Brown down to business

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Business is simple, according to Firman Brown. Have a good product, be hands-on and watch your percentages, says the Calaveras County resident.

"You don't have to know everything," Brown, 75, said on Wednesday. "You just have to know people who know everything."

He knows a thing or two about business. He was a successful beer, wine and liquor distributor for 35 years before retiring and moving to his ranch outside of Angels Camp.

And for the past five years, he's been using that knowledge to help a local organization supporting the Calaveras County Fair - something that's been increasingly needed as the fairgrounds face budget woes.

"We're doing whatever's necessary to help the fairgrounds," he said. "Friends go to the community, and the community comes back to the fair."

Brown, who's also a classic car enthusiast, is president of the Friends of the Fair board in Calaveras County. He is among the initial members of the organization, which started in 2008 when the famous fair and jumping frog contest started facing some tough fiscal times as state budgets have tightened.

The organization raises money for infrastructure at the Frogtown fairgrounds, and also helps with volunteers and some events. Brown said when he first started volunteering with the fair, there wasn't a great relationship with the community.

Brown said they have since done some little things to improve it, like a new sign at the entrance, the fair managing its own parking and the Friends handling the on-site alcohol sales instead of an out-of-state company to keep the money local.

The county fair, and many others around the state, faces even more challenges ahead. The state has implemented deep cuts in funding for fair organizations, forcing them to "operate like a business" more than ever before, Brown said.

His experience with fairs dates back to his childhood, as an avid horse rider. In his garage, he keeps a photograph of himself at 14 with the Junior Horseman's Association.

"We have to, for the good of the community, keep this going," Brown said. "A lot of us really believe in keeping this place open."

A straight talker who is quick with a story or advice, Brown moved to his ranch overlooking New Melones Reservoir around 11 years ago. He lives there today with his wife, Janet Cuslidge, and jokingly refers to the scene through the back windows as the "little water feature" in the backyard.

He moved to Calaveras County from the Monterey area after retiring, saying he was drawn by the attitude of the people up the hill.

"It's a nice group of people up here, good, down to earth people," he said.

Brown's work in beer, wine and liquor distribution put him in the middle of an important time for a dynamic industry. He worked as an early distributor for Mondavi wines and the then-startup Sierra Nevada brewery. And he says he remembers when Californians thought pinot noir was called "peanut newer" and merlot was just a grape for blending.

During those days, Brown said he was guided by two things.

"There's no substitute for quality. And then I sold service," he said. "Today, they teach price first (in business)."

Brown was also introduced to one of his other loves during those - one that still endures today. He recalled talking with a business contact who had a Ford Model A and had not completed restoring the car after owning it for almost 20 years.

When asked how his friend could keep something like that for so long without completing it, Brown was told, "This is a hobby - a hobby has no pressure."

He bought his first classic car, a Model T, 25 years ago.

"I said, 'That'd be fun,'" Brown said.

Today, Brown's garage is like a small auto museum, with a machine shop connected that he calls "every guy's dream."

He has a restored 1950s tractor, which before restoring he used for work on his ranch. His 1926 Gardener with a "straight eight" engine, has a fold-out back rumble seat later copied by Rolls Royce. And his 1937 Cadillac is one of a limited release.

He sold his first model T recently.

"It was like losing a friend of the family," Brown said.

But perhaps the most famous piece of his collection for Calaveras County residents doesn't even run. It's a 1965 Buick Riviera that had a tree fall on it. After taking out the engine and interior, Brown turned the classic car into a large barbecue grill. He named it Barbie.

"I enjoy them," he said of restoring the classic cars. "It's something I enjoy for me."

Contact Chris Caskey at or 588-4527.

The Union Democrat
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