Like many locally-owned businesses in small towns, Old Cottonwood, in Utica, Nebraska, is more than just another store—it’s the hard work, dedication, and dreams of the owners coming to fruition.
From selling part-time in their online Etsy shop, to expansion into a brick and mortar store, owners Brent and Leah Daehling have run Old Cottonwood since 2005.
“I think without realizing it, both Brent and I had interest and a talent for certain aspects of our business long before we made this our full-time gig,” said Leah. “Lots of our previous jobs, interests, and passions helped pave the way for us to be where we are now—owners of an antique store and makers/finders of some amazing things.”
As the business grew, Old Cottonwood demanded all of Brent and Leah’s attention, so they both started working full-time six years ago, then opened their storefront as a sole proprietorship on July 5, 2019. Though they have a handful of people who help them out, Brent and Leah are the only employees.
That hard work has paid off.
“There’s always a need to save old, fix old, and recycle pieces,” said Leah. “We sell antiques in the industrial, farm, primitive, and unusual realm. Brent also fixes old pieces of furniture and makes one-of-a-kind items.”
And, fortunately for the owners, their passion is something customers enjoy as well.
“We’ve seen a need/want for people to find quality old pieces to weave into new stories,” said Leah. “We really enjoy—and as luck would have it, are good at—finding classic and unusual old stuff. Our customers love our take on old, our perspective on incorporating it into their lives, and Brent’s ability to take a downtrodden piece and make it relevant and usable in today's home.”
Though they had the merchandise side of the business figured out, obtaining financing to buy and renovate a storefront was a challenge.
“After a stressful two months of navigating the very unknown world of attempting to buy a building as a small business through normal loan avenues and continually being told no, we were told about REAP through the Seward County Chamber and Development Partnership,” Leah said.
The Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) provides financing and training to small businesses in Nebraska. The Daehlings felt like they were in good hands with loan specialist Craig Eberle.
“Our meeting with Craig was the first time we felt like we had an advocate,” said Leah. “Craig was the person we needed—he met us where we were at, asked us hard questions, listened to and answered every single question we had, gave us options and truth, and helped us figure out if this was a smart, feasible, and doable next step for us.”
Craig was happy to assist the Daehlings in making their business dreams a reality. He worked with them on forming a business plan and eventually helped them close on their ‘dream building’ in Utica. With financing from REAP, the business owners were also able to renovate their new storefront.
“Since opening our brick and mortar, we have been blown away by the support of our customers,” she said. “We are humbled by how many people travel from all over to shop our store—that is just so, so good for the heart.”
Craig agrees that moving Old Cottonwood into its current home has been a successful transition.
“They have done an amazing job with the building, and are becoming part of an overall downtown revitalization effort that is going on in Utica,” said Craig. “The town is very supportive of the business. Brent and Leah are amazing people who were a pleasure to work with.”
Leah says all good things come with challenges, and running their own business has been no exception, though it’s worth it.
“Each step/growth area in our business is the new ‘hardest work of our lives,’ this store being no different,” Leah said. “But, we do love it, and loving it makes it easier to show up for when it’s hard.”
Eventually, the couple wants to expand their business, but for now, they’re staying busy keeping up with its ever-changing needs.
“Every aspect of our business has been or is fluid,” said Leah. “Literally everything has been tweaked, molded, changed, pivoted, and tweaked some more.”
Having help along the way has made all the difference in Brent and Leah’s journey as business owners.
“We had a wonderful experience working with the Center,” said Leah. “Craig was without a doubt the corner piece of the puzzle we needed. He worked tirelessly to help us in any way he could. He went above and beyond in every capacity. He was a true advocate for our small business—we trust him, and that was a really good feeling as we were stepping into this huge, scary unknown.”