April 06, 2020

Building Simply Business in Smyrna’s Amish community draws customers with fine craftsmanship

When autumn comes to Aroostook County, it’s hard not to stare at the rolling hills all decked out in crimson, tangerine and gold. But once you hit Smyrna, it’s safer for everyone if you keep your eyes on the road.

A yellow DOT sign on Route 2 that reads “Horse-Drawn Buggy, 2 mi.” tends to slow drivers down. And the ones who make a wrong turn inevitably end up in Morrill and pull up to the garage on the corner.

“Most people don’t even get out of the car,” said a man who had been tinkering with a potato truck. “They just roll down their windows and I say, ‘three miles, on your left.'”

You see, most people aren’t here for the foliage. They’re here for the Amish.

More specifically, they’re here to visit Pioneer Place, an old-fashioned general store that sells everything from organic meats and fresh cheeses to cast-iron pans and percolators. Some come for the metal roofing and siding available at Kauffman Metals. For the handy or the house-proud, the allure is Sturdi-Bilt, which manufactures wooden sheds, minibarns, camps and playhouses.

“We find most of our customers like the simplicity,” said Sturdi-Bilt’s founder, Ervin Hochstetler, 42. “They just like the real simplicity of the wood.”

Ervin and his wife, Esther, moved to Smyrna from Tennessee in 1997, a year after the initial Amish community arrived in town. Esther spends most of her time tending to the house, their expansive organic garden, and the younger of their 10 children. The two oldest girls, who have graduated from the community school, help out.

Ervin’s father was a carpenter, and Ervin followed in his footsteps by building minibarns in Tennessee. When he learned that the Maine settlement – made up of families from the Tennessee Amish community where the Hochstetlers were members – needed a business to provide work for its members, Sturdi-Bilt seemed like a good fit.

“There’s no problem finding work here, but our goal is to provide income right here,” he explained. “We don’t have any vehicles, so it’s hard for us to go long distances. And most of us have families, so we try to have family-oriented businesses.”

The Amish culture and faith stress simplicity, family and self-sufficiency. Though many other settlements in the country have embraced such conveniences as tractors and motorized lawn mowers, that is not the case in Smyrna.

Sturdi-Bilt does have a phone to take orders, and there is a gas-powered air compressor in the workshop, so employees can use pneumatic tools. That’s it. No forklifts, no tractors and – most important – no cars or trucks. They hire subcontractors to deliver their sheds.

“We noticed that in Amish communities where they use self-propelled machinery, a large percentage of young people grew up and left the community,” Hochstetler said, standing before a large metal warehouse where three minibarns stood in varying degrees of completion. “By not having more defined lines, that makes the distinction more vague – ‘If I can drive a tractor down the road at full speed, why can’t I drive a car?'”

On a recent morning, Hochstetler’s 16-year-old son, Joas, wasn’t thinking about cars. He was focused on putting the finishing touches on a playhouse while three of his younger siblings looked on.

“Joas, he’s my right-hand man,” Ervin said.

In a business this busy, Ervin needs a right-hand man. Sturdi-Bilt’s production schedule is already booked through the third week of January for one simple reason: The product sells itself.

Ned Jennings, who owns Granville Lumber, said his customers have been “very happy with the quality and the price” of Sturdi-Bilt sheds. He has carried two basic styles for the last five or six years, and he has been impressed with the components, craftsmanship and durability.

“There’s a lot of storage sheds out there that are very inferior to this particular model,” Jennings said. “There are other sheds on the market I think are comparable in quality, but not competitive in price.”

Sturdi-Bilt’s standard wooden structures range in price from $795 to $2,795, and options add anywhere from $15 to $475 to the total. There are two basic roof styles: gable and gambrel, and a dozen standard sizes, from 8 by 8 feet to 12 by 32. From there, customers can tailor their structure to meet their needs – skylights or windows for lighting, metal or shingled roofs, vents, ramps and – for the camps – porches.

“We try to just stay with a standard design, but we will customize some,” Ervin said.

The company recently added another, similar style because Ervin was able to order a bunch of rafters and truss parts at a discount, and when the employees started tinkering with different designs, they really liked one of the resulting minibarns.

It takes the builders anywhere from a day to a week to build a shed, cabin or playhouse, and Ervin inspects each one from top to bottom before they leave the workshop.

“We’ve discovered ways to speed up production, but we always come back to this: We don’t want to be a factory,” Ervin said. “We just want to make our barns in a relaxed, enjoyable …”

“Safe!” Esther exclaimed.

Ervin smiled.

“Yes – safe – environment.”

Sturdi-Bilt is located at 2587 Route 2 in Smyrna. For information, call 757-7877.

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