Produce for paddlers and people
Essex Industries produces lightweight canoes, proud workers
By Tim Rowland
Adirondack canoe enthusiasts, who pick up boats like ants pick up crumbs, at some point in their paddling adventures may have been exposed to beautiful components handcrafted in an Adirondack factory that they never knew have probably never heard of.
With no iconic names like Hornbeck, Wenonah or Old Town, Essex Industries operates anonymously amid the rusting forges of Mineville, not far from the shores of Lake Champlain.
Within the walls of a former Catholic school building, Essex has for decades produced the good old wooden stuff – seats, yokes, gunwales – that accentuate the space-age materials that go into the hulls modern canoes.
Its parent company, Mountain Lake Services, is Essex County’s largest employer, and Essex Industries is one of the county’s largest manufacturers, with annual canoe parts sales exceeding $1 million. (Essex Industries also produces furniture, picnic tables, camping stools and other wood products.)
Many more people are about to get to know Essex Industries now, after it merged this spring with Chad Smith’s Adirondack Canoe Co. to produce a line of elite lightweight boats to rival anyone on the market.
All of the above is all well and good with Essex Industries’ workforce, but it’s also irrelevant. The men and women with intellectual disabilities who saw the wood, operate the machinery, make the products and pack the shipping crates take pride in their work in a way that non-disabled people cannot. Many do something they’ve been told at some point in their lives they can’t do: they show up for a job, produce a desirable product, and earn a paycheck – support themselves.
It’s not a routine they take for granted, nor are they shy about expressing how happy it makes them to be a valued part of the community they live in. This happiness invariably rubs off on the people they work with. “They make it impossible to have a bad day,” said John Gereau, director of operations and marketing at Essex Industries. “And I will put our quality in competition with anyone.” Of the store’s 65 employees, 35 are people with disabilities, he said.
Employees who can do more can earn more than minimum wage; those who can do less are paid by the piece, which they are proud to say at the end of the day. Most live with housing assistance provided by Mountain Lake Services, a private, nonprofit chapter of NYSARC, a state-regulated organization founded by family members of people with developmental disabilities.
Mountain Lake provides the services they need, little or a lot, with programs that include early intervention, therapy and family support. In addition to wooden products, participants make and sell baskets and local foods at the Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store in downtown Port Henry, which opened in 2019 after the community lost its supermarket. They also operate Mountain Lake Consignment and Engraving, a clothing and art boutique where participants gain retail experience. The store also serves as a retail outlet for Essex Industries products.
Employees hold fashion shows, show people how to weave baskets and develop their own lines of applesauce, cider and soups. “They’re really running their own little businesses,” said Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services.
Essex Industries sells its products in the Adirondacks and around the world. As she packed a shipment of collapsible camping stools bound for Tokyo, employee Jessica Meehan said Mountain Lake created a family atmosphere in which she felt comfortable learning a job, helped her coping with his adjustment problems and had given him confidence in his ability to make his way in the world.
“I just think it’s good to see how I grew up at Essex Industries,” she said. Now she has bigger goals, like going back to school for a GED and maybe one day working with kids.
Essex Industries is taking other ARC programs in and around the Adirondacks that prepare people with disabilities to enter the workforce to the next level, for example, by teaching job interview skills and presenting production opportunities arts and crafts or work in janitorial services.
Unlike most business enterprises, Essex Industries does not focus on employee retention. Completely the opposite. The ideal is to build skills and confidence to the point where Mountain Lake participants can assimilate into the wider workforce. It’s good for them, good for businesses looking for help and, ARC supporters like to say, good for everyone to see how lucky they are to live in a community with people with an intellectual disability.
It was also lucky for Chad Smith. He founded the Adirondack Canoe Co. 20 years ago. Its ultralight boats add some weight and stiffness to the floor, unlike the lightest boats on the market. When Essex Industries called for a partner, Smith said the time was right.
His regime of producing 80 boats a year left him little personal time and planning and limited the designs he could produce. With the resources of Essex Industries, he’ll have more opportunities to design and be a family with the gratification that comes with teaching employees to do something they never thought possible.
“Training is a big part of the job, and they’re happy to learn,” Smith said. “It can be frustrating at first, but you develop a love for it.”
Boats start out as a fiberglass mold, into which a sheet of Kevlar or carbon fiber fabric is slipped. A hardener is added to a bucket of petroleum-based liquid resin, which must be brushed quickly and expertly onto the fabric before it is no longer pliable. After the material has cured overnight, it is taken out of the mold and fitted with its wooden parts.
Gereau said the idea of producing canoes has been around for some time. And it made sense to go with an established name rather than starting from scratch.
“Adirondack Canoe is well known in the industry,” said Gereau. “Chad was the missing piece of the puzzle – he’s fabulous to watch.”
For employees, Mudge said, there is a significant difference between building parts for a boat and building a boat. Parts are theoretical, while a finished product adds a level of understanding and accomplishment. “Some of them didn’t see (the components) as part of something bigger,” Mudge said. “Now they cheer when a canoe comes through the gate. It’s good that they can see the value of the boat and say, “I was part of it. » » The company manufactures everything except the shell.
Many employees are outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy paddling and fishing as part of Mountain Lake Services’ recreational program. Two are 46ers. “They’re very committed to the Adirondacks,” Mudge said.
Public perception tends to focus on disabilities without understanding that those who lack in one area often have skills that, without culture, would go unnoticed. “They may have deficits, but they have abilities that outweigh those deficits,” Mudge said. “We teach them to overcome these deficits.”
The stigma persists, but as residents of Essex County meet people with developmental disabilities and see them succeed in their work, they become more comfortable with the association. “Our group is an integral part of the fabric of the community,” Mudge said.
Mountain Lake Services believes boat building will help bridge the gap. Its employees have faith in machinery and technology, including computer-controlled routers and complex sanders.
Essex Industries is also exploring the next generation of canoe components, a necessary transition caused by the emerald ash borer. “Ash is the best recreational wood because it holds up so well to the elements,” Gereau said. But carpenters know his days are limited, as the driller inevitably walks across the country.
“Right now there’s a glut in the market because people are cutting down their ash trees” as a preemptive attack against advancing insects, Gereau said. “But in the future I don’t know what we will do – and it won’t be long.”
In the meantime, business is going well. Light boats are in high demand, with waiting lists of weeks or months. Gereau said Essex Industries’ goal is to increase production to 100 boats in the first year and 500 boats after five years. From a line of four boats, he said plans are to move to four lines of canoes with different performance grades, for a total of 16 models. The next adventure will probably be paddles.
As the product line expands, employee satisfaction also increases. “It makes them proud to be part of something like this. They learn skills and gain confidence, and they also benefit from socialization. The mission is to provide support to people with disabilities so they can live their best life.
– Jack Mudge, Executive Director of Mountain Lake Services
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