shadow of the landmark water tower, in 1982. It was the same year she was awarded as Exeter’s 1981 Woman of the Year, just six years after her husband Floyd was named Man of the Year in 1975.
“We really admired Roberta for her business sense and fare dealings with customers,” Cathy said. “We try to do things just the way she would have wanted.”
Cathy had been collecting antiques since she and Don were married in 1970. She said it started as an inexpensive way to decorate her home and turned into a lifelong passion for finding new places in this world for old things.
“I love the history of antique things,” she said. “The warmth and smoothness from all that hands that have touched it. It makes a home feel warm and happy with memories.”
In 1984, Roberta invited Cathy and Don to become antique dealers at By the Water Tower Antiques after two years of selling her finds at a store in Visalia. In each case, the store provided a place to share their wares and then splits the sale between the dealer and the store. Cathy searches the area for hidden treasures while Don refurbishes them or restores them in his workshop at their Farmersville home.
As Roberta began to fall ill, she slowly began to ask Cathy to temporarily fill in for when she couldn’t come in. In 1990, Roberta asked the Rowletts to purchase the shop and take over.
“Initially we said ‘No,’” Don said.
“I felt so privileged that she asked us,” Cathy said. “It gave me the confidence to want to do it.”
Roberta eventually got better and came back as a dealer before passing away a few years ago. When the Exeter Chamber of Commerce delivered cookies and balloons to Cathy and Don to surprise them with the Business of the Year Award earlier this month, Don accidentally let the balloons get away trying to hand them to his granddaughter.
“I felt real bad watching those balloons float away,” Don said.
“But I thought it was perfect,” Cathy said. “We kept the cookies, and the balloons were for Roberta.”
The store remains the epitome of Exeter charm established by the Browns. Eight dealers rent space in the store to display their antiques from classic cookware to refinished furniture. Every corner of the store is covered with relics, trinkets and forgotten treasures. All sales are recorded on ledger paper and rung up on an antique manual register with a handwritten receipt. Their tagline is “The coffee is always on” as a nod to a simpler time when the local general store was a place to hang out, catch up with friends and news of their families.
“We still count back change here,” Cathy said. “It’s the little things that customers really appreciate.”
“We have fantastic customers, many of whom are now friends,” Don said.
Cathy’s attention to the smallest details are evident in her hosting of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce’s tea for its annual Full Bloom Garden Walk in May. For the last nine years, Cathy said and her daughter, Dawnalee Gonzalez, have baked cakes, prepared finger sandwiches and decorated the front lawn into a charming spot for tea.
“I love to make people happy,” Cathy said. “We try to add to it every year. What girl doesn’t want to have a tea party and we get to put that together. It’s a lot of fun.”
By the Water Tower Antiques also brings several hundred people into town at least twice per year – once in the spring and once in the fall. Cathy handwrites 7,000 invitations for antiquers to come to Exeter for their annual sales. During the holidays, Cathy goes all out with more than 50 Christmas trees decorated with antique ornaments, traditional trinkets and festive flare. She also sells tickets for the Exeter Woman’s Club Home Tour, when it was held in the spring as well as the Christmas Home Tour the last two years.
“Exeter is the most wonderful place on Earth,” Cathy said. “We have met the most wonderful people through our encounters with this business. Thank you for this gift Roberta.”