Situated on a precarious corner in the Stafford Hollow – the original center of town – there’s a little red store with a treasured history. The gable-ended building is draped with warm nostalgia and timeless charm; its rustic ambiance is a point of pride for locals and an intriguing stop for visitors. This is Mill Pond Country Store.
Established in 1845, the country store has always lent itself as a local hub and the façade has gone nearly unaltered over the last 175 years (a true rarity for commercial buildings of this period). At its inception most arrived by horse and buggy, while others used furs in exchange for goods. And while some things have changed over the nearly two centuries, it has always been a place for community and conversation.
It’s filled with rustic charm, even the entry possesses a particular magnetism. Like a well-loved farmhouse, the screen door creaks from its hinges, squealing as it opens, followed by a down-home “slap” once it has returned to its stop. It welcomes you to something wonderful. Inside, well-weathered floors parallel a plank-paneled ceiling; it almost sets a standard for quaint country stores. Here, you can get virtually any essential: the latest news, a bite to eat, coffee, bait, beer, pocketknives, milk, camping supplies, engine oil, candy, fireworks, pet supplies, toiletries, snacks, pantry staples, outdoor toys and locally made products – you can even pay a bill or [still] rent a movie. From staple items to sundries and sandwiches, Mill Pond is bursting at the seams with both goodies and local friendliness.
Today, Sheri Henderson is at the helm, working diligently and happily to continue a thirty-six year family tradition. She grew up here – literally – as daughter to longtime owner Mike Malinguaggio. They moved as a family from East Hartford in 1981, looking for a rural and more desirable town to raise a family. With an abundance of supermarket managerial experience under his belt, it naturally led him to the store, which was for sale along with a 3-bedroom apartment upstairs. Seeking new opportunity, he bought the building.
It operated much like a general store, and Mike continued it as such, but with a refocused menu.
Expanded selections appealed to those working in the mill, just over the bridge, thus building a diversified customer base for those seeking both meals and merchandise. The one stop country shop soon became notorious for some of the best sandwiches around.
“The owner of the building always lived upstairs and the stairway leading up to the apartment was [at the time] always open,” remembers Mike with a smile. “In those days we had a system that if I got too busy I would bang on the stairs and someone would come down and help.”
When she was old enough, that someone was Sheri.
“I started behind the counter when I was thirteen years old, working forty - or more – hours as a teenager,” she remembers. “It was never forced, but something I always wanted and enjoyed doing.”
Sheri has warm recollections of those days, working as a family, ultimately creating something truly special. Mill Pond is known as a very large, much loved patch on the quilt of Stafford Springs and if you’ve experienced the store, it’s the source of sweet nostalgia. Many remember – fondly – stopping here for penny candies after a “dump run,” eating ice cream on the porch or biting into a delicious deli sandwich while fishing in Riverside Pond (Sheri calls these Mill Pond Memories). At the junction of Route 319 and 19, the busy corner has always been a popular stop to those in need of a morning coffee, families headed to the lake, antiquers, motorcyclists, seasonal campers and locals alike.
Until the age of twenty-seven when her first child was born, Sheri worked alongside Mike at Mill Pond and while she moved on to other employment opportunities, her love for the store never faded. She realized how strong this admiration was when Mike shared his plans for retirement last year; he was looking to sell the business. Plagued by the idea of “losing” the store, she told her husband (who she met while working at Mill Pond), “I wish we could buy it.” To which he said, “why don’t we?”
“So much of my life is in the store,” remembers Sheri. “I took a good 18 years off, but came back and took it over last September.”
Even though Mike has built an incredible business over the years he was excited to welcome a youthful energy back into the store.
“Sheri has put her own personality into this store,” says Mike. “When I took over this business I was 28 years old, I made a lot of changes that were good. Now, I’m a little out of touch – I don’t know what the millennials want – in this job, that’s important. Sheri is in charge of menu development, advertising and customer relations; she is more in tune with what patrons want.”
Looking around you’ll see a variety of capital improvements, like a new staircase leading to the park, a completely rehabbed bathroom, and a facelift to the dining room (which Mike built), with a new coat of paint and refurbished floors. She’s also focused on rearranging store items, streamlining shelf products and trying out new merchandise.
“I took what we had, which was a great base, and expanded upon that,” explains Sheri. “I’ve added a lot to the menu, adding more salads, health conscious choices, new ingredients, wrap combinations, hot sandwiches and fresh bagels.”
It’s pretty amazing what comes out of this tiny kitchen, particularly with staggering options scribed on the horizontal chalkboard running parallel to the counter. It’s hard to crown a favorite sandwich here, each layered wisely with ingredients and delicious –sometime unexpected – flavor combinations. Whichever you choose, each is made with quality deli meats, fresh rolls and fresh ingredients. In addition to a refreshed menu, Sheri has added a selection of local craft beers, fresh brewed iced tea and coffee, and looks forward to a new ice cream menu, among other things. Cognizant that Mill Pond is a special place for kids, she’s also brought back penny candy to the shelves.
“I love the different interactions I have with people everyday - it’s fun,” says Sheri. “Stopping here is often a bright spot in people’s day, they are looking for good food, fast service and smiles - we have all of that.”
Mike, who still works a few days a week because he hasn’t found a retirement routine that eliminated work, says the people of Stafford are some of the greatest in the world. “I’ve been here so long that kids I saw thirty-five years ago buying penny candy are now coming with their own kids - that’s amazing. If it weren’t for the people –if this were a city store with different faces everyday – I would have been gone a long time ago. This is a neighborhood store and after a while people aren’t just customers, they’re your friends.”
Sheri agrees and is honored to carry on a tradition that remains so treasured amongst the local community, “I just love it here and I feel like this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing – it was meant to be.”