Teton Valley Makers
Teton Valley Makers
Fielding Essensa’s shop is small. Really small. Workbenches line the walls, laden with grinders and saws. A heater hangs in the corner for winter days; tongue-and-groove paneling makes it feel less like a shed; and a small speaker drowns the highway noise. On my first visit, Fielding leaned on a workbench while we talked because he had given me the only chair.
At less than two hundred square feet, the shop he built behind his house may be tiny, but it holds everything he needs to run a successful knife-making business. And by my second visit, he had a pair of chairs and had streamlined the shop so it almost felt roomy.
“I can probably churn out five thousand knives a year inhere,” he says.
Fielding and his wife Kim are in their second year of running TC Cutlery, a high-end kitchen knife company. By making a living in his tiny shed, he joins a contingent of Teton Valley creatives forging their own paths. From the colorful backpacks of Anicca Bags to the graffiti-inspired reels of Mondo Fly Fishing, Teton Valley boasts an array of locally made products from small businesses that operate in houses, garages, and studios, and which have found their ways to consumers across the country.
Fielding’s is a situation Ralph Mossman and Mary Mullaney remember well. The glass blowers run Heron Glass from their house, and are perhaps the best known artisans in Teton Valley. But it wasn’t always so.
“We came to Driggs from Jackson because our friend had an unfinished house that he said we could build a glass shop in,” Mary says. “We were there for three years, and we couldn’t have started our business any other way.”
She tells me this as we walk around their current shop, a two-story building on their property in Driggs. A display room sits at the back; forges and annealers line one wall of the main workshop; a room at the back holds grinders and polishers for finishing products.
Like glass blowers of old, Mary says, they built much of the shop’s equipment. Unsurprisingly, glass forges, like most other specialized machines that artisans use to create their wares, are impossible to come by inTeton Valley.
For a valley that is remote and, at times, inhospitable, something about it calls people, like Ralph and Mary, with the gumption and courage to strike out on their own.
“This rugged Rockies environment brings rugged, soon-to-be Rockies humans,” says Brian McDermott, executive director of the Teton Regional Economic Coalition. “With that comes people who have a physical and mental aesthetic about them.”
The proliferation of entrepreneurs in Teton Valley could be framed, as McDermott says, as a continuation of the pioneer values that epitomized Western settlers. Self-reliance, toughness, and acceptance of risk are crucial factors in starting a business, but they alone don’t explain it.
Westerners willing to endure hardships settled plenty of other places, but not all those towns boast thriving “maker” communities. Like the answers to many complicated questions, what sets Teton Valley apart from other small towns may be simple: People want to live here, and the activities they move here for—backcountry skiing, mountaineering, backpacking—require a self-confidence that translates well to self-employment.
“I came for Targhee and stayed for the fly-fishing,” says Taylor Barlow, Mondo’s owner. “Mondo is here because I knew I wanted to live here.”
That logic, echoed by the owners of Sego Skis—which is currently located in Victor with plans to move to a new Driggs factory at the start of the new year—jibes with Brian’s theory. People don’t move to TetonValley because they have to. It is so remote that jobs rarely pull them
here; instead they are drawn here by idyllic surroundings, ample recreation opportunities, tight-knit communities, and values endemic to TetonValley.
“We ended up here for the community and the access to recreation,” says Tim Wells, the CEO of Sego. “That was one of the driving factors.”
Companies like TC Cutlery or Sego could move in a heartbeat to Salt Lake City and likely find easier access to suppliers, customers, and retailers. But if the reason they stay is simply because they have found the place they want to live and are willing todo whatever it takes to make it, the interesting question becomes how.How do they make it? What decides whether a business is successful?
Hard work is the short answer. And a little help.
Take Jeremy Holmstead, the founder of Anicca Bags, at the end of July at the Mountain Mamas craft fair in Stanley, Idaho. He stood under a pop-up tent, with a group of friends and family greeting customers in heat that stretched into the nineties.
Because of the valley’s small population, craft fairs and trade shows are a huge part of most TetonValley manufacturers’ models. Jeremy was in the middle of the summer grind, churning out bags that sell well at street fairs.
When he started Anicca, he made mostly custom backpacks as orders trickled in. But fanny packs and clutches filled his pop-up tent at Mountain Mamas.
“People really like these small things,” he says. “And we can make a lot of them quickly.”
The difficulties of finding an audience are not unique to rural businesses, but being four hours from the closest major city presents challenges, especially in niche markets. When Ralph and Mary started Heron Glass in the 1980s, there was little local interest in blown glass. So, rather than moving, they set out to find customers.
“What we did back then was go to trade shows and sell wholesale to galleries,” Mary says. “All the galleries would come and place their orders, and we would come back, fill the calendar, and work for the next year to ship them out.”
Fielding is currently in the throes of trade shows. When I last visited his backyard shop, he was filling orders and readying himself to pack bags of knives onto a plane toFlorida. Through his website and word of mouth he had made some contacts in high-end kitchen stores—his target market—in a few places, but trade shows are the best place for potential stores to see his knives up close.
“A good knife is something you want to hold in your hand,”he says. “You can’t get that through a picture. You want to see how it cuts, how it feels.”
Similarly, Taylor has been spending time on the road to put his rods and reels in people’s hands. The beauty of producing recreational equipment is that the best way to promote it is to spend time in the woods, or on the water in Taylor’s case.
“The central focus of Mondo is building a grassroots following, going out and fishing and being as inclusive as possible,” he says. “I traveled around for three weeks this spring, going to towns in Wyoming and Colorado. I brought my raft, and kids were like, ‘Let’s go fishing.’ People were stoked to show someone ‘their’ water.”
Taylor’s company is run out of his garage, so he can pack boxes of gear in a truck and go. But for a company like Sego, whose products are large and retail market is expansive, putting skis on people’s feet can be a process.
“We did sixty-plus on-snow demos last winter, from Canada to Europe and the U.S.,” Tim says.
The cost of all that travel can add up quickly for a small company like Sego, but Tim says it pays off. It could take twelve to fifteen impressions of a pair of skis—whether that is someone holding them in a store or trying them on snow—for a customer to commit to buying, so giving them free trials is crucial.
It seems to be working.
When Tim gave me a tour of the Sego factory this summer, the assembly line was humming. Each part of the process is done by hand, so it takes several employees to build a pair of skis. One employee assembled the layers, clamping together cores and top sheets, before another ran them through a saw to shape them.
Tim Wells’ brother, Peter, the master ski maker, took the cut products and ran them through a press, slathering them with epoxy so the layers would eventually adhere. Peter built or modified much of the company’s equipment, including the epoxy station and press.
“It’s not like we can just go to a fabricator and tell him to make us a ski press,” Peter says.
In the main warehouse, stacks of finished skis sat, sidewalls and edges installed, ready for Sego’s ski tech to sharpen the edges before another employee packaged them.
“We’ve pretty much doubled production each year our first few years,” Tim says.
That kind of growth may one day help Sego reach the levelevery business aspires to: where name recognition and a quality product meanthey can spend more time developing and making products, and have faith customerswill buy them. That’s the level Ralph and Mary have
reached after their decades in glass blowing.
On my tour of their studio, they were compiling a raft of products—some custom orders, a bevy of small pieces for a wedding, and several pieces Mary made simply because she wanted to. Ralph stood at a grinder the entire time cutting facets (small flat spots) into glass bulbs, while Mary walked me through the display room.
Assembled on pedestals were many of her creations, large pieces, vase-size or bigger, with intricate designs etched into them. She blows the pieces, then uses a sandblaster to create the designs, a process she says she loves and is happy to have the time to dedicate herself to.
“Our focus is the high-end pieces, custom orders, and then whatever we feel like making,” Mary says. “We always sell when we make pieces that feel important to us.”
From Anicca spending a hot weekend at the Mountain Mamas craft fair to the river miles Taylor puts in with customers on a drift boat and the trade shows Fielding takes his knives to, the goal of all these companies is the same: To do what they love and what matters to them, and find people that want to support their businesses.
Mary has traveled the arc from hardscrabble artist to successful business owner. It’s clear there is no magic pill to reach that level, but for those with the courage to strike out on their own, Teton Valley is a fertile area.
“I see it as a place of opportunity,” Mary says. “You want to be the first person to do something here? You can.”