Inside sheds, homes and barns on the flat farm fields of Michigan’s Thumb area, artisans are at work, cultivating a crop of unique holiday gifts.
“There’s a lot of great stuff in this little area, and a lot of creative people,” said Kelli Hass, 39, a soap maker who operates the Bad Axe Soap Co. from her home in Huron County’s Lincoln Township.
Hass, who specializes in handcrafted lavender- and mint-scented bath products — grown in fields not treated with pesticides or chemicals — has seen her business grow since she and her husband, Adam, started it about one year ago.
“I get a lot of traffic online,” said Kelli Hass, who sells soap, balm, dog shampoo and black oil sunflower seeds that she said are “pesticide-free.”
Shoppers may visit her website at badaxesoapcompany.com, or contact her by email at: email@example.com. Customers also can find her products in the gift department at Ace Hardware of Bad Axe, 735 N. VanDyke Road.
A few miles away in Huron County’s Verona Township, confectioner Diane Duda, 62, is at work making handcrafted chocolate candy for the holiday. Buyers won’t find Duda’s products in stores, but may order her treats by calling 989-269-7708 or emailing her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I don’t want to get into having to run around the Thumb area making sure my product’s good,” said Diane Duda, who is assisted by her husband, Eric, 64, in her chocolate-making enterprise.
“Just in the last two weeks we’ve gone through 100 pounds of chocolate (making products),” Diane Duda said.
Duda offers stocking stuffers – such as a 2-ounce package of white chocolate Oreo bark for $1.25 – to gift baskets featuring an array of chocolate-flavored treats.
“There’s a lot of candy in a $25 basket,” Duda said. “Everybody looks for our mint patties. Chocolate with a mint flavor — we use a mint oil — and a cookie inside. People are really intrigued when they finally get to taste it, about how minty it is.”
Cabin Confections offers chocolate-covered pretzels surrounded by caramel.
“My pretzel is not dipped in caramel, but wrapped in caramel,” said Duda, who creates chocolates for weddings and parties, using her creativity. She draws images by hand, for example, on Oreo cookies she has covered in chocolate.
“I made chocolate for my family when they were young and for all the parties, and for relatives and cousins, for free. When I moved up here and retired, my neighbor said ‘We need to take your chocolate and make a business of it.’”
Duda’s neighbor, the late Cindy Rader, worked with her in the business for a time. After Rader passed away, Duda said “Both Cindy’s family members and mine pushed and shoved until I conformed and said I would continue with the business.”
The Thumb area has its share of craftsmen — making candy or more durable goods.
Eric and Alicia Lantzer, owners of The Reclaimed Nation near Gagetown in Tuscola County, sell art and furniture made of worn barnwood. Customers can find the Lantzers’ merchandise for sale at www.TheReclaimedNation.Etsy.com. The Lantzers also have a Facebook page entitled “The Reclaimed Nation.”
Friends and family members team up regularly to start businesses making their own products in Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac counties.
“We do the best we can. We still make mistakes, but so far I haven’t really had a problem keeping customers happy,” said Eli Kempf, 28, owner of Sunnyside Woodcraft at 5095 Pringle Road in Sanilac County’s Evergreen Township, where he creates furniture and other wood crafts with his brother, Monroe Kempf, 28.
The Amish brothers have operated their business for about four years, making smaller wooden items as well as sewing cabinets and hutches.
“We’re definitely getting more and more people who know we’re here,” said Eli Kempf, whose brother-in-law, Aden Miller, also works at the business.
“There are definitely people who would come here because they don’t want something that comes out of Walmart. So far we haven’t really gotten into a large amount of people coming in for Christmas stuff, though I expect with more time, and more years, we’ll get into that more.”
A reporter visiting the workshop on Monday found several wooden cookbook holders – of various types of wood – and a hickory coffee table for sale, along with small clocks. The brothers also make custom cabinets, kitchen cabinets and bedroom sets.
Eli Kempf sells the cookbook holders for $60 apiece in varieties of wood such as hickory, ash or elm. “Some people use them for cookbook holders or letter holders, or keep their stamps and pens and stationery on it,” Eli Kempf said.
The business will sell the hickory coffee table for $250, or make a 26-inch-high cherry end table for $130.
“If there’s something somebody wants done with wood, they can do it,” Monroe Kempf said. “What we’d really like to get into is building more kitchens, but so far we’ve just done a couple.”
Monroe Kempf also operates Countryside Sales at 5580 Robinson Road in Sanilac County, where workers sell food, gloves, a variety of work boots and Kempf’s handmade leather belts, among many other items.
A nearby Sanilac County business, Ridge View Rug Weaving at 5439 Patterson Road, features rugs made by Edith Miller.
“They’re beautiful, very well-made rugs,” said Jennifer Leitzel of Tuscola County’s Fremont Township, who teamed with the Mayville Lions Club to host the “Made in the Thumb” Entrepreneurs Showcase that took place for the second year this fall.
Many Thumb-area artisans go the extra mile — literally — to boost their businesses. Diane Duda, for example, has made chocolate items for events with a baseball theme.
She created chocolate-covered pretzels resembling baseball bats, accompanied by chocolate-covered Oreos with baseball decorations on them.
“I’ve gone from Rochester Hills to St. Ignace to set up a wedding or deliver chocolates,” Duda said. “I like meeting a person in a CVS (Pharmacy) parking lot and handing off a box of chocolates.”
Homemade and homegrown gifts throughout Michigan’s Thumb region:
• Fostoria Bread Factory (authentic sourdough breads), 989-795-2539, email@example.com
• Circle T Apiary (honey products), 989-553-0709, 2751 W. Saginaw Rd., Mayville, MI 48744
• Debbie Sue’s Goat’s Milk Soap, available at Cozy Cottage Resale and Vintage, 9385 State Road, Millington
• Cabin Confections (handcrafted chocolates), 989-269-7708, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Lisa’s Cookie Jar (cookies, breads, chocolate), 989-827-9094, on Facebook at “Lisa’s Cookie Jar” page
• Tee Hee Candles -n- Tobacco Shoppe (scented candles), 6485 Main St., Cass City, on Facebook at “Tee Hee Candles -n- Tobacco”
• James Creek Sutlery (spices and spice blends), Lapeer County, on Facebook at “James Creek Sutlery” and at www.jamescreeksutlery.com
• Coles Leather, 109 E. Huron Ave., Vassar (wallets, clutches, knife sheaths), online at www.ColesLeather.com, on Facebook at “Coles Leather”
• Art and furniture from worn barnwood, from The Reclaimed Nation near Gagetown. Visit “The Reclaimed Nation” on Facebook or go to www.TheReclaimedNation.Etsy.com.
• Dog bandanas, collar covers, charms, by Diane L. Bird of Huron County’s Verona Township; email email@example.com
• Miller’s Family Orchard, 3209 S. Vassar Road., Vassar (preserves, doughnuts, pies, cider, apples, caramel apples)
• Port Austin Fudge and Treats, on Facebook at “Port Austin Fudge and Treats”
• Schiefer’s Pure Maple Syrup, 9803 Frankenmuth Road., Vassar. Available at Zehnder’s Marketplace beneath Zehnder’s Restaurant in Frankenmuth
• Cornhole lawn-game sets, other wooden arts and crafts, made in Bad Axe, on Facebook at “Happy Hands”
• Handmade mittens, “boo boo balms” by Linda Cilluffo of Sanilac County’s Argyle Township; call 810-404-9265
• Aunt Meggie’s Attic (crocheted headbands, tooth fairy pillows), on Facebook at “Aunt Meggie’s Attic”
• Jenness Farms (apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, maple sugar), 989-872-2002
• Stone Cottage Farm (goat’s milk soap), on Facebook at “Stone Cottage Farm”
• Kat’z Kandlz & More (soy candles), store at 6429 Locust St., Marlette
• Ridge View Rug Weaving, 5439 Patterson Road in Sanilac County; rugs made by Edith Miller
• Handcrafted wooden gifts and furniture at Sunnyside Woodcraft, 5095 Pringle Road southeast of Cass City in Sanilac County’s Evergreen Township, made by Eli and Monroe Kempf
• Handmade leather belts created by Eli Kempf, at Countryside Sales, 5580 Robinson Road in Sanilac County
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org