Vic Brown — Giving His Life to the Town of Augusta - The Missourian: Features People

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Vic Brown — Giving His Life to the Town of Augusta

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Posted: Monday, October 3, 2011 12:30 am | Updated: 4:56 pm, Tue Apr 8, 2014.

Prior to Vic Brown taking over Augusta Wood Ltd. in 1984, the building had been a revolving door for other businesses and owners.

Originally, the building served as a butcher shop and meat market. Its longest-running business before it became Augusta Wood in 1979 was as a gas station and garage.

Two other owners had run the shop before Brown purchased it and turned it into the success it is today.

And though remnants of the old businesses remain, including a concrete section of the floor that was once in the butcher shop, Brown and his wife, Ruth Ann, have transformed not only the building, but in their own right - the town of Augusta.

Visitors to Augusta Wood would find solid wood furniture, much of it made in the United States, framed art from internationally known artists such as Jesse Barnes and Thomas Kinkade, as well as many local artists, home decor, gifts and an overall atmosphere of one's own home.

"The shop I bought is not the shop you see today," Brown said. "There were no ceilings, walls, electricity or heat to speak of. The previous owners had a mix of really primitive things and a few really nice pieces. They had a really good eye."

As Brown established his business, he slowly upgraded the shop, adding insulation, a ceiling, air conditioning and heat.

"There were stud walls and no art; not a stitch of art," he remembered, which seems almost unbelievable when looking at the now adorned, art-covered walls.

"Somebody said, ‘You have as much square feet on the walls as you do on your floor, why not use it?,' " Brown said.

The Browns began in art by framing monthly calendar pictures.

Today, Brown holds events that bring big name artists to Augusta, attracting shoppers from all over the United States. Brown has even met visitors from Europe.

Background

Brown is originally from Kirkwood.

In high school he worked for Wehmueller Jewelers, when the store was just getting started.

After high school, Brown attended Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois, where he received his undergraduate degree. He went on to earn a master's degree in education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Brown taught middle school in St. Louis County less than one year when he was drafted in 1967 to the Vietnam War. He spent one year in Vietnam in the finance unit and two years total in the military.

After his service in the military, Brown taught an additional year in the same school district in St. Louis County, and then did Christian work in Missouri and West Texas. He served as a state director of the Emmaus Bible Correspondence Courses, an international program.

In 1975 he returned to St. Louis.

The man he had worked for at the jewelry store, Bob Wehmueller, by this point had eight major jewelry stores in the St. Louis area. He hired Brown to do sales and management for one of the stores.

Brown stayed there until 1984, when he bought Augusta Wood Ltd.

Vic and Ruth Ann

It was at a Christian camp in Lake Geneva, Wis., in 1972 that Vic Brown met his future wife.

"It's a gorgeous spring-fed lake with camps all around the outside edge," he remembered.

Both were counseling a high school camp.

Vic and Ruth Ann were married the following year - June 9, 1973.

The couple had four children who now live from California to Germany.

Brown spoke proudly of his children.

His daughter, Ann-Renee Gargrave's husband teaches at the University of Rhode Island. She was an oboist who earned a master's in performance art. She played with St. Louis Youth Symphony in high school.

Another daughter, Rebekah Wellik, is a nurse who practices in California. She is expecting her second child and Brown's 10th grandchild.

His oldest son, Joel, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2001 and is a career military man. He recently finished a NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and lives in Germany with his wife and four children.

His other son, Aaron, is a commercial pilot who lives in Henderson, Nev., and flies all over the nation.

Having a son who is a commercial pilot has proved beneficial, Brown said, as his search for quality products to fill the shop has taken him all over the country.

"We've been to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, the hills of Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania . . .," he said, adding that many vendors don't come out of their regional market, so if you don't go to them you can't get their products.

Brown said his wife has been a tremendous support.

"We're just grateful for the blessings of the Lord," Brown said. "To maintain a gallery of this caliber is not easy, but the Lord always seems to provide whatever our needs are."

Transitioning

Prior to purchasing Augusta Wood, Vic Brown wasn't necessarily an expert in art, wood or home decor.

But he could tell it was time for a life change.

"We had been asking the Lord whether we should change careers or direction and through a series of circumstances (purchasing Augusta Wood) came on the radar screen," Brown said.

Brown admitted that he wasn't very aggressive when the opportunity came up.

"But as it turned out, the Lord opened up the opportunity to move here and buy in," He said.

By then with four children ages 2, 4, 6, and 8, the Browns found themselves totally changing their lives, from their home, to grade schools, their church and community.

Business-wise, Brown said the transition was "surprisingly easy" after having run the jewelry store for years.

The most difficult thing about the transition, Brown said, was product knowledge.

"It was considerably different from diamonds, emeralds and sapphires," he said.

When people would come in and ask what kind of wood something was made out of Brown said he would tell them to hold on just a minute.

"I had a chart back in the office that had pictures of different grain patterns," he said. "So I'd go back and I looked, and I'd come back and say ‘pine, that one's pine.' "

‘Sometimes I Find an Artist'

Brown prides himself on being able to spot good art.

"I found Thomas Kincade before he was national and Jesse Barnes, I picked him up in '86 before he was national," Brown said.

"Within a year or two, each of these artists took on a national posture, and that took us for a ride. That was a real blessing," he added.

Brown ended up with 500-600 people on a mailing list who would receive a notice each time a new piece came out, which continued for about 20 years.

Brown knew of Jesse Barnes through the jewelry industry. Barnes would come to the mall and paint with the Silver Dollar City art guild. Brown eventually asked Barnes if he could be a dealer.

Barnes would make personal appearances every two years, which Brown said was an accomplishment in itself because it's difficult to get nationally known artists to make appearances.

He wasn't ever able to get Thomas Kinkade to visit. He did, however, get Kinkade originals in a special traveling gallery on more than one occasion.

"There were five or six originals in there that started at a quarter or half a million dollars apiece," Brown said, noting that the showing was highly guarded and secured.

In addition to Barnes and Kinkade, Brown has had appearances from Terry Redlin, an Olympics artist, Rip Kastaris, a Greek American who has a piece in the Athens Olympics stadium, as well as Jack Dawson, Ken Martin and more.

Now, Brown said, he's moved more into original art, with some copies - the biggest change that the shop has gone through.

"We try to encourage and develop new artists," he said.

Augusta

Besides just being involved with his shop, Brown has tried to develop and cultivate the town of Augusta. He also has been involved with the town's history.

Brown helped organize Augusta's sesquicentennial celebration in 2005.

Additionally, he has encouraged artists to paint in the historical direction.

Anita Mallinckrodt, Augusta historian, said Brown has accomplished something by carrying art of a historical period.

"I think that is a big draw," she said.

Along with some of the wineries, Augusta Wood Ltd. has been one of the longest-standing businesses in Augusta.

Brown has been involved with the Augusta Chamber of Commerce since he purchased the shop. Additionally, he chaired the Chamber for several years.

He also has helped grow the plein-air event, which currently is one of the largest in the Midwest. It will celebrate its 10th year in 2012.

Last year, more than 100 artists, including nationally known artists, came from five states to participate in the event. Brown chaired the event for several years.

Brown has participated in the annual Candlelight Christmas Walk since its inception. Augusta Wood is a "major stop" in the festivities.

During the event, more than 1,000 luminaries light the way through the town of Augusta, leading visitors through the town.

Festivities also include caroling, bands, bonfire, carriage rides and of course, Santa Claus.

As in years past, an original painting will be featured at Augusta Wood created for the event by artist Ken Martin. 

"We've gotten into second- and third-generation people coming in," Brown said. "It's particularly noticeable at our Christmas walks, when people bring their whole clan in. It's been kind of a long-standing family connection with a lot of people."

Support

Brown said he and Ruth Ann have appreciated the support of the greater community.

"In general, the tri-county support we've enjoyed has been really great," he said. "We're not exactly around the corner. We're a destination.

"We could be in a mall and probably have done quite well, but that would be quite a trade in lifestyle for us and it's been a great lifestyle. This is very much a community."

Brown said his favorite part of running the shop is meeting new people including clientèle from all over the United States and the world, as well as getting to know repeat customers from the local area.

Visitors have come from Holland, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Australia and more, Brown said.

Other Interests

Brown and his wife also do a lot of personal activities including independent, Bible-centered studies.

Previously, Brown was involved with YoungLife Ministry of Washington and was on the original committee in the mid-'90s.

Other interests include walking, pickle ball, a game played with a wiffle ball on half of the tennis court, walking, playing cards and reading.

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