(Host) The town of Putney’s longest-running crafts-operation is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this weekend. It’s an unobtrusive but successful home-based industry specializing in handmade wood products.
It’s survival is a testament to a local family’s ingenuity and industry in the face of hardship, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.
(Keese) Don Smead wipes the sweat from his shiny brow and switches on his band saw. With a practiced hand, he turns a slab of maple and a pair of apple-shaped cutting boards begin to emerge beneath the blade.
(Smead) “When it comes to this point you have to back off a little bit. Throw that extra scrap in the barrel, it’s great for kindling wood.”
(Keese) Smead will be giving lots of demonstrations in the next few days. His family business, Smead Woodcraft, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary Sunday.
(Smead) “And don’t they look like apples? I don’t know how many of those we’ve sold, but a bunch.”
(Keese) The business was started in 1954 by Smead’s parents, Laurea and Hugh. A year before that Hugh, Don’s father, was paralyzed from the waist down by polio.
The shop is a patchwork of small, sawdust covered rooms added on one at a time. It’s connected by plywood ramps to the Smeads’ house on Route 5 in Putney.
Don pushes his father’s wheelchair back to the house. For 30 years, Hugh Smead wheeled himself here every morning before the kids were up for breakfast. At 82, after a series of small strokes, he doesn’t talk much. Sitting on their ruffled sofa, his wife Laurea tells their story.
(Laurea Smead) “My husband was a basket maker. His father had been a basket maker for many, many years and his brother is still a basket maker.”
(Keese) Hugh worked long hours in the basket shops in Bellows Falls and Putney. Always industrious, he used his spare time to build the home where the couple raised their children.
Laurea was expecting Don when Hugh started having leg pains. After several inconclusive visits to the doctor he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. He was diagnosed with the disease everyone dreaded in the early fifties.
(Laurea Smead) “We had worried about polio for our family, but not for ourselves. We thought it was a kids’ disease. But the year he got it was the very last year of polio before the Salk vaccine came out.”
(Keese) It was almost a year before Hugh came home from the hospital. Without the use of his legs, he worried how he was going to support his family.
But he’d always been good with his hands. Before his illness he’d built a small shop out back where he made lawn ornaments as a hobby. So he started making cutting boards and memo pads and turtle-shaped foot stools – anything small enough for someone in a wheelchair to handle.
(Laurea Smead) “He did the manufacturing, although I did the leg work and brought things to him.”
(Keese) Everyone in the family chipped in. Even as a toddler, Don would gather up wood scraps to feed the stove that kept the shop warm. Laurea, who was shy, had to become a sales person.
(Laurea Smead) “We’d fill the station wagon full of finished products and I would go into the gift shop. We sold wholesale and I would tell them in fear and trembling that I was Mrs. Hugh Smead and that we would like to sell them some items if they’d be interested.”
(Keese) Things were tough at first. But as Vermont’s tourist trade expanded, the family’s industry paid off. There were vacations, and college for the kids.
Don and his brother Steve took over in early eighties. Soon their products were in catalogues and stores all over the country. Laurea Smead says it’s been a good life.
(Laurea Smead) “We just made do with what we got and we were blessed double and triple. But there were some days that I prayed pretty hard.”
(Keese) The Smeads are proud that all their work is still done by hand. Back in the shop, Don shows off a few favorites: a silk-screened watermelon, a wooden boot stamped L.L. Bean.
(Smead) “This is a home plate coaster that we made for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This here is the shape of Vermont – it’s a Vermont cutting board and we made 10,000 of these for Grafton Cheese. I like to say, I went around the state 600,000 times a day bandsawing these.”
(Keese) The Smeads will be offering tours of their operation at their fiftieth anniversary party Sunday afternoon.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m, Susan Keese.