Middleport farm and feed store owner was beloved in ag community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 29 January 2015 at 12:00 am

Wilbert Rhinehart, 85, had ‘gift of gab’

Provided photos – Wilbert Rhinehart is pictured with bales of straw in this photo from 2010.

MIDDLEPORT – The Western New York agricultural community is mourning the loss of Wilbert H. Rhinehart, a popular owner of a feed, fertilizer and farm store in Middleport.

Rhinehart, 85, was killed on Saturday in Royalton on Akron Road when a southbound vehicle, driven by 39-year-old James Zak of Royalton, slid into his vehicle, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department reported.

Mr. Rhinehart is a former hog and chicken farmer who built up a feed and fertilizer business that survived and grew amidst intense competition from corporate giants.

“He was popular and well respected,” said Mike Zelazny, a grain farmer in Medina. “He always took the time to talk to farmers.”

Zelazny’s father Walter started the farm a half century ago. He was a Rhinehart customer, and a big fan.

Wilbert Rhinehart is pictured around 1960.

Rhinehart did more than offer customers a good price, Mike Zelazny said. Rhinehart enjoyed dispensing advice about planting techniques, fertilizer applications, seed depths and populations, and he had lots of ideas for marketing corn, wheat and soybeans.

Zelazny said his father would often go to deliver a load of grain. When trucks were backed up at a mill, Rhinehart was often the center of attention, telling stories and giving tips. Farmers would gather around Rhinehart while waiting for their turn to unload their crop.

Rhinehart was always industrious, his son Butch said. “Wil” grew up in the Great Depression in the City of Lockport. Rhinehart as a kid had chickens and sold their eggs to make a little money. He had friends who lived on farms, and Rhinehart preferred life in the country.

He had chickens and hogs, and sold fertilizer and lime on the side. He would receive 50-pound bags of fertilizer from railroad cars and bring the product home. He would sell it over the winter and spring. He also had a spreader for lime.

At one point, Rhinehart has 10,000 chickens and about 500 pigs. Butch, now 60, would get up at 5 a.m. as a kid to collect the eggs.

Rhinehart would shift the base of the fertilizer business from the family homestead in 1957, when W.H. Rhinehart began in Middleport. The family added a new location about a decade ago with the expanded W.H. Rhinehart store, a warehouse and fertilizer plant on Carmen Road.

Photo by Tom Rivers – Brett Rhinehart and his father Butch said they are proud of the legacy left by Wilbert Rhinehart.

Butch and his son Brett, 34, work at the site with six other employees. Wilbert Rhinehart was a daily fixture at the business seven days a week. He worked Saturday morning before the car accident.

His grandson marveled at Rhinehart’s memory, and his close friendships with so many customers.

“He loved wheeling and dealing,” Brett said on Wednesday at the Rhinehart store. “He had the gift of gab.”

His grandfather detested the Thruway and the main roads. He preferred driving on the country lanes to see what the farmers were doing.

“He knew every back road from here to Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Butch said. “He could remember roads he hadn’t been on in 20 years. He had a photographic memory.”

Rhinehart worked in the business for 40 years with his wife Joan. They would drive together in the morning and ride back together after the work day. The couple purchased the Resseguie’s Feed Mill on Orchard Street in Middleport in 1973. Mrs. Rhinehart passed away on Sept. 10, 2010.

Joan and Wilbert Rhinehart, pictured in about 1965, had four children and built a business together.

Butch said his father tried to keep prices low for farmers. If it was a bad year for a crop and farmers couldn’t pay their bill, Rhinehart would give them another year to pay when prices had rebounded.

His background as a farmer won him respect among his customers.

“Because he was a farmer at one time, they viewed him different as being from Corporate America,” Brett said.

Rhinehart was slow to embrace credit cards for the business, and he didn’t like computers. But he didn’t stand in the way when Butch and Brett pushed to modernize the operation.

“For 50 years he never advertised,” Butch said. “It was just word of mouth and it kept growing. We kept the prices low and farmers talk when the prices are low.”