Tag Archives: artisans

Meet the Hughes

June 22, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was published in the June 2015 issue of Her Family.

Chris Hughes is a father of three who spends most Monday and Wednesday evenings toiling away in his upstairs workshop on Farnam Street. It is a curious space filled with antiquities and tools akin to his trade—custom leather bags.

He fulfills orders from across the world, assembling packages containing his hand-constructed waterproof tote bags, briefcases, and artisanal aprons crafted with quality materials.

“I wanted the items that I designed and sold to have a timeless quality to them. I wanted someone to look at them years in the future and say ‘look at this artifact,’” Hughes says. Hence, you have the evolution of the name of his business, Artifact Bag Co., a thriving online business that Hughes started more than four years ago

Hughes says that being an entrepreneur is a constantly evolving process of new experiences. “The minute I get comfortable with something, I take on a new challenge. I’m always throwing myself into the fire so that I’m never comfortable. When you come home from days of that, you really just feel like your legs are rubber bands. You feel like you could just collapse.”

Hughes2In a flip-the-switch moment, Hughes dons his daddy hat before stepping in the door at home. “The minute I cross that threshold into my house, I’ve got two boys and a girl that are jumping up onto me. I have to kick in the afterburners. I just have to be present because for them they’re fresh and they want to see their dad,” he says. His children are Kit, 6, Levi, 4, and Jane, 2.

Hughes’ schedule has him spending weekdays at his shop, surrounded by a small team of craftsmen and craftswomen who assist him as business demands. He also works until almost 11 p.m. a few nights of the week and at least one weekend day.

He says his demanding schedule sometimes frustrates his children. “It pulls me away from them so often.” But they do enjoy visiting their dad’s cool space. “They’re fascinated by the workspace because of all of the machines and all of the materials.”

His wife is Beth Hughes, who works as a speech-language pathologist at the RiteCare Speech and Language Clinic located in the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The couple went to school together at Westside High School, but didn’t actually date until years later when the two crossed paths again while Beth was in graduate school.

Beth says that having an Internet-based business can make finding the right balance between family and work challenging. “The Internet never stops. So it’s not like Chris can just walk away at 5 p.m. and say, ‘Oh, the shop’s closed for the day.’ There are always more things to do in terms of emails to respond to and social media stuff to post and promote and things to research for projects that he has coming up,” she says.Hughes3

But knowing that the family sets aside evenings for sit-down meals and plans one day out of each weekend to spend together provides a home base for sanity. “Getting some sort of schedule just so that we all know what to expect has been helpful,” she says.

As a mother, Beth says she feels privileged to help her children grow and develop into the people that they’re meant to be. “I like to help foster their interests and teach them things and to see things through their eyes. It’s just fascinating.”

She finds strength in her support system of mommy friends. “I’m learning every day and I make mistakes every day. I’m very fortunate to have a great group of friends who’ve been on this parenting road a little bit longer than I have that I can learn from,” Hughes says.

The kids keep active with swim lessons, fishing, tee-ball, and riding bikes. Some Sunday mornings, one might find the Hughes family over at the Bagel Bin—a family favorite. They also love going
to the zoo.

Friday nights are family movie nights. “I’ll make popcorn on the stove,” Chris says. “They love watching Star Wars over and over again. They like that good versus evil kind of stuff.”

Hughes is inspired by his children’s creativity. “All of the sudden a card table becomes a fort to drape blankets over, or a stick becomes a rifle. They’re just constantly interpreting their environment in very imaginative ways.”

“They haven’t really been taught that they are not artists or those other things that happen in life when people dash people’s dreams and hopes. They are still very optimistic,” he says.

“In many ways, I never lost sight of that either, so on some level, I relate with them.”

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Brave New Prairie

May 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally appeared in Omaha Magazine’s May/June 2015 issue.

A small sign in Summer Miller’s kitchen speaks volumes about her mission: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.”

Seated in the cozy kitchen of her charming Elkhorn-area country home (formerly a one-room schoolhouse), the love is on full display as Miller flits throughout the room, doing a dance many home cooks and parents know well. She canters left, stirring a pot of homemade soup, then right, fetching milk for her daughter, Juniper. After pausing for a hug with her little “Junebug,” coffee is poured for the adults; its aroma mingling with the lingering scent of fresh-baked bread.

Tasty food is also achieved as Miller, a local journalist, author, and foodie, serves up a preview of the edible delights featured in New Prairie Kitchen, her seasonally driven cookbook that connects home chefs to the local food movement by weaving together the recipes and stories of 25 chefs, farmers, and artisans from Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. In the book, nationally recognized restaurants and Beard-nominated chefs sit at the same proverbial dinner table alongside humble farmers, bakers, and artisans, all united in a passion for local food done right.

“The book celebrates our regional food community through stories, photography, and recipes,” says Miller. “I started [it] at a time in my life when I needed inspiration. From that perspective, I personally needed to find these people and places. Once I did, I was so moved by the experiences I had—the stories the farmers, chefs, and artisans shared, and the beauty of the food—that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”

The beauty Miller found over four years traveling and collecting stories is palpable in her preparation of Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef Nick Strawhecker’s strawberry jam and The Grey Plume chef Clayton Chapman’s ricotta, which team up atop a honey-oat bread recipe from Hastings’ Back Alley Bakery. An earthy, savory braised chicken soup follows. It’s a seasonally adjusted version of a Strawhecker dish from the book, featuring carrots from Rhizosphere Farm (located in the Loess Hills of Iowa just south of Missouri Valley) and chicken from Plum Creek Farms (Burchard, Neb.), and it’s a bowl-tipper to be sure.

George P. Johnson, owner of George Paul Vinegar, says New Prairie Kitchen offers readers “treasured recipes to hand down through generations.”

The recipes and producers here are indeed treasures, and the book is the treasure map.

“I love being around creative, innovative people because they infuse everything and everyone around them with a sense of possibility,” says Miller. “When those personalities exist in the food world we benefit as home cooks and shoppers. Rather than eating food only for sustenance, we get to eat food that nourishes us, yes, but also teaches us about a certain corner of the world. The act of preparing, sharing, and eating food becomes a cultural and emotive experience. When we connect to places, and, more importantly, the people of those places, whether that place is our dinner table, the farmers market, or a restaurant, and the people, family or new friends, we build our community, making it a more enjoyable place to live. Our experiences become more profound.”

The vibrant pages of New Prairie Kitchen, which is set for release later this month, are illuminated with stunning images from the talented photographer Dana Damewood. Wide landscape shots, close-ups of chickens, vegetables, smiling chefs, a red tractor, a handful of grain, exquisitely plated meals, an old Dodge Ram van with the license plate reading “GARLIC” — all a familiar yet striking array of Midwestern artifacts representing a contemporary take on classic Americana. The book manages to simultaneously represent old and new, sophisticated and simple.

“It’s difficult sometimes to get a good sense of the local food movement and what it truly looks like,” says Terra Hall of Rhizosphere Farm, “particularly the connections that make such a strong community. Telling food stories from a particular region, you can really see how everything is connected and the powerful impact of keeping food and its economy local. Summer did an amazing job highlighting the people changing the foodscape in the prairie region. The food we grow and how it is prepared is a true representation of a place, a people, and a climate. Which, frankly, is what I think food should be.”

And you needn’t be from the area to appreciate its riches. Taryn Huebner, Oprah Winfrey’s private chef, calls New Prairie Kitchen “a gift” and its recipes “mouthwatering” and “soul-quenching. This is more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland,” Huebner writes.

The French Bulldog’s Bryce Coulton says the book celebrates individual and shared connections to food, as well as a “back-to-basics” approach.

“More than being prideful,” Coulton says, “Midwesterners exhibit an appreciation for the sincere efforts of their neighbors, be they farmers, artisans, or cooks. And Summer has told their stories: stories of relationships, collaboration, working toward a goal outside of our immediate selves.”

“I hope the book inspires people to cook at home and frequent restaurants that support our local farmers and artisans,” says Miller, “but also to explore their communities and discover the resources available to them. We are surrounded by so many wonderful people, flavors, and places. It’s a shame to overlook the diamonds in our own backyard.”

Sarah Wengert, the author of the story above, will moderate a panel at Summer Miller’s reading, discussion, and book-signing event at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 9 at the Bookworm.

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History is Made in These Boots

March 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Although their professions and proclivities may differ a bit, astronauts, bikers, cops, movie stars, presidents, fighter pilots, polo aficionados, members of San Francisco’s leather subculture, tank commanders, and Teutonic toughs all seem to agree on one thing—The Dehner Boot Company of Omaha makes one fine custom leather boot.

On a walk through the factory near 36th and Martha St. with company president Jeff Ketzler, the Dehner ethic is quickly apparent. Artisans cut and shape leathers with hand tools smoothed and patinaed from decades of use. Leather uppers are sewn to soles with antiquated, belt-driven, black-enameled machines. Indeed, the factory floor could just as easily be a living-history museum of the cordwainer’s art circa 1930.

But Dehner continues to exist precisely because most of the world has passed the company by.

“We refuse to change how we do things,” Ketzler says. “We are known for craftsmanship and quality. I would close this factory before I allow us to become just another company that cranks out junk.”

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Little has changed during Dehner’s 130 years of existence. The tech revolution never happened here. The equation is simple: Determine exactly what the footwear needs to do. Take exact measurements of the feet the footwear needs to service. Once you know these details, find strong, supple leather and have men and women, most with decades of experience, use heavy-duty materials and mostly centuries-old techniques to craft the final product.

If it’s a Dehner, you will be comfortable in this timeless piece of footwear long after your other shoes have turned to scraps.

Using this formula, Ketzler and his father and grandfather before him have built a resume unmatched among American shoe manufacturers. NASA turned to the company to build some of the first boots to go into space. General Curtis LeMay looked to Dehner to design and build the perfect boot for the quick-strike flight crews of the Strategic Air Command. Horse buff Ronald Reagan often talked up his Dehner riding boots. James Dean wore Dehner boots. Leaders throughout World War II, including Gen. George Patton, wore Dehners. The Thunderbirds. The Blue Angels. Ketzler just shipped off a pair of military-style boots for Brad Pitt to wear in an upcoming movie. In time, you realize an impressive chunk of 20th century American history was made in Dehner boots.

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Ken Hedrick, owner of Stompers Boots in San Francisco, one of the largest retailers of Dehner Boots in the world, explains why Dehners are sought when the best is needed.

“There are really only two makers of very serious custom boots left in this country—Wesco and Dehner,” he says. “With the Dehners, what you come to realize—and what a lot of people have come to realize—is that nobody anywhere makes anything as good. They have some secret sauce or something. People have tried to copy them, but nobody can pull it off.”

Dehner once hovered around 40 employees in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The company has tended to employ closer to 20 in recent years, but they are doing much better than many other small custom shoe companies.

“We are doing pretty well while so many other companies like us around the world have gone out of business,” Ketzler says.

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Still, Ketzler does have plans to explore new markets. His latest idea came to him last year after his father passed away.

“It got me looking back, thinking how much he had been involved in, how much the U.S. had been involved in through that time,” he says. “It seemed like a history that should be celebrated.” So Dehner boots now has a “Reenactment Line.” If you or a group wants the exact boots worn by any number of historic figures, Dehner can make them for you for somewhere between $500 and $1,000 a pair.

“We still have all the designs in our files, and we still use all the same equipment and all the same leathers,” he says. “You get the exact same boot.”

In the front office of the Dehner building sits the lineup of Dehner products past and present. Here, longtime company everywoman Mary Rushing provides the tour. In her 18 years here, she has run done everything from finishing boots to running the shipping department and front office.

Today she gives a detailed, inside-the-craft, foots-on tour of a dozen or so of Dehner’s most historic artifacts. The black and white NASA boots worn in space by astronauts such as John Glenn are, back here on earth, just about the coolest things ever.

“I’m pretty proud to be a part of all this,” Rushing says. “It’s a unique company with a great history that stands for quality. You can feel like you’re doing something pretty cool here.”

The trick moving forward, Ketzler says, will be to stay true to the company’s history while trying to grow—carefully—in a world that “may not appreciate what we do as much as in the past.

“This company has a 130-year history of making a superb product,” he adds. “I’m just not going to be the guy who destroys that kind of legacy.”

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