The Real Story Behind Mills Fleet Farm and Blain’s Farm & Fleet

Exploring, debunking and celebrating the long history of two retail icons of rural Wisconsin.

THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS.

In midcentury Wisconsin, two brothers of hearty Midwestern farmer stock were setting out to make their mark on the world. One went by the name of Blain, the other Mills – and they had a killer idea. 

They decided to start a store selling supplies to their fellow farmers wholesale and at a competitive rate. The spot did good business and drew customers from miles around, and soon they were opening new branches. But in the midst of their success, a rivalry between the brothers grew worse with each passing day.  

What was the straw that broke this particular camel’s back? Some say it was a business disagreement – the division of profits, where to open new locations. Others say it was personal – a girlfriend stolen, one too many cutting remarks or social slights. Whatever it was, the result was undeniable – a bitter family fight like no other.

The business was split in two: Mills Fleet Farm and Blain’s Farm & Fleet. 

And never again did the two men speak. Over the decades, their competing stores expanded across Wisconsin, deepening their bitter rivalry into a blood feud of biblical proportions. 

It’s a fun story, right? But it’s not the truth. 

Fleet Farm’s first location in Marshfield, Wisconsin; Photo courtesy of Fleet Farm

 

 

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THE URBAN MYTH THAT Blain’s Farm & Fleet and Mills Fleet Farm originated from the same family is almost as deeply embedded in Wisconsin culture as the stores themselves – almost. 

If you’re from Wisconsin, you know at least one of the two. And if you’re new to Wisconsin, it won’t be long before someone suggests you can find whatever you’re looking for at Fleet Farm or Farm & Fleet. The two similarly named Upper Midwest chains

Fleet Farm’s Appleton store, circa 1957; Photo courtesy of Fleet Farm

both offer almost exactly the same lines of products – hardware, tires, candy, Carhartt clothes, tools, greeting cards, hunting and fishing equipment, etc. – often laid out in a nearly indistinguishable manner. But they’re more than just places to buy a hose. They’ve cornered a strong, pragmatic, Midwestern, frugal, often male market that’s looking for a one-stop shop to buy sturdy goods at low prices.   

“Anything that you think you can need, Fleet Farm has it,” says Bob Socha, 53, a lifelong customer who grew up on a dairy farm near Wausau and now works for the city of Ripon. “Everything from tires for my vehicles, to sporting goods, to workwear, boots and shoes. Even snacks.”

George Hesselberg, a retired Madison-area newspaperman and longtime customer of Farm & Fleet, says much the same thing about his preferred franchise. “Sometimes I just go for the fun of it. … Every time I go there, I find something that I didn’t know existed in reality – some sort of horse equipment or a type of boot sole. It’s very cheap entertainment and education. I like the place a lot.”

“Every time I go [to Farm & Fleet], I find something that I didn’t know existed in reality.”

-GEORGE HESSELBERG


Beyond their brand color schemes (orange for Fleet Farm, blue and red for Farm & Fleet), the differences between the two are subtle: the placement of the mixed nuts, the selection of Halloween decorations, the merits and demerits of the respective rewards programs. Yet customers maintain a strong allegiance to their chosen chain, and many are equally as passionate about the story behind the companies’ founding. 

A Fleet Farm grand opening in Brainerd, Minnesota; Photo courtesy of Fleet Farm

“I work here, I know the history, and I can’t count the number of times customers have argued with me that their version of the legend is correct,” says Frank Steeves, an executive vice president at Fleet Farm, which dropped the “Mills” from its official name in 2018. 

“I have had people come up to me and tell me their version of the story,” says Miranda Becker, the public relations and events lead at Blain’s Farm & Fleet. The myth about the feuding brothers is the most common, but occasionally it’s a married couple who divorced and split their store into two.

Now here’s what really happened. It’s not quite as dramatic, is a little more corporate, and there’s no blood-feuding, but it’s still a good story – one of Wisconsin farmers, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, thriftiness and, possibly above all, culture.


IF IT’S NOT HERE, YOU DON’T NEED IT

Farm & Fleet

Fleet Farm


IN 1955, retailers in Wisconsin were subject to far more stringent minimum-markup laws than exist today. That meant stores couldn’t discount their products or sell wholesale to get an edge on competition. But there was an exception. Customers who had a “fleet” were allowed to buy goods at a discount. A fleet was defined by the state as five or more internal combustion engines. Cars, tractors and even some lawnmowers counted toward that “fleet card.”

“At that time, what population in Wisconsin had five or more internal combustion engines?” says Steeves. “Farmers.”

And like that, there was a new way to tap a strong market. Storeowners who targeted fleet card-carrying farmers could sell them discount goods that beat out traditional retailers. The opportunity wasn’t lost on Midwestern entrepreneurs.

An official “fleet” card; Photo courtesy of Blain’s Farm & Fleet

Stewart Mills founded The Mills Companies in Brainerd, Minnesota, in 1922, selling cars and automotive equipment. In 1955, his two sons Stewart “Stew” Mills Jr. and Henry “Hank” Mills, were in their mid-20s, and their father encouraged them to go off and start their own business. They decided they would open an agricultural store, one that could take advantage of the fleet loophole. 

The brothers started by conducting a cow census. The agricultural sector in Wisconsin was stronger than Minnesota’s at the time, and they assumed that the most bovine-dense counties in the state would correlate to the strongest markets for their farm goods. They drove the dairy state in search of cows, and this led them to Marshfield, where they opened Fleet Wholesale Supply, which in five years would be renamed Mills Fleet Farm. 

Stew and Hank Mills; Photo courtesy of Fleet Farm

Hank and Stew left Minnesota and moved into a trailer behind the new store with their two dogs. “They would go to the YMCA to shower,” says Nick Widi, a senior vice president at Fleet Farm who knew the Mills brothers personally. 

At the same time in western Wisconsin, another pair of brothers, Norman “Bert” Blain and William Claude Blain, in their late 30s and 50s respectively, were already successful businessmen. Like the Mills brothers’ father, they were in the automotive business, operating a chain of Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealerships in the northwestern Wisconsin towns of Ladysmith, Bruce and Weyerhaeuser. They had grown up on their father’s dairy farm, and when they were younger had helped him launch his own feed operation and farm implements store. 

In 1955, the same year the Mills brothers opened their first store, Bert and Claude saw the opportunity to get back into the farm supply business – this time with a profitable hook – and bought a former meat market in Janesville. They emptied out the place and quickly converted it into the first Blain’s Farm & Fleet.

Blain’s Farm & Fleet in DeKalb, Illinois, 1964; Photo courtesy of Blain’s Farm & Fleet

The idea proved to be a great one. Wisconsin farmers took full advantage of the low prices competitors couldn’t match, and both stores boomed. Within the next decade, they had expanded to multiple locations and were growing with each passing year. 

So, who came up with the business model first? 

“It depends on which family you talk to,” says Steeves. “That’s the bottom line. Each family is very adamant that it was their idea. There’s no getting around that.”

Just ask Farm & Fleet’s Becker: “The Mills brothers thought the Blain brothers had a great idea and they asked permission to use farm and fleet in the name of their future stores, but in a different order,” she says. “The Blain brothers agreed, and the Mills brothers then opened their first store shortly thereafter.” 

The Blain and Mills brothers were far from the only entrepreneurs jumping on the fleet bandwagon. Both fledgling stores joined the Mid-States Distributing Co-op, which brought together over 50 such stores to share information and best practices. Dozens of stores in the Midwest took on similar names over the following years: Farm and Fleet Field Service, Quality Farm and Fleet, Dinsmore Farm and Fleet, Farm and Fleet Supply, Steve’s Farm and Fleet, etc. And according to Mid-States, the idea first came from its founders, Bob and Jean Kiesau. 

Claude and Bert Blain; Photo courtesy of Blain’s Farm & Fleet

“You talk to Mid-States, they take credit. You talk to the Mills, they take credit. You talk to the Blains, they take credit,” Steeves says. “The fact of the matter is that none of the people who were actually there at the time are around to tell us.”

But that disagreement – and the possibility of competition – didn’t sour the relationship between the two pairs of brothers. They met while they were coming up as members of Mid-States, and both sides report friendly relations.

Widi, in his early years at Fleet Farm, traveled with Stew Mills frequently, and recalls the friendship between the Mills brothers and Robert Blain, the son of Bert and eventual CEO of Farm & Fleet. 

“There is no turmoil between the families,” Becker says. “The Mills and the Blain families have always been, and remain, friends.”


Farm & Fleet

Fleet Farm


OVER THE ’60s and early ’70s, the minimum-markup laws that gave birth to Fleet Farm and Farm & Fleet were gradually loosened, leaving both stores (and others) free to offer steeper discounts to fleetless folks. So instead of a sole focus on wholesale farm goods, they began offering a wider selection of tools, clothing, food and even toys to attract other customers. Both stores released a beloved annual Christmas catalog – a tradition that continues today. 

“When the toy catalog came out, my siblings and I would always fight over it,” says Socha. “My parents knew the only place they had to go for Christmas was Fleet Farm.”

As they expanded their selection, they also expanded farther across the state. Farm & Fleet spread across the southern parts of Wisconsin from their flagship Janesville store, while Fleet Farm, with its Marshfield and Minnesota roots, took to the north. If you grew up in Green Bay, you may never have even heard of Farm & Fleet. And vice versa, if you grew up in Kenosha. “The first time I went to [a Fleet Farm], I thought, boy, they really screwed up the signage here,” says Hesselberg. 

“My parents knew the only place they had to go for Christmas was Fleet Farm.”

-BOB SOCHA


For Milwaukeeans, the nearest Fleet Farm is in Germantown, while Farm & Fleet has two area locations, in Oak Creek and Waukesha, the latter of which is only 14 miles from the Germantown Fleet Farm. 

The most contested territory in Wisconsin, as of right now, is the Madison market, with a Fleet Farm and Farm & Fleet only 12 miles apart. Otherwise, the two stores remain distant. 

“It just happened organically,” says Widi. “The two stores have similar product mixes and so forth. Obviously, it’s not going to make sense to have those next to each other.”

Farm & Fleet now has 43 stores in four states, while Fleet Farm has 47 in five. Fleet Farm went westward to Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, while Farm & Fleet went south and east to Illinois and Michigan. The two only overlap in Wisconsin and Iowa. 

“They don’t necessarily have to have highly distinctive strategies to differentiate them from each other, because geographically they aren’t co-located very often,” says Russell Coff, a business professor at UW-Madison who’s a Farm & Fleet shopper due to geography. “They’re not in direct competition. … They both have other competitors [because] they both have broad inventories. They’re always located not far from a Walmart, so they’re both facing significant price competition from that standpoint.” 

Walmart and similar stores like Wisconsin’s own Shopko came about through the same discount model that Farm & Fleet and Fleet Farm piloted, but while those chains grew into impersonal behemoths, Fleet Farm and Farm & Fleet, with their agricultural origins and peculiarly Midwestern lineup of goods, kept strong local ties. As Steeves says, lifelong patrons don’t view it as “a store” but as “my store.” 

Blain’s Farm & Fleet in Holland, Michigan, 2019; Photo courtesy of Blain’s Farm & Fleet

“There’s this connection,” he says. “When I first got here, if we moved the paper towels, we would get hate mail. That’s how closely people felt about their store.”

Socha’s most vivid memory of Fleet Farm evokes that strong personal connection. Every time his dad took him to the store, he’d buy him a Marathon chocolate-caramel candy bar. “For a young kid, you don’t have all your teeth, it was quite the candy bar. It lasted all the way home.”

And Hesselberg has remained a steadfast Farm & Fleet customer, in part due to thoughtful customer service reminiscent of a much smaller store. He remembers visiting his local Farm & Fleet after he broke an ax handle. He found the aisle with the axes, but there weren’t any handles – they were in a different, distant aisle, which he stumbled on accidentally. When he checked out, he casually mentioned the odd placement to the cashier. 

“They said, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense,’” he says. “I thought they’d just drop it. Next time I went back, I checked. They had moved all the ax handles to right by the axes.”


Farm & Fleet

Fleet Farm


IN 2016, the Mills brothers, by then in their 80s, sold Fleet Farm to KKR, a New York-based equity firm that bought Toys “R” Us in 2005 and owned it until the company’s bankruptcy in 2018. The financial terms of the Fleet Farm deal weren’t made public, but Reuters estimated the sale at $1.2 billion. The Mills family maintained a minority stake. Hank Mills died that same year, and Stew died in September of 2021 at the age of 93. Currently, the Mills family is not involved in business operations at Fleet Farm. 

On the Farm & Fleet side, Claude Blain died in 1988, and Bert died five years later in 1993. Robert Blain, Bert’s son, took over as president of the store for 20 years. In 2014, he retired, and his sister, Jane Blain Gilbertson, took over as CEO and sole owner of the company. 

“Blain’s Farm & Fleet does remain family-owned, and we have made a commitment to remain so,” says Becker. “Being family-owned allows us to do things differently with our company: to make decisions to treat our associates like family and our customers like neighbors. And when you’re family-owned, you don’t have to answer to Wall Street or shareholders.”


Listen to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” July 20 at 12 p.m. to hear more about this story. 


“Occasionally, a spokesperson at Blain’s will bring that up,” Steeves says. “To do a reality check: Blain’s and Mills are both big retailers. … They’re both corporations. … KKR is a very hands-off investor. [Fleet Farm is] an independent company. … It’s the same company, just different investors.”

Based on KKR’s previous acquisitions – like Epicor, a software company, or The Bountiful Co., which makes diet supplements – Coff believes the firm is likely looking to sell Fleet Farm in the future. “They might be looking to create new locations, acquire smaller players to add,” he says. “Ultimately, they’re looking for it to be worth more some number of years later and to get their cash back.”

“Fleet Farm is a very locally run company,” says Steve Jensen, a senior vice president at Fleet Farm. “Our CEO [John Schaefer] is Wisconsin-based, Nick [Widi] and I both grew up a few miles from a Fleet Farm store and have been involved with Fleet Farm our entire lives. … Our team members could care less about who’s investing in the company. It’s all about taking care of the customer.” 

Fleet Farm in Ankenny, Iowa, 2013; Photo courtesy of Fleet Farm

IN APRIL, Fleet Farm bought 15 acres of land in Muskego to build its latest store. The acquisition adds a new front in the battle with Blain’s, as the nearest Farm & Fleet is only 10 miles away in Waukesha.

Later this year, Blain’s is expanding its Wisconsin territory with new stores in Grafton and Rhinelander. Those are set to open this fall, and the company’s goal is to reach 50 stores by 2026. “It’s not just about growing. It is about carefully selecting the right communities who truly appreciate our family-owned modern general store,” Jane Blain Gilbertson said in a press release. 

As both chains expand, they tend to emphasize their differences over their abundant similarities, with Farm & Fleet focusing on its family-owned status and Fleet Farm playing up its local reputation by partnering with Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens, who does a standup routine about the chain. But one thing they share is that mythical origin story – and neither can quite explain why it refuses to die.

“I think people like to hear stories about the places they go and the things they do – something really evil, a mystery in the past, a body in the dumpster, that kind of thing,” Hesselberg says. “I heard about [the false origins of Fleet Farm and Farm & Fleet] 25 years ago, real early, and I checked it out and it’s so easy to debunk. But it’s a great urban legend. Because you never really know. Right?” 


Managing Editor Archer Parquette dug into Frederick Law Olmsted’s Milwaukee legacy in the April issue.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s July Issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.