50 in 50: Florida: Rifle Paper Company

Rain threatens once more here in already-soggy Nor Cal. As the gathering clouds throw darkness across my laptop’s screen, a quick search shows it’s 80 degrees in Florida, the subject of today’s post. Scrolling through the 45 manufacturers listed on Made in Florida, I debate which product to feature: Tropicana orange juice? ValPak coupons? How about defense weaponry and aerospace systems? But…it’s early spring, and it’s Sunday. I don’t want to discuss machine tools, skilled manufacturing or our country’s military industrial complex. So please, someone throw me a lifeline. A charming, whimsical Florida-made lifeline.

Rifle Paper Company Greeting Card

Rifle Paper Company Greeting Card

Thank you, Rifle Paper Company of Winter Garden, Florida. I needed that. More, please.

Rifle Paper Company Greeting Card

Rifle Paper Company Greeting Card

Wow. Nailed it again. Isn’t it amazing how two beautifully-imagined greeting cards can uplift and change one’s outlook? Here’s to Anna and Nathan Bond, the talented couple behind Rifle Paper Co.

Anna and Nathan Bond Source: bizjournals.com

Anna and Nathan Bond
Source: bizjournals.com

Launched in 2009 as a boutique stationery brand, Rifle Paper quickly outgrew that category. Now an “international stationery and lifestyle brand,” as the Orlando Business Journal put it last year, the product possibilities are endless. Note cards, greeting cards, invitations, wrapping paper, journals; iPhone cases, wallpaper, fabrics, shoes and furniture, all featuring Anna’s original designs. “We want to be as diversified as possible,” Anna Bond explained to Inc.com in 2015, “so if our economy softens, then we have a strong customer base in, for instance, Sweden and Japan.” Clearly, the strategy’s working.

Rifle Paper Co. flagship store in Winter Park, FL.

Rifle Paper Co. flagship store in Winter Park, FL.

In 2014, Rifle Paper sold 2.8 million greeting cards in 36 different countries and 5,000 stores all over the globe. As of last June (2016), earnings were expected to exceed $20 million.

In the beginning–in 2006, light years ago in the digital age–Anna, graphic design degree under her fashion-forward belt, moved from New Jersey to Florida to take a job as senior art director for Relevant Magazine. In a 2013 presentation for Creative Mornings Orlando (posted on YouTube) she laughs about that first big job, still baffled as to how she landed it at age 21. She says it taught her “how to work in a fast pace and get things done and not completely worry about whether it was the greatest thing I’d ever done.” After a year she left to do freelance illustration. “As long as I paid my rent, I was perfectly happy.”

Enter Nathan Bond (son of James Bond, a former insurance agent whose “office number always ended in 007,” says the Orlando Sentinel). Anna had met Nathan shortly after moving to Florida. Lead singer/guitarist /composer for Band Marino–a popular, four-piece indie rock band based in Orlando–Nathan had left college to pursue his music dreams. When the band needed posters, Anna saw a creative opportunity. “Each poster was an experiment to figure out what I wanted to do.” Her posters were an immediate hit.

"The Sea and the Beast" Band Marino

“The Sea and the Beast” Band Marino

In 2008, as the couple planned their wedding, Anna designed the invite. Her “aha” moment arrived. “It just kind of clicked. It was the perfect mix of illustration and design and product that I was looking for.”

Anna and Nathan's wedding invite.

Anna and Nathan’s wedding invite.

As word of Anna’s hand-painted wedding invitations spread across Florida, requests flooded her email inbox. “I was about to curl up in a ball and ignore all those people,” Anna admits to the Creative Mornings audience. Nathan, who’d passed up earlier opportunities related to his music that he’d later regretted, knew Anna should go for it. Putting his music aside, he stepped in to help. “Our dining room table became our print station,” Anna recalls. “And it just went from there. About six months later we launched Rifle Paper Company with a full line of stationery.”

The quirky brand name was chosen on impulse. Anna liked that it was short and “didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing.” Once they made the decision to launch, their lives completely changed. “That first year we worked 7 days a week, 15 hours a day…we probably lost most of our friends that year…sleep, go to work, solve problems…it didn’t really seem crazy at the time because we loved it.”

Anna and Nathan Bond, Rifle Paper Company

Anna and Nathan Bond, Rifle Paper Company

Their first big break? Anthropologie. The retailer needed thousands of Rifle Paper Co. cards ASAP. “We weren’t ready, but if someone like that contacts you, you realize you have one shot and you figure out how to make it happen.” They learned by doing. They knew nothing about printing on that scale; nothing about folding machines or how to ship product. “Google was our best friend.”

One step at a time, the inexperienced co-founders met their deadline. The rest is history. In 2015 Vanity Fair named Rifle Paper Company “The Most Popular Stationer on the Internet.” That same year Nathan Bond, musician-turned-CEO, made Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of “today’s greatest gathering of young game changers, movers and makers.” Anna Bond, creative director / CCO, was named one of ADC’s prestigious Young Guns.

But here’s my favorite part of the story: Rifle Paper Company offers proof that handwritten notes and thoughtful greeting cards still have roles in our lives. We still need and want to connect–especially in this digitized world–in a more personal way. When Anna Bond was about eight years old, she and a pen pal from Japan would send letters to each other. The incoming missives to Anna from that faraway land were written on the most beautiful notecards and stationery Anna had ever seen. The joy they brought her stayed with her, bubbling up decades later as she designed her own cards and stationery for others to give.

Rifle Paper Company Source: Meet Your Makers

Anna Bond / Rifle Paper Co.
Source: Meet Your Makers

Today, according to Rifle Paper Co.’s website, “over 900 products are designed by Anna and feature her signature hand-painted illustrations, vibrant color palette, and whimsical tone.” The company employs over 200 people in Florida. Its products are available online and in retailers like Anthropologie, Paper Source and Barnes & Noble. In an email the company confirmed that while most of its product line is either printed in-house or produced locally in Winter Park, FL., some of its products are outsourced within the USA or internationally. The company’s in the process of compiling a list of products that are fully manufactured and printed in Florida.

Earlier in the week, I visited Anthropologie and bought a Rifle Paper Co. notepad. “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together,” Van Gogh reminds me, his words surrounded by Anna’s signature flowers and greenery. The message on the back of the notepad is equally impressive.

The message on the back of Rifle Paper Co. notepad is as important as the message on the front.

The message on the back: “Proudly printed in the USA using environmentally responsible paper stocks and printing methods.”

As Rifle Paper grows, its overseas manufacturing will undoubtedly expand as well. But with consumer input about the importance of keeping jobs and manufacturing in the USA, let’s hope that Anna and Nathan Bond will continue to make their greeting cards, notepads, art prints and wrapping paper here. And kudos to them for creating gorgeous products that encourage each of us to put pen to paper and say hello.

Next up: Georgia.



















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50 in 50: Delaware: Muskrat, Moon Suits and Mint Jelly? Oh My.

On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution of the United States, and has since promoted itself as “The First State.” Thanks, Wikipedia. I’d always thought of Delaware as The Incorporation State. I stand corrected.

More than one million businesses take advantage of Delaware's incorporation services.

More than one million businesses take advantage of Delaware’s incorporation services.

In researching the 49th smallest state in the Union, I feared the worst. Would I again find myself waxing poetic about quilts? Not that there’s anything wrong with quilts, quilting or quilters, but thankfully a few other Delawarean items caught my eye:

“The last muskrat dinner of the season at the Blackbird Community Center in Townsend is set for March 18,” says delawareonline. “Eaters looking for the heirloom meat, also known as marsh rabbit, can find it from 4 to 6 p.m. at the center at 120 Blackbird Forest Road.” If I book a flight to Delaware now I might just make it to the Blackbird Community Center in time for a bit o’ muskrat. I’ve always wondered what it tastes like. Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve never thought about muskrat. Unless Captain & Tennille’s Muskrat Love pops into my head and I can’t make it stop. Strangest song ever.


A Muskrat

In case you were wondering, Delaware’s muskrat trapping season just closed. It runs from December through mid-March. In 1993 the Los Angeles Times interviewed folks dining at Mary Etta’s Family Restaurant, a then-thriving Delaware eatery known for its delicious muskrat. Satisfied customer David Simpler said: “Muskrat’s a tender meat and it’s sweet. You’ll never find a tough one. It’s better than squirrel. Squirrel can be a little tough.” Thanks, Mr. Simpler, I’ll keep that in mind. But wait, there’s more: Leon Powell, who’d eaten muskrats for more than 40 years, told the Times he could say without hesitation that “muskrats are better aphrodisiacs than oysters.” Doubt anyone would say that about squirrels.

Every astronaut in our nation’s Apollo program, including the twelve that walked on the moon, has worn a space suit made by ILC Dover, an American special engineering development and manufacturing company based in Frederica, Delaware. According to its website, ILC is “a world leader in the innovative design and production of engineered products employing high-performance flexible materials. We leverage our vast materials, engineering, process, and design experience to create high performance systems for a wide range of industries.”

Astronaut Space Suit manufactured by ILC Dover, Delaware, for International Space Station

Astronaut Space Suit manufactured by ILC Dover, Delaware, for International Space Station

Among ILC’s many impressive products: respiratory protection equipment and environmental safety solutions to the industrial, pharmaceutical, and healthcare markets; rapidly deployable flood protection systems to the commercial and municipal markets; space inflatables to the space market; and airships, aerostats and unmanned aerial vehicles to the aerospace market. But astronaut space suits? ILC’s coolest product ever.

If you’re a new parent, baby wipes are must-haves–right up there with sleep. Turns out that tiny Delaware manufactures a whopping 40 percent of the baby wipes products sold in the USA, Canada and Puerto Rico. Dover Wipes–a subsidiary of Procter and Gamble–makes Luvs Wipes and Pampers Wipes.

Pampers Baby Wipes

Pampers Baby Wipes

“The Dover Wipes plant was built in 1971 by the Scott Paper Company on what had been 86-acres of farmland west of the city proper,” the Dover Post reported in 2013. “Scott Paper merged with Kimberly-Clark in December 1995, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to order Kimberly-Clark to divest itself of its baby wipes business. This resulted in the June 1996 sale of the Dover wipes plant to Procter & Gamble.”

Procter & Gamble, inventor of disposable diapers, saw an opportunity to get into the wipes business. It spent more than $120 million to upgrade the Dover wipes operation and to expand its production capability. Dover Wipes / P&G has added $25 million annual payroll to the city of Dover and donated more than $91,000 in community and charitable contributions.

The word “chemistry” often evokes images of deadly toxins in lakes and streams. For me, reading the 2012 book Make It in America by Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris helped improve that perception. Founded in 1897 by an immigrant, Dow Chemical is “about as quintessentially American as you can get,” writes Liveris (himself a dual citizen of Australia and the USA). Dow Chemical now employs over 50,000 people globally.

The Dow Chemical Company

The Dow Chemical Company

Liveris believes the world is on the cusp of another Industrial Revolution, “entering a golden age of manufacturing…an incredibly exciting time in manufacturing–perhaps the most exciting in history.” The future belongs to countries who invest in “highly advanced, highly specialized, high value-added manufacturing.” Liveris worries our country might pass up this opportunity. “For generations to come, economic success will be a direct product of the things we build. The question is, who will build them?”

Dow–the world’s fourth largest chemical company and a key component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average–continues to grow and develop the products we need and use daily. In the Delaware Valley, Dow employs 2,500 workers. “For more than 100 years, chemistry has played an integral part in the growth of this region,” Dow’s website explains, “The Delaware Valley has been the birthplace of solutions and home to some of the greatest minds in history. This is still true today.”

Dow manufactures paints we can safely use in our homes.

Dow manufactures paints we can safely use in our homes.

“When we work or play on computers, paint a wall or piece of furniture in our homes, polish our floors, and caulk our bathrooms, Dow in the Delaware Valley plays a crucial role in the products that help us do these things. People at Dow harness the power of chemistry every day to make the world safer, cleaner and greener for generations to come.”

Enough with the chemicals. We need ’em but–sorry, Mr. Liveris–we’d rather not think about how they’re made. Let’s talk backyard gardens. Let’s talk food and yummy jams and jellies made in Delaware by Krista Scudlark and family. Begun 25 years ago with a friend’s recipe for green hot pepper jelly, Backyard Jams and Jellies uses ingredients grown in the Scudlark’s backyard or purchased from local growers.

Backyard Jams and Jellies Green Hot Pepper Jelly

Backyard Jams and Jellies Green Hot Pepper Jelly

From that first batch of green pepper hot jelly, Krista was hooked on the jelly-and-jam-making process. Since her husband loves to garden, Krista began using “whatever was in season in the backyard.”

Beach Plums in Krista's backyard used in her popular Beach Plum Jelly.

Beach Plums in Krista’s backyard, ripe for picking, to be used in her popular Beach Plum Jelly.

“At the time my neighbors owned Franklin Hardware Store in Lewes,” Krista explains on her website. “One afternoon, while picking grapes, my neighbor suggested that I put a few jars in the hardware store. They flew off of the shelves–especially the Beach Plum Jelly, a local favorite. I guess that is when my hobby started to turn into a business. Now I make over 85 flavors, including fourteen award winners!” Check out Krista’s website, then give her a call if you’d like to order. Backyard Jams and Jellies can be shipped anywhere in the USA.

Backyard Jams and Jellies

Backyard Jams and Jellies

Happy St. Paddy’s Day! Next up: Florida. Suggestions welcome!

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50 in 50: Connecticut: Buttons, Balls, Bells…and Blandings

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse

Mention Connecticut and–at least for those of us who love old movies–the Hollywood-circa-1940’s version of the place takes over. Think Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Inn and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse. Although 100 percent filmed in southern California, the classic New England farmhouses in these movies–complete with charming fireplaces and light-filled, cozy rooms–convincingly transport viewers to Connecticut.

Connecticut and manufacturing? Doesn’t sound right. And yet the two go together like, well, like Wham and eggs (never heard of Wham? find the quote here). Indeed, manufacturing ranks third in Connecticut’s economy (behind the finance and insurance industries). Forget farmhouses. Connecticut’s much more than that.

In the big leagues: American multinational conglomerate United Technologies Corporation (UTC), headquartered in Farmington, researches, develops, and manufactures high-technology products in numerous areas, including aircraft engines. UTC employs more than 22,000 people. Pratt & Whitney (a division of UTC), based in East Hartford, has been a key engine provider of the U.S. space program since its inception, says the Hartford Courant. Groton-based General Dynamics Electric Boat manufactures submarines. Sikorsky Aircraft, founded in 1929 and based in Stratford, operates Connecticut’s single largest plant, manufacturing military and commercial helicopters.

The Hartford Courant recently featured 45 Connecticut-made products, past and present. Notable firsts: America’s first bicycle, made by Columbia in Hartford; the first Mickey Mouse pocket watches, wrist watches and clocks were made in Waterbury by the Waterbury Clock Company; in 1892, Connecticut resident George Blickensderfer patented the nation’s first portable typewriter; the first friction match was invented in Beacon Falls in 1834 by Thomas Sanford; in the early 1900’s, U.S. Rubber produced the first pair of Keds sneakers in Naugatuck.

And let’s not forget hats. By the mid 1800’s, Danbury, CT, manufactured and sold more hats than anywhere else in the world. In 1887, its 30 factories produced 5 million hats. “Hatting” disappeared from Danbury around 1950. But all was not lost. The skills from making hats “transferred themselves to other types of manufacturing,” according to Stephen Bull, president of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce. “Manufacturing is alive and well here in Danbury.”

Assuming no one’s in the market for a submarine, helicopter or jet engine (although I do have a few subscribers in Russia…) here are a few other Connecticut-made products:

WATERBURY BUTTONS:  The Waterbury Button Company, “Makers of Premium Stamped Metal Brass Buttons since 1812.”

Woodbury Button Company

Waterbury Button Company

From the company’s website: “Since 1812, we’ve crafted the world’s most popular metal buttons. When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, both men wore Waterbury buttons on their chests. Today we make buttons for the fashion industry, professional golf and its associations and every branch of the U.S. armed forces. We have amassed approximately 40,000 different button dies, each a work of art.” Purchase them here.

WIFFLE BALLS:  From NPR / by Chris Arnold: Many people might figure that a cheap plastic toy like a Wiffle Ball is made elsewhere, in someplace like China. After all, how can American companies compete on the cost of labor for little plastic toys? But that assumption would be wrong–every Wiffle Ball ever made has come from Shelton, Connecticut. And David Mullany, whose grandfather invented the Wiffle Ball, plans to keep it that way. “We’re very happy producing our products here,” he says. “No reason we can’t make a top-quality product here at an affordable price and stay in business.”

Wiffle Balls

Wiffle Balls

The Mullanys’ grandfather, David N. Mullany, invented the Wiffle Ball. The story goes that in the early 1950s, he was an out of work semi-pro baseball pitcher, so he set about to make a ball that kids could throw curveballs with. And then he started selling the balls at a local diner. “[The owner] put ’em on the counter to see what happens, and he went back a few days later, and they were gone,” David Mullany says. And the rest is Wiffle Ball history.

BEVIN BROTHERS BELLS: Founded in 1832, based in East Hampton (known as “Belltown, USA”), family-owned Bevin Bells manufactures high quality hand bells, cow bells, sleigh bells and more. These bells have even been used at the opening and closing of the NYSE.

6th Generation Bevin Bros. President, Matt Bevin

6th Generation Bevin Bros. President, Matt Bevin

From the company’s website: Now in our sixth generation of family ownership, Bevin Bros. is the only dedicated bell manufacturer in the United States. Devoted to the art and science of producing exceptional bells with a brilliant sound, the Bevin family still oversees all operations in East Hampton, Connecticut. Each bell we make is backed by two centuries of experience, quality and trust, in addition to a 100% satisfaction guarantee.  You can be sure that our goal is to be here in another 200 years, celebrating with bells on.

Here in northern California, pink and white blossoms seem to be everywhere. Don’s yellow daffodils and multicolored primroses line the path to our front door. Life’s simple pleasures, right?

Update: My friend Sue, who now lives in the S.F. Bay Area, says of her former home state:

“Connecticut is the 48th state in size but has a lot of character. There’s a beautiful, long stretch of waterfront…fresh clams, lobster and other seafood…It’s also home to many ‘firsts’: the first hamburger (1895), Polaroid camera (1934), helicopter (1939), color television (1948), and the first telephone book (had 50 names in it, I think). UConn women’s basketball is amazing: 107th win and counting! You either are a Yankee fan or a Red Sox fan, depending on where you live in the state. New Haven, home to Yale, has the best thin crust pizza in the state–a tossup between Pepe’s or  Sally’s. Connecticut’s beauty (and proximity to New York City) has attracted countless famous people to it…There are still some amazing historical homes with character and land but unfortunately a lot of them are getting knocked down and replaced by McMansions. Three questions you can answer if you’re a true Connecticuter: Do you know where the tag sale is? Do you want to go get a grinderDo you know if the package store is still open? I loved living in Connecticut because it was so green, so full of trees. Growing up there, I remember how all of the stores on Greenwich Avenue were family owned. You really felt like you knew the people in town.”

Thanks for giving us the inside scoop on Connecticut, Sue!

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50 in 50: CAMJ’s Top 5 Products Made in Colorado

As luck would have it, ColoradoBiz Magazine’s annual “Made in Colorado” issue came out yesterday–just in time for a slightly-panicked blogger in need of good, locally-made stuff (no, not that kind of stuff…) to write about.

ColoradoBiz Magazine (March, 2017)

ColoradoBiz Magazine (March, 2017)

Showcasing an impressive 250 Centennial State manufacturers, the ColoradoBiz list includes a few companies whose products have achieved iconic status: Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Orion spacecraft (made in Littleton); Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime Tea (made in Boulder); New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Fat Tire Amber Ale (made in Fort Collins); and Billings Artworks’ Grammy Awards (made in Ridgway). “‘Made in Colorado,'” writes ColoradoBiz’s Eric Peterson, “really means something. It’s a brand that carries value. Simply put, the state is an incredible launch pad for manufacturers in a host of industries.”

To choose CAMJ’s winners, I simply zipped through the ColoradoBiz list and chose whatever names popped out at me. Also called the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway-Best-Picture-Oscar-Method, this technique gets the job done and doesn’t fret the details. Envelope, please:

CAMJ’s Top 5 Colorado-Made Products (in alphabetical order)

Celestial Seasonings Tea: Sleepytime Tea, a blend of chamomile, spearmint and lemongrass, has been this brand’s top-seller since its creation in 1972. “We sell about 4.5 million boxes every year,” General Manager David Ziegert, a 23-year employee of the company, told ColoradoBiz. “That translates to 85 million cups, just in the U.S.” Company workers are loyal. Senior blendmaster Charlie Baden–“known to sample 100 cups of tea in a single day”–has worked for Celestial Seasonings since 1975.  The brand drives consumer loyalty, as well. Its Boulder factory–located at 4600 Sleepytime Drive–is a tea-drinkers’ destination, attracting at least 140,000 appreciative fans each year.

Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea

Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea

Connor Wood BicyclesI’ve been in search of an affordable USA-made bicycle since launching this blog. Still haven’t found one. But Connor Wood Bicycles, individually made from sustainable local hardwoods, are worth a look-see. Priced at $3500–still out of my reach–they’re more affordable than other Colorado-made bikes (Moots Cycles: $11,599.00) and absolutely stunning. Founder Chris Connor says: “Wood is amazing. It is versatile, beautiful and strong.  My bicycles are intended to be fully functional pieces of  ‘art that moves you.’  They have an amazing ride and a unique look which is sure to start a  conversation wherever you go. As you’re getting wherever you want to go you’re sure to be smiling.  Riding one is an experience of its own.”

Connor Wood Bicycles: Cruiser

Connor Wood Bicycles: Cruiser

DadGear Backpack Diaper Bags: Timely idea! From the website:

All of our bags are made in Colorado. Sure, we could make more money by producing overseas, but we believe that we should support our own economy and after all, isn’t this country built on small business?

We have a long-standing relationship with a local manufacturer about 20 minutes from our office/warehouse in Colorado. They have been making many of our products since our start in 2006. Over the years we have worked together to streamline our processes and lower manufacturing costs…This seems like a simple concept, but it is difficult when manufacturing outside of the United States…

As we grow and evolve, we continue to seek out materials closer to home. We have relocated some of our custom plastic manufacturing to a factory a few blocks from us. We work with local artists, vendors and consultants and we even source our shipping supplies locally. This is something we consider important. Bringing sources closer to our location also helps us reduce our carbon footprint. Less fuel = better air.

We are proud of our dedication to supporting the United States economy as well as local Colorado businesses and jobs. Hopefully you’ll appreciate our efforts and feel good about your Colorado – USA made DadGear® & DaisyGear products.

Scott Shoemaker / President

DadGear Backpack Diaper Bag

DadGear Backpack Diaper Bag

New Belgium Fat Tire Ale : Don chose this one. A longtime fan of this brew, he was surprised to learn it’s not imported by a Belgian company but made in Fort Collins, CO. Founder Jeff Lebesch crafted this winning ale after returning from a European mountain-bike trip. He wanted to “emulate the great beers he tried in Belgium,” according to an interview in ColoradoBiz with New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan, Lebesch’s co-founder and then-spouse. The bicycle-themed logo was created by Lebesch and Jordan’s neighbor, Anne Fitch.

New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale

New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale

The Whole Works  From its website: The Whole Works serves designers who are looking for small-run cut and sew production, and who are dedicated to manufacturing quality products in an ethical and sustainable way: Stitching. Community. Together. The majority of clothing bought by U.S. households up till the 1990’s was made domestically. Between 1990 and 2011, the U.S. lost 750,000 apparel manufacturing jobs – that’s 750,000 skilled people who found themselves out of work.  The demand for clothing is not going anywhere. The Whole Works want to ensure that the jobs stop going anywhere but here.  A Public Benefit Corporation, this company trains those who–for a variety of reasons–need a new start; an opportunity for employment. Read the brand’s True Cost page, which explains how their t-shirts are made. This company’s mission is admirable and needed in communities throughout the USA. Here’s their Kickstarter video:

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50 in 50: California…Wine, Almonds, Hollywood Movies…

First, a rant…

My beloved California is home to an embarrassment of riches. Beautiful climate, abundant agriculture and, of course, legions of bright, inventive, entrepreneurial souls who create the products that make our lives easier, fashionable; more entertaining. Apple iPhones, iPads and laptops, Gap clothing, Hollywood movies: all have deep California roots.

California’s coastal cities include some of the wealthiest per-capita areas in the United States. In 2010, there were more than 663,000 millionaires in the state, more than in any other state in the nation. And yet–here riches and embarrassment again intertwine–the Golden State also has extreme poverty. The Central Valley, for example, has been characterized as one of the most economically depressed regions in the United States, on par with the region of Appalachia. According to Forbes, California has 12 percent of the country’s population and one-third of its welfare recipients. Why? This shouldn’t be.

Gap, Inc. employs at least a million garment workers in China and elsewhere, but none here in California (or in the USA). Founded in San Francisco, Gap, Inc.’s corporate offices remain there. While the brand’s labels boast “Designed in California,” everything’s actually made anywhere-but-here. In 2014 the company began manufacturing in Myanmar, where apparel workers earn $3 per day.  Workers pleaded with factory owners for a raise, to $3.25 a day. They were turned down.

And so I’m California dreamin’ if I think Gap, a publicly-traded company, would consider manufacturing in the good ol’ expensive USA. But still, let’s imagine that Gap, Inc.–and another former S.F. manufacturer, Levi Strauss & Co.–decided to build at least a couple of factories here, hiring workers in the most impoverished areas of California. Yes, there would likely be more automation and therefore fewer actual garment workers compared to those employed in third-world countries by these corporations now. But some jobs are better than none. And why not build the bots here and train workers to repair them? Learn to thrive in this automated world. Ditto for Apple, Inc. (headquartered in Burlingame, CA) which slaps “Designed in California” on its products but employs 1.6 million workers in China and recently committed to more investment in that country.

Okay, I’ll stop. For now.

CAMJ’S Top 5 California-Made Products:


Napa Valley’s Miljenko “Mike”Grgich is legendary in the wine world.  The “King of Chardonnay” won the prestigious Judgment of Paris 40 years ago with his 1973 Chateau Montelena. To this day, Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay is consistently delicious. The Grgich family continues to own and operate the winery. Through the years Mike Grgich has resisted pressures to grow the winery, preferring to concentrate on making the best wine possible. Last year, at age 93, the King of Chardonnay wrote his memoir, A Glass Full of Miracles.


“This book is full of incredible stories about the Croatian-born Grgich, the youngest of 11 children,” writes Mary Orlin in The Mercury News. “By age 3, he was helping his family make wine. Grgich survived ordeals during World War II and communist rule, eventually making his way to what his college wine professor called ‘paradise’ in California, to fulfill his winemaking dreams.”

Immigrant stories behind California-made products draw me in and keep me humble. I’m pouring a glass of Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay tonight. Cheers, Mike.


On the other hand, California’s Blue Diamond Almond Growers like expansion. I say good for them (especially now that the drought has eased up). From SLATE: High-value commodities like almonds are a crucial part of America’s ability to continue growing its agricultural exports. California now produces close to 80 percent of the world’s almonds, around 70 percent of which it exports. It’s the state’s largest food-crop export by a wide margin, surpassing not only other tree nuts like walnuts and pistachios, but also heavy hitters like dairy products and wine. In the last decade alone, crop yields in California have more than doubled, going from 700 million pounds in 2000 to 1.7 billion pounds last year. The growth of disposable income in emerging markets offers the best potential for increasing the world’s ranks of almond consumers. While the global GDP is expected to grow 3.3 percent by 2019, China and India are projected to have growth rates of 8 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively. Not coincidentally, these represent two of the most heavily targeted and fastest-growing markets for almonds.

Image result for california almonds

Nice to know we can export, too. Almonds and Grgich Chardonnay. Nice combo.


Based in Southern California’s industrial town of Vernon, Karen Kane makes beautiful, reasonably priced women’s apparel. The brand’s philosophy, as stated on its website, is “clothing that lasts longer than a single season and can far outlive any trend it represents.” In 2011, I interviewed founder Karen Kane’s son, Michael, marketing director and an integral part of his family’s company. At the time, the company had decided to return a percentage of its manufacturing to Vernon from China. Since then, the company has stuck with its with USA-made commitment. I applaud them.  Some of the items are 100 percent USA-made, others are USA-made using imported fabrics. But all of Karen Kane’s USA-made collection is cut, sewn and finished under California’s exemplary working and environmental conditions.


“Millennial parents buy toys like they buy food,” Green Toys founder Robert von Goeben, 52, said in a Reuters interview. “They want to know what’s in it, the country of origin. That’s a sea change from day when I bought a toy because it was wacky and fun.”

Made from California’s recycled plastic milk and yogurt cartons, Green Toys are imaginative, colorful, sturdy and every bit as fun as the toys of von Goeben’s youth. In 2011, when I first wrote about Green Toys, its products were somewhat scarce other than online. Happy to report they now seem to be everywhere: online, at specialty toy stores, and at Pottery Barn and Whole Foods Market. Best of all, these reasonably-priced toys are made in San Leandro, California, in compliance with our state’s strict environmental regulations. Kids, parents and grandparents love them.

Green Toys

Green Toys

“When a product is designed as well as manufactured here,” von Goeben enthusiastically explained during our chat six years ago, “the results have a ripple economic effect. For every one manufacturing job created, five to six ancillary jobs are also created. Everything from lab testing to packaging to the drivers needed to get the product out.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.


Saved the best for last. If not for the Hollywood film industry my grandfather, Sol Polito, wouldn’t have found his life’s passion. In 1912, as a young Sicilian immigrant operating a nickelodeon projector in New York, he caught the movie-making bug. He was 20, with little education. “I wanted to create the pictures, rather than just run them,” he once told an interviewer. “So I began to cast around to find a way to get into the production end of the business…” He would eventually work as a director of photography for Warner Bros. Studios, making over 150 feature films, receiving three Academy Award nominations for Outstanding Cinematography.

Sol Polito with Olivia de Havilland, "The Adventures of Robin Hood"

Sol Polito with Olivia de Havilland, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” 1937-38

When my dad told his father that he, too, wanted to be a cinematographer, he was encouraged to choose a more stable profession. Hollywood’s a tough, fickle business. Become an aeronautics engineer, Dad was advised. And so he did. But within a few years he wanted out. He longed for an environment where his engineering know-how and his innate creativity could find expression. Working his way up the industry ladder he eventually earned the director of photography designation, filming numerous highly acclaimed television series and feature films, receiving an Emmy nomination (for My Sweet Charlie), and later teaching at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Gene Polito with Director / Author Michael Crichton

Gene Polito with Director / Author Michael Crichton, “Westworld,” 1973

I mention Dad and Pop (as we called my grandfather) and their unique accomplishments not to boast (well, maybe a little) but to stress the importance of holding onto our country’s most precious industries. In addition to keeping countless actors and film crews gainfully employed, Hollywood’s film industry provides thousands upon thousands of ancillary jobs throughout southern California and beyond.

Yet today La La Land’s film industry sits on the precipice of frightening change as, step by step, China takes over. Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin–former soldier in the People’s Liberation Army–has made no secret of his plans to control the Big Six Hollywood studios. “My goal is to buy Hollywood companies,” he told Reuters in Beijing just last summer, “and bring their technology and capability to China.”

Thus far Wang’s Dalian Wanda Group has snapped up AMC Theatres, Legendary Entertainment and Dick Clark Productions. Wang has courted Hollywood’s major filmmakers, flying in Chinese acrobats and magicians to entertain them; promising them unprecedented incentives if they’ll make movies at his massive Qingdao Movie Metropolis in eastern China. Meanwhile, a few years ago (while we were sleeping) Dreamworks Animation entered into a partnership with China Media Capital. Oriental DreamWorks now fully produces animation films in China. Nice.

Writing last year in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington, warned: “…China’s film industry is run by the Chinese Communist Party…American filmmakers have already made common cause with Chinese censors in pursuit of profit. Writing scripts to satisfy the rulers of the People’s Republic doesn’t simply weaken the films the U.S. exports to China, it limits what plays at the multiplex on American soil, and it diminishes our understanding of the greatest geostrategic challenge America will face over the coming decades: the rise of China.”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of China buying up Hollywood and Hollywood–normally a staunch defender of free speech and human rights–bowing to China’s censors makes me feel like this:

Yul Brenner "Westworld," 1973

Yul Brenner “Westworld,” 1973

Looking forward to tonight’s Oscars. Will some brave A-lister go out on a limb and condemn China’s Hollywood strategy? Will anyone speak up for California’s film industry, for an uncensored Hollywood, for America’s freedom of expression? I wonder.

Enjoy your weekend! Next up: Colorado.



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50 in 50: Arkansas / Top 5 Picks for Great Products Made in “The Natural State”

Top 5 Picks for Great Products Made in “The Natural State”

#1) Arkansas-Grown Cotton

Mature Cotton Bolls, Arkansas

Mature Cotton Bolls, Arkansas

You’d think it’d be easy to find Arkansas-made cotton apparel. After all, the Natural State ranks 3rd in the nation for its cotton production: In 2014, 335,000 acres were planted, yielding 820,000 bales of cotton. So why is it that–when I Googled “made in Arkansas apparel”–very little came up? Because most of the state’s cotton–and most of our country’s cotton–is shipped to other countries where cheap labor and apparel manufacturing go hand-in-hand. Our inexpensive jeans with the Made in China / Vietnam / Bangladesh labels inside? They may be made of cotton grown in Arkansas. Go figure.

#2) Vodka and Whiskey: Rock Town Distillery

Rye whiskey barrels, Rock Town Distillery

Rye whiskey barrels, Rock Town Distillery

Thanks to reader Wendy (of Washington State) for letting me know about her favorite Arkansan product, Rock Town Vodka, calling it “dangerously good.” Turns out that Rock Town’s nationally recognized for its award-winning whiskey. The brainchild of Arkansas native Phil Brandon, Rock Town Distillery opened in 2010. Brandon has a passion for whiskey and for his home state. All ingredients are sourced in Arkansas.  “We are in the South, we have great grains, great climate, so put all that together, with good skilled distilling, and great barrels and we can turn out some great whiskey,” Brandon said in an interview found online. “We’ve got over 6,000 gallons of whiskey aging here in Little Rock, Arkansas.” The company currently ships products to 16 states and the United Kingdom. You can also purchase a few products online at Binny’s Beverage Depot.  Wendy, I don’t see your vodka on Binny’s list. Good excuse to head to Arkansas, take the uber-popular Rock Town Distillery tour. Cheers!

#3) Knife Sharpening Stones: Dan’s Whetstone

Arkansas Dan's EZ Hone Whetstone

Arkansas Dan’s EZ Hone Whetstone

From the website: Dan’s EZ Hone offers a new and simple approach to mastering the art of knife sharpening. It is so simple that even a novice sharpener can achieve a keen, sharp edge. The end blocks are designed with reference angles cut in so that the user will have a reference for each and every stroke, while eliminating that occasional steep angle which can counteract any improvement. Dan’s Whetstone is the only complete producer and supplier of all natural Arkansas whetstone grades including the genuine black Arkansas novaculite. We are an American owned and operated whetstone company overseeing the process from quarry to finished product since 1976.

#4) Aprons: American Native

American Native Denim Apron

American Native Denim Apron

Don’t ask me the price of this man-cave-friendly apron (okay, it’s $185…gasp…), just go ahead and read the brand’s story, which asks visitors to its website the question: “Does it get any more American than this?” I would have to say yes: My Italian-immigrant Nana whipped up aprons by the dozen on her Singer sewing machine, in between playing the stock market. She used cotton floral fabric made in Los Angeles. I still use those aprons. Back to American Native: “This industrial workshop denim apron is your choice to get the job done with ease. The heavy Cone Mills 12 oz. selvedge denim will help protect your clothes against wood and metal shavings, ink, paint, coffee grinds, dye, or whatever else one may be getting into. The selvedge chest pocket features a pocket big enough for your iPhone, a #2 pencil or pen, and a Sharpie. The big ol’ leather* pocket spans 13″ across and 7″ deep, with copper rivets to reinforce the corners…Handcrafted with pride in Fayetteville, AR.”

#5) Cuz a Girl’s Gotta Have a Little Bling: Bella Vita Jewelry

Bella Vita Jewelry

Bella Vita Jewelry

Little Rock, Arkansas, designer Brandy Thomason McNair creates “artisan jewelry with an eye for design and a love of all things vintage…a piece of jewelry that already has a story.” I love that idea. Retelling a story, in a new way, through beautifully-made charms and bangles and necklaces. Talented Brandy goes on “treasure hunts” all over the country  searching for “lockets, gemstones, chains–materials with meaning continually inspire my designs and give Bella Vita Jewelry that authentic feel, like a patina…whether small and simple or a statement piece, a little bit of Bella Vita Jewelry helps you tell your story, too.” Read how Brandy turned a hobby into a career–both online and now with her own bricks-and-mortar retail store–here.

Farewell, Arkansas. It’s almost 5 o’clock and I wouldn’t mind a sip o’ Rock Town Vodka. But I’m from Cali. My glass of chilled KJ Chardonnay awaits…which reminds me: Next Up: the Golden State. Home sweet home.

PS: I like this “Top 5 Picks” format. Hope you do, too. But should I change the project’s title from “50 in 50” to “250 in 50”? Suggestions welcome!

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PS: Hey, Arizona…Happy Valentine’s Day!

Short, sweet (pun intended) post. Couldn’t leave the Grand Canyon State in the copper-colored desert dust without remembering that it was admitted to the USA on Valentine’s Day: February 14, 1912. See? If I hadn’t started this project, I never would’ve known that. Makes it all worthwhile.

One other non-Arizona, Valentine’s Day factoid: according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. How tough is it to turn a card over first to be sure it’s been made in the USA? Unfortunately, American brands like Hallmark and Papyrus increasingly make their cards in China. The imported greeting cards are easily spotted: see the ones with faux jewels on them or a musical component or ribbons and other decorative embellishments? Most likely made in faraway factories under who-knows-what conditions. Okay, I’m stepping down off my CAMJ soapbox.

Besides, I wanted to wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day–and give a heartfelt (because everything today is about hearts, right?) shout-out to Eileen Spitalny, David Kravetz and the magical elves over at Fairytale Brownies in Arizona. Your yummy brownies and cookies arrived safe and sound and fresh as can be. The hardworking trio in Don’s office are going home with oodles of delicious treats to share with their friends and families…

Fairytale Brownies

Fairytale Brownies

Don's office manager Cheryl

Don’s office manager Cheryl





Have a relaxing evening, everyone. And if you have a tip on Arkansas…help!

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50 in 50: Arizona

We had no system. We didn’t even know that we’d started a manufacturing company. We just wanted to bake the best brownies in the world and be friends and have a good time…
Eileen Spitalny and David Kravetz, Co-Founders, Fairytale Brownies, Arizona

Fairytale Brownies

Fairytale Brownies

Mention Arizona and I’m 13 again. It’s spring break and Dad’s decided to rent an enormous Winnebago–with its airplane-worthy windshield–and drive Mom and five of us kids to the Grand Canyon (my two older brothers stay behind, my two youngest siblings haven’t yet been born). In between stops for gas every 100 miles or so, my siblings and I play card games. Dad finally parks our behemoth vehicle, stands and stretches. “Look, kids,” he says, staring out the window. “Isn’t it something?” We tumble outdoors, stand at the Canyon’s edge. No one talks. I remember light and shadows, pink and purple hues and warm, dry air. At night the stars seem close enough to touch. “Kids, this is paradise.”

As I researched Arizona products this week, Dad kept popping into my head. Especially on Wednesday, when Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich announced from the White House that his company will invest $7 billion to complete “Fab 42,” a high-volume factory. Intel says it will be “the most advanced semiconductor factory in the world.” Already the number one employer in Chandler, Arizona, Intel’s new factory will create an additional 3,000 high-skilled, high-paying jobs in that community.

In my prior life–before launching CAMJ–Intel’s announcement would’ve whizzed past me. Yawn. Who cares? But now the wonders of USA-made microprocessors powering data centers and hundreds of millions of smart and connected devices all over the world ranks right up there with the wonders of the Grand Canyon. I’m awestruck. The late great Andy Grove, “Titan of Tech,” former COO / CEO of Intel, tireless cheerleader for domestic manufacturing (and, as some may recall, my nominee for Captain America), must be doing cartwheels in heaven. I know this sounds crazy, but I can picture Andy and Dad and other dreamers and makers congregating in heaven, sketching ideas on endless reams of paper.

Here you might ask: what’s with the quote at the top of this post? Who are Eileen Spitalny and David Kravetz? What have their melt-in-your-mouth chocolate brownies got to do with microchips?

David Kravetz and Eileen Spitalny

David Kravetz and Eileen Spitalny, Co-Founders of Fairytale Brownies

Well, Dad used to talk about how we in this country are all interconnected. How if we cut off one appendage–a factory here, another there–unintended negative consequences will follow, eventually affecting everyone. The loss of an Intel factory in Chandler, Arizona, for example, would affect hundreds of other businesses throughout the area, including those in neighboring Phoenix. Intel currently employs 11,300 people in Chandler. These employees and their families need countless goods and services. They need housing, food, medical care, clothing, cars, and furniture. And yes, they need yummy, chocolate treats. Cue Fairytale Brownies.

Founded in 1992, Phoenix-based Fairytale Brownies is now one of the nation’s largest gourmet mail-order brownie and cookie companies, with over 7 million brownies shipped worldwide a year. But in the beginning it was just David and Eileen, two kindergarten buddies, eating David’s mom’s home-baked chocolate brownies, still warm, at the Kravetz kitchen table after school. The two native Arizonans eventually headed off to colleges in California: David to Stanford to study mechanical engineering and Eileen to University of Southern California (yes, Dad, USC) to study business and Spanish.

After graduating, spending four or five years in their separate corporate worlds and based once again in Arizona, they yearned to be their own bosses. And they loved food. “Food world is fun!” Eileen said in an email. Using David’s mom’s brownies as their inspiration, they wrote up a business plan, pooled $14,000, quit their respective day jobs, and began baking in a Phoenix area catering kitchen at night. Here’s David in an interview with YScouts:

“When we quit our corporate jobs, we didn’t have any wage. And that was for three years. We were full time brownies, no salary for three years. Just living off of savings and family support. Then it took five years for us to be able to pay ourselves back with the same salary we left in the corporate job. It was eight years before the company had a positive net worth. And then it got a little easier and easier after that. But it was really like, five years. And that’s what I tell most entrepreneurs is that it’s usually five years until you’re comfortable to actually pay yourself and not work a million hours a week.”

During those first few years–before today’s direct-to-consumer / online sales–it was the local community that launched David and Eileen’s company. At farmer’s markets and various festival food booths, customers snatched up their product and raved about it. They wanted more, they wanted to mail packages of delicious brownies to friends and family and corporate clients. Eileen and David designed mail-safe packaging (now the company has in house designers and all packaging is custom designed) and began shipping product all over the country.

To further get the word out Eileen utilized her marketing expertise, sending samples and press releases to food editors across the country. When Florence Fabricant of the New York Times gave Fairytale Brownies her stamp of approval, phone orders began pouring in. They ran out of brownies and had to ration them out six at a time. That’s never happened since.  Their hand-made, individually-wrapped brownies–and now cookies–have been featured numerous times on TV news as well as on QVC and The Food Network’s “Unwrapped.” They currently sell 12 varieties of Fairytale Brownies and 6 flavors of Fairytale Cookies and Fairytale Bars. Every brownie contains dark Callebaut Belgian chocolate, premium Grade AA butter, farm fresh eggs, and fluffy cake flour. I’m getting hungry…

Eileen says the entire journey has been amazing. “We are 25 years old this year as a company and my business partner has been a friend since kindergarten. We have many employees who have worked for us over 10 years. We have 40 employees year round and up to 150 at the holidays; a lot of our seasonal help comes back year after year.”

And then she added this: “Fairytale Brownies believes in supporting our local businesses and communities and we give back primarily to KaBOOM! since we met on the kindergarten playground ourselves. Unstructured play is where it is at for kids and adults so our brains can create and think of the impossible. We didn’t know how to bake, we just wanted to be our own boss and create a brand.”

By the way, KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit “dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the lives of all kids.” Since 2001, Fairytale Brownies has contributed more than $200,000, thousands of brownies and cookies, and countless hours volunteering, fundraising and donating for playground builds. In 2011, they built a playground for an elementary charter school that serves the homeless and under served. They will build another playground in Spring 2017.

It’s fun to picture Eileen and David as little kids on the playground, pretending, letting their imaginations carry them away. They always say their Fairytale Brownies have a “dash of magic” in them.

Interesting that Intel says magic plays a part of its process too: “A leading-edge computer chip is the most complex manufacturing process in the world, engineering magic that turns sand into semiconductors, the foundation of the knowledge economy.” Bet some of that “magic” began for Intel engineers as it did for Eileen and David, during trips to the park as kids, free to dig in the sand and think.

If they haven’t already, Intel’s Brian Krzanich and Fairytale Brownies’ David Kravetz and Eileen Spitalny should definitely meet-up, swap stories of magic and invention and microchips and chocolate chips and discuss how, in the great state of Arizona–and in the USA–anything’s possible.

Next up: Arkansas


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50 in 50: Alaska

I’ll wake up in the middle of the night during the wintertime and I’ll have just dreamt about that big catch. Robert Beedle, Copper River salmon fisherman

It’s disorienting, this state-to-state relocation, this alphabetically-determined switching of mental gears from the sultry south’s Alabama–birthplace of Harper Lee, heart of the civil rights movement, home to Sock Queen Gina Locklear and Quilting Queen Mary Lee Bendolph–to subarctic Alaska. I’m like a confused tourist, overly-ambitious itinerary in hand, traveling from one virtual reality time zone to another. The title of an old 60’s movie comes to mind. If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Where the heck am I now? And it’s only week two?

american tourists lost in ireland

My plan had been to publish this Alaska post sooner. No time to lose, I told myself. Gotta ignore 24/7 news–real, fake, whatever–gotta push aside Trump’s tweets and Iran’s missiles. Never mind that experts say those missiles might soon be capable of reaching the west coast. Did this mean I should live for the moment, abandon healthy eating; bake a buttery batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies?

chocolate chip cookies

A missile is launched during an Iranian army exercise in central Iran, Thursday, March 14, 2013. Iranian media say the military has test-fired several short-range missiles, including the type Palestinian militant Hamas group used to attack Tel Aviv last November. Thursday's report by the semi-official Fars news agency says the missiles were tested during an army exercise in central Iran. It says the missiles fired were Nazeat-10 and Fajr-5. Iran regularly holds maneuver to test and promote its military power.(AP Photo/Hadi Yazdani)

AP Photo/Hadi Yazdani

With any luck Don and I could scarf them down and squeeze in one more episode of The Crown before the nukes hit. But no, gotta keep going. Gotta stick to low carbs and my China Ate My Jeans / 50 in 50 plan. Cheerleader of the domestic economy to the end, right? Go north, blogger-woman, to Alaska.

north to alaska

And so last week, as I tucked my Gee’s Bend notecards into a drawer and began an online-search for Alaskan-made products, I had to admit that, once again, I’m at a slight disadvantage. Not only is my attention diverted by thoughts of global instability and cookie-binges, but I’ve never been to Alaska, never snapped pics of the Aleutian Islands from the deck of a cruise ship. Don, usually my reliable source of encouragement and information, had zero to say about Alaska except this: “In winter they only get six hours of light. I’d go crazy there.” I pictured a Don-approved tagline for the Alaskan tourism industry:  Alaska. It’ll drive you nuts.

Winter solstice in Anchorage, Alaska

Winter solstice in Anchorage, Alaska

Thankfully my brother-in-law Craig, an avid fisherman, pushed the Alaska-reset button for me. “It’s a sportsman’s paradise. And oh, the colors. They’re so bright and different.” His deep, normally steady voice halted a bit as he tried to convey the awe-provoking images in his mind. Over the years he’s traveled in spring or summer from southern California to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. “The water is this turquoise color from the melting glaciers…it’s truly God’s country.” He tried to explain the seasonality of Alaskan fishing–which time of year to catch halibut, trout, cod. “And then from June on,” he said, “you have your salmon, your reds–your king, your Chinook, your sockeye…”

eat fish live longer

Salmon. Of course. The perfect product to feature this week (and no, this will not lead to a discussion of Alaskan quilts…). When it’s in season, Don and I have fresh wild salmon two or three times a week. It’s easy to grill, delicious, loaded with protein and the omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce heart disease and lower cholesterol. To be honest, until Craig gave me a tutorial, I hadn’t been sure exactly where our salmon originated, other than some mysterious place called the Copper River. Where was that? Oregon? Happily for this week’s blog post, the Copper River runs through south-central Alaska. Here’s a more complete explanation from the experts at copperriversalmon.org:

Dropping an average of 12 feet per mile and draining 24,000 square miles, the Copper River is the tenth largest river in the United States and is the birthplace of some of the world’s most renowned wild Alaskan salmon. Every year from May through September, Copper River king, sockeye and Coho return to the river to make the arduous 300-mile journey up the icy glacial fed waters to spawn in their birthplace. This is no easy task and as a result Copper River salmon are inherently rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a critical component that fuels their journey and simultaneously creates the naturally rich salmon so coveted by chefs, restaurateurs and seafood lovers around the world.

Copper River salmon–and all Alaskan seafood–is carefully monitored by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, as specified in the state’s constitution. The goal is sustainability; the continued health of the sea life thriving in Alaska’s vast waters (including the Gulf of Alaska, numerous rivers and more than three million lakes and 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline). The Alaskan seafood industry is–as you-know-who might put it–huge, providing over 78,000 jobs and $5.8 billion in revenue each year.

Copper River’s 540 commercial fishermen (and women; also called fishermen) and their families live in the remote town of Cordova (population 2,000), accessible only by plane or ferry.


Each fisherman is an independent small business owner. In a YouTube video, several Copper River fishermen discuss their uniquely challenging and rewarding work. Some fish alone, but for many it’s a family affair. All express a joy and passion, a gratitude for having the good fortune to live and work as fishers of salmon. There’s a reverence about what they do. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation. “This is good work,” one fisherman said. “You’re making food. How much more honorable a job can you have? You’re feeding people. And it’s good food. Really, really good food.”

Many millennial-aged fishermen grew up in Cordova, went off to college–some in Anchorage, others as far away as the east coast–then returned, bringing with them savvy marketing skills and a renewed enthusiasm for work that protects the environment and provides superb food for their country’s population and for people around the world. Some–like husband and wife team Nelly and Michael Hand and siblings Emma and Claire Laukitis, also known as the Salmon Sisters–own their salmon fishing vessels and have their own branded line of salmon-related products, all available online.

Nelly and Michael Hand

Nelly and Michael Hand


The Salmon Sisters

The Salmon Sisters

Hard to believe, but there was a time when Copper River salmon wasn’t available in the lower forty-eight states. As recently as the 1980’s, according to The Atlantic, “virtually all the Copper River catch was being exported to Japan at prices so low that fishermen were pulling their boats out of the water and hanging up their nets.” Read more about that here. Just makes you think, doesn’t it, about how we had this treasure-trove of healthful food right here–in our largest state–and, for years, didn’t really quite see it.

If anyone’s willing, I’d love to hear how you prepare Copper River salmon. On her website, Nelly Hand posted her recipe for  Coconut Sockeye Salmon Chowder.  Yum. Pass the chowder. Then, on to chocolate chip cookies…

Nelly Hand's Coconut Sockeye Salmon Chowder

Nelly Hand’s Coconut Sockeye Salmon Chowder

Next up: Arizona.  Suggestions welcome!

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50 in 50: Alabama

These quilts…represent a tradition that has been passed on for a number of generations in a very small area in America, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The quilts reflect the history of that area and of this country…[they ask us to] think about genius…where does it reside?
–Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend

Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee’s Bend was a plantation.
Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

Work Clothes Quilt with Center Medallion Strips, Annie Mae Young, 1976, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Work Clothes Quilt with Center Medallion Strips, Annie Mae Young, 1976, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I lived in a log-cabin house with about twelve of us children. We used to plaster the house walls with magazines and used to make our sheets out of fertilizer sacks…My daddy brought me some cloth from Camden where they was giving it away…I started cutting and piecing cloth when I was about thirteen, fourteen…I like big pieces and long strips…I liked to sew them however they be. I work it out, study the way to make it, get it to be right, kind of like working a puzzle.
Annie Mae Young (1928-2012)

Alabama-made socks. That’s what this post was supposed to be about. As rain pelts a once-thirsty California, filling our creeks, blanketing our mountains white, chilling our feet, I asked myself: what better time to write about socks?

Yes, what better time to share the story of realtor-turned-sock-artisan Gina Locklear who, in 2015, received Martha Stewart’s coveted American-Made award? A few months later the New York Times crowned Gina, 36, the Sock Queen of Alabama. Perfect title for an entrepreneur raised in Fort Payne, Alabama, a place once called “the Sock Capital of the World.” And for decades, Fort Payne happily kept 300 knitting mills humming and half the population employed, producing one in eight pairs of athletic socks sold globally.

Here–at least this was my original plan–I would have readers think about how something seemingly small and insignificant–the production of a pair of socks–could be life-sustaining. Growing up, Gina and her sister, Emily, would head to their parents’ mill–called Emi-G Knitting–after school to sort socks and play in the bins. Emi-G Knitting’s long-standing deal to make, among other things, Russell Athletic’s cushioned socks paid for the family’s home, cars and the girls’ college educations. Imagine that. All from socks.

But by the mid-2000s, everything changed. “Cheap foreign labor and free-trade agreements made the town a loser in the game of global economics,” the New York Times reports. “Seemingly overnight the mills closed, and the new Fort Payne became a town in China called Datang.” Gina’s father said it was “like a vacuum cleaner pulled all the people out of town.” Today only seven mills remain.

I’d wrap-up this short, simple post by explaining that in 2008, Gina’s “aha” moment struck. Quitting real estate (which she’d never really enjoyed), she instead poured all her energy into the creation of zkano, her unique, colorful brand of 100 percent American-made sustainable organic cotton socks. She rescued her parents’ mill from extinction and saved jobs. And, although she works 24/7, she loves what she’s doing.

Great story. Buh-bye Alabama, it’s been fun, right?

But on MLK Day, staring at the post written above, I couldn’t seem to click “publish” and move on. How could I feature an Alabama-made product on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ignore MLK and his role in the Civil Rights Movement in that very state? I again searched amazon.com (as if Jeff Bezos has all the answers) for “products made in Alabama,” not really sure why that would help. Up popped a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  And a boxed set of notecards called Gee’s Bend: The Art of the Quilt. Gee’s what? Quilts? Again? Why?

Sometimes it’s best not to question why life tosses best-laid-plans aside, putting unplanned things in your path. Best not to fight it. Just go with the flow. That’s what Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph once said: “I just go with the flow. Whatever comes in my mind to do, I just do it.” Snapping this photo of a creek near my house, I pictured Mary Lee Bendolph walking along the banks of the mile-wide, 60-foot deep Alabama River that curves like a horseshoe and winds its way around tiny Gee’s Bend (population in 2011: 275).
creek again

Just go with the flow.

Maybe you’re already familiar with the church-going, gospel-humming women of Gee’s Bend and their miraculous quilts. I knew nothing about them. But soon there I was, immersed in all things Gee’s Bend. I found The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at my local library. Two days later–thanks to Amazon Prime–Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s short, powerful play, Gee’s Bend, arrived on my doorstep. Then came the beautiful notecards. Rain pounding on the roof, head throbbing from the flu, I sipped tea and watched two mesmerizing, uplifting documentaries: The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Next I read Crossing Over, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times feature that tells the history of Gee’s Bend through the eyes of quilter Mary Lee Bendolph. She recalls poverty, bigotry and the time Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled all the way to Gee’s Bend on a cold February night, three weeks before Bloody Sunday: “Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, ‘I come over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you–you are somebody.'”

She’d never heard that before. None of the residents of Gee’s Bend had.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit changed “Benders” lives forever. They began making the long journey from Gee’s Bend into segregated Camden and beyond, to again see Dr. King. Prior to the 1960s, a Huck Finn-type ferry service allowed them to leave Gee’s Bend, crossing the Alabama River into all-white Camden (population 1,000). But to push back against the Civil Rights Movement and deny Benders their legal voting rights, Camden’s Sheriff Lummie shut the ferry down. From Crossing Over: “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,’ Sheriff Lummie was rumored to have said. ‘We closed it because they forgot they were black.'”

Undaunted, Mary Lee and her neighbors set out on horseback or foot, however long it took, to see Reverend King, register to vote, and maybe even defy one of the Jim Crow laws, drinking from the whites-only water fountains. “‘I loved to go over there,’ Mary Lee says, giggling. ‘Just so I could tell the white folks, and Mr. Lummie, ‘You can’t jail us all.'”

Indeed, many were tossed into prison. Others lost their jobs. Some lost their houses. But Dr. King had taught them not to give up, to believe in themselves. And when Martin Luther King Jr. died, the horses from Gee’s Bend pulled his casket in the funeral procession.

mlk funeral

Throughout it all, Mary Lee Bendolph and the multi-generational women of Gee’s Bend sewed quilts. When farming failed, for many years they mass-produced quilts for large department stores like Bloomingdale’s. They didn’t care for that type of assembly-line-style of quilting. They preferred using their memories, their old clothes, the shapes of the windows and doors and colors of the ceilings, the world that surrounded them and reflected their lives. These were the quilts that soared. That originated in their souls. They didn’t realize they were creating art that would, some day, be compared to Matisse and Klee.

In 1998, William Arnett, a collector and curator of African-American vernacular art, came across a photo in Roland Freeman’s 1996 book, “A Communion of Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories.” A woman named Annie Mae Young, in Gee’s Bend, stood next to a quilt-covered woodpile. Quilts were routinely burned in Gee’s bend to keep the mosquitoes away. One quilt in that picture so impressed Arnett that he went door to door all over Gee’s Bend until he finally found Annie Mae Young.

Annie Mae Young with Quilts. From Roland Freeman's book, A Communion of the Spirits, 1996

Annie Mae Young with Quilts. From Roland Freeman’s 1996 book, A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories

At first, Annie Mae wasn’t sure if she’d burned the quilt or not. A few days later she found it (it’s in picture above and at the top of this post). Arnett said he’d like to buy it. Annie Mae said he could have it for nothing. He insisted on buying several of the quilts for a few thousand dollars. “Word quickly spread,” writes Amei Wallach in Smithsonian Magazine, “that there was a crazy white man in Gee’s Bend paying good money for the raggedy old quilts.”

And so began a mission for Bill Arnett that continues to this day through his (and his two sons’) tireless work at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.  Arnett, who is considered family in Gee’s Bend, shepherded the quilts, saved them from the ash heap, introduced them to curators at major museums throughout the United States. Eventually everyone agreed: these were magnificent works of authentically, uniquely American art.

According to a recent story in the Kansas City Star, about two dozen women on Gee’s Bend continue quilting. The quilting co-op they belong to typically has between 200 and 300 quilts in stock, available for sale. “Oh, they expensive, I can tell you that right now,” [Gee’s Bend quilter] Mary Ann Pettway said. “Prices range from $200 for a wall-hanger. And a twin to queen or king, they’re $900 and up,” she said, adding that one quilt sold for $27,000. “But then someone told me that if Picasso can sell a piece of his work for $35,000 (sic), why can’t I?”

Sounds like the quilters of Gee’s Bend have finally, truly crossed the river, from isolation and segregation to the kind of America we all strive for–land of unfettered opportunity, of free enterprise, of free expression; a place where we’d like to think everyone has an equal shot at a our version of royalty, whether you are Gina Locklear, Sock Queen of Alabama or Mary Lee Bendolph, Queen of Gee’s Bend.

Next up: Alaska.

Enjoy your week!





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