By William Thrift
Photography by John Wrightenberry
Back in the 1970’s, Fred Gantt’s father bought a farm with an old house on it in St. Matthews. The house was in rough shape, so the family went to their farm and worked on the farm house nearly every weekend. Not only did they work on the house, they planted trees and lots of wildlife plots too. The constant exposure to farm life began to do something to young Fred. Working with his hands, laboring on something that he and his family could call their own seeded an everlasting passion in Fred for all things outdoors. He says, “I knew from a very early age that I was in love with the outdoors.”
His father also instilled a strong work ethic in Fred, “If there was something I learned growing up, it was that my Dad does not like laziness. As a young man, if my Dad would pull into the driveway and I was sitting down, I would get up and look busy. Still to this day I get up!”
After Fred got married, he built his own house on the farm that his wife and daughter call Hay Hill after Hay (his middle name) and Hill (from living on a huge hill).
Early on though, Fred sought to earn a living selling office furniture instead of farming. He was a diligent
salesman, but he still yearned to be outdoors. One day, he happened upon an invoice lying around the office for the grounds service that was cutting the grass where he worked. It wasn’t an outrageous fee, but Fred thought he could do it cheaper than the other guys. So he worked out a deal for cutting grass and other grounds services on the side. Then when tragedy struck and a friend died, Fred arranged to take over the man’s janitorial service contracts, giving him access to many more businesses. He worked out more deals to cut grass and clean buildings while he still sold office furniture. One day his cousin, David Gantt, showed him how to install an irrigation system. Although Fred’s first irrigation job took three weeks (instead of one day) to complete, he was soon installing irrigation systems on a regular basis.
As the jobs grew in scope and number, Fred eventually asked a landscape architect to work with him to design landscaping. At some point he quit selling office furniture altogether and for a while, his business was based on his farm in St. Matthews.
Then another type of tragedy struck. Fred was diagnosed with cancer – specifically leiomyosarcoma (a tumor on the side of his liver), and was treated at Duke Hospital. He then spent time recovering and getting radiation treatment in Raleigh. During the ordeal, he thought about what the future of his business would be – not just for him, but for his family and his employees. It was the proverbial wake up call. He assessed what he was doing: 90% of his business was in Columbia.
So why not move his business there? He also thought about expanding his customer base by opening a garden center where people could walk in and buy a few things like a new high-end grill, some planting pots, or decorative outdoor items, or sit down and plan an entirely new yard complete with trees, shrubs, hardscape, and lighting with one of the in-house landscape architects.
As Fred looked out on the horizon for his new venture, renewal became the theme of it. The first task was getting the right space. Fred and David Stack (one of Hay Hill’s landscape architects along with Elizabeth Rice, Lauren Davis, and Lee Miller) began looking for buildings on the south side of Columbia. They even explored the possibility of building a new facility from scratch. But that just didn’t quite fit their needs. Then they found the building that was formerly Southern Pump and Tank on Bluff Road. In addition to the ample brick airplane-hangar-type building, it had plenty of yard space for a nursery and other supplies and equipment.
The facility immediately inspired a retro-southern design motif that worked perfectly with Fred and David’s environmentally-friendly aesthetic value of re-using old materials to create new and useable things. Since “form follows function,” as David said, they began constructing large display islands, tables, cabinets, and other items from leftover and salvaged wood from prior projects and other Bluff Road industrial neighbors. Outside in the nursery area, Fred used discarded telephone poles to make shelters for the plants. The roofing material for the shelter is from an old conveyor belt.
One of Hay Hill’s outbuildings houses a carpentry shop where old wood is put to use for customer projects like cabinets for an outdoor kitchen to in-house items like table tops to be attached to old pedal-powered Singer sewing machine frames.
Fred is constantly on the lookout for new and interesting materials, “Sometimes I know exactly what I want to make out of it, and sometimes I just see enough potential that I buy it anyway. Repurposing adds value to an otherwise old, broken down item – just like I wanted to create some value for Hay Hill by opening the garden center and bringing the business into a new league.”
While Fred and Hay Hill’s employees may have transformed the old Southern Pump and Tank facility into something exciting and unique, their commitment to good, old fashioned customer service and the highest quality craftsmanship remains the same as always. To learn more about Hay Hill, visit their website at hayhillservices.com.