Back-to-the-landers built a groovy lifestyle and business
SALISBURY — What a long, strange trip it’s been.
And it’s not over for erstwhile back-to-the-landers Merle and Kathryn Schloff of Salisbury. After more than three decades of building a successful woodworking business and store from scratch, the couple is ready to rediscover in retirement the sense of wanderlust that brought them to Vermont in the early 1970s.
Their backyard mill has stopped cranking out a steady supply of quality wooden beds, nightstands, chairs and other furniture. They’ve parted ways with their store, The Vermont Home at 1193 Route 7 in Salisbury, which will begin a new chapter as “Interior Home Solutions” under new owner (and longtime employee) Jayne Fjeld.
A long, fruitful run, with no regrets.
“Our hopes worked out,” Merle said during a recent interview. “This business is a successful validation of the back-to-the-land movement. It’s one of the many businesses that worked out and made it. We got to be in the furniture industry, but there were many homebuilders, cabinetmakers, restaurateurs and farmers. We’re one of the successful examples.”
Schloff originally hails from Minnesota, where ice hockey is king — unless your name is Merle Schloff. He was all about football, and made a name for himself as a defensive lineman on his high school team. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall reinforced by better than 225 pounds of mostly muscle, Schloff manhandled opponents. His exploits drew scouts from the University of Nebraska, which offered him a scholarship that he quickly accepted. He entered the school in the fall of 1969.
Nebraska at the time was a perennial powerhouse and contender for the national title. But ultimately, Merle’s disdain for the Vietnam War led to him to punting his scholarship in 1971.
“I fell out of favor with the coaches after they told me to not ‘embarrass’ the team by identifying with any of the war protesters,” Schloff said. “I didn’t want to be told what to think, and I didn’t like being a pawn for a coach working on a $1 million salary.”
Merle remained at Nebraska for a while, becoming “the only hippie in the business school,” he said with a smile.
Away from the football field, Merle chased other goals — including a “fun loving, intelligent, fountain of compassion in a really cute package,” he said, referring to his now-wife of 51 years, Kathryn.
“I said to myself, ‘You’d be nuts to pass this by,’” he said.
The feeling was mutual. They became a couple.
“We were very much aligned,” Merle said. “We lived the same way, thought the same way. We were in harmony.”
It was during the winter of 1970-’71 that the Schloffs got their first taste of Vermont, during a road trip they and a friend took in a Volkswagen bug to Dartmouth College.
“It was just so beautiful — the villages and the mountains,” Kathryn said.
It was also a popular destination for their generation.
“It was a hippie happening place at the time,” Merle said. “There was this movement of people, back-to-the-landers, who were starting to congregate in Vermont.”
They resolved to move east upon graduating from Nebraska, and followed through in 1972. Kathy had earned her degree in education; Merle was six credits short of earning his business degree, but that could wait. Vermont couldn’t.
LIVING IN A COMMUNE
The couple didn’t have much of a plan beyond getting to the Green Mountain State. They ended up in the Bridgewater area, struck up a friendship with some like-minded folks, and laid down temporary roots at a local commune. The settlement consisted of around 30 people. Most members lived in a central log cabin, while a few couples had erected their own small homes.
Commune members shared chores, knowledge and good times — primarily at the old Bridgewater Tavern, where the transplanted flower children and homegrown loggers rubbed shoulders. The loggers warmed to the fresh-faced twenty-somethings, teaching them blue-collar skills to survive and thrive in hardscrabble surroundings, according to Merle, who absorbed woodworking skills that would become key to his eventual career.
A lot of the incoming hippies bought land at the end of old, class 3 roads. It was remote and untamed, but inexpensive. The old loggers provided the hippies with the essential tips and tutelage to homestead.
“These loggers had grown up there, before electricity. They could tell us how to build a log cabin, how to collect rainwater and make it usable, how to heat with firewood,” Merle said. “In those days, if you heated with firewood, you were poor; most people heated with oil.”
Merle and Kathy took a detour or two before finding their way.
They became so enamored of the Bridgewater Tavern they bought a stake in it, with two fellow commune couples. The tavern, Merle recalled, became “hippie central,” with a blend of locals of all ages.
“There were so many people in the tavern that some nights, when there was dancing, we would go down in the basement to see if the (floor) joists were going to bust,” Merle said.
The tavern gave Kathy and Merle a unique perspective on the sociology of Vermont during the early 1970s, and a front-row-seat for the back-to-land movement of which they were a part.
“You had on one side the ‘fun, whole-foods eating, peace and love’ hippies, but on the other end of the spectrum, you had the ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ hippies,” Merle said. “The ownership structure of the tavern had both groups represented.”
Merle and Kathy were of the former classification of hippies. A fissure eventually developed between the two groups, and it grew. That discord, financial pressure and the arrival of their first child, Pearl, led the Schloffs to end their stint as tavern co-owners in 1976.
“It was fun, but it didn’t make any money; we were just able to keep the tavern’s head above water,” Merle said. “And that was OK, until Kathy and I had a baby. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t about us anymore.”
Merle started working as a freelance carpenter. Kathy took a job at the Bridgewater School. They built their own cabin: the so-called “hippie house” that continued to be a unifying force for the family, which soon grew to three children.
Merle became more efficient with carpentry tools and machinery. He, in turn, began to impart his knowledge to the next generation, as a substitute industrial arts teacher at Woodstock High School.
“At first, being poor was a fad,” he said of the hippie movement. “But then, some of us became trapped in that poverty.”
Realizing the value of supplemental income from teaching, Merle went to UVM to get the last six credits needed for his bachelor’s degree in business. He landed a nighttime teaching job with the Association of General Contractors of Vermont.
“I put those checks in the top dresser drawer,” he said proudly.
ADDISON COUNTY MOVE
All the while, he continued to build homes for other people while Kathy took the lead on the home front. And the home front, in 1979, shifted to Salisbury. Kathy took a job as costume designer for Middlebury College’s theater department, while Merle took an industrial arts teaching job at the Patricia Hannaford Career Center.
“We always wanted to live in a college town,” Kathy said.
“We were in a place where we could make a living and be fed intellectually,” Merle added.
Merle’s career center stint was short-lived, however. The four walls of a classroom made him restless.
“I realized I didn’t want to talk about the game; I wanted to be in the game,” he explained. “I wanted to manufacture. Some people are built to make custom things; I was wired to mass-produce. I like seeing multiples of things.”
And that’s how the family’s woodworking business was born. They assembled their Salisbury mill during the early 1980s, in an historic blacksmith shop. He had the skill to shape the shell of that mill, but needed equipment to make it sing.
Rather than embark on a career in teaching, Kathy threw in with Merle.
“It was much better for raising a family,” she said. “Family was primo for me, and the business was secondary. If I had taught school and Merle was so intense building this business, it would have been such a crunch for raising the kids.”
RUNNING A BUSINESS
With little money to spend, Merle recalled sending letters 32 years ago to wholesale machinery dealers in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, then made appointments to visit them. He was fortunate to get a decent price on a large quantity of equipment from a Boston dealer.
“The rest of the machinery was brought in kind of as the dinosaur furniture mills around Vermont started to go extinct,” Merle said. “They were making product that no one wanted anymore; people didn’t want heavy, dark pine furniture anymore. As they would go out, you’d get these auction notices and you’d go and eventually get everything you needed.”
The family’s business plan has consisted of three main components: Bedroom and dining room furniture; wholesale contracts to furnish schools, nursing homes, hotels and other settings; and the retail store in Salisbury.
“One thing we learned from the recession in the early ’90s was that if you want three irons in the fire after a recession, you have to have five in the fire before the recession starts,” Merle said.
It’s a formula that helped the Schloffs weather five recessions. It certainly wasn’t easy.
“A business like this is like always paddling in white water,” Merle said. “If it’s just a class one or two rapid, it feels under control. When you’re going through the class 3s and 4s, you have to steer the boat through the rocks.”
He refers to 1983-1990 as the company’s “golden years,” driven in part by advantageous tax laws that allowed people to acquire, and write off, condominium expenses. He had a crew of eight workers in his mill, turning out large quantities of furniture destined for condos being built on Loon Mountain and other scenic locations.
Building up savings and maintaining at least one large contract were crucial in surviving the bad times. He cited the chain store “Bedrooms,” in Westchester, N.Y., as an example.
“The advantage of a large customer is they order big and they order regularly,” Merle said. “The problem is, once they know they’re that big and important to you, it’s always the same. They want more, quicker and cheaper.”
Garnet Hill in New Hampshire and the Orvis Co. in Manchester, Vt., were notable exceptions to the “more, cheaper, quicker” adage, according to Merle. The Schloffs made more than 1,000 beds and 400 nightstands for Garnet Hill.
“It was a wonderful thing,” he said. “We always knew that if we came to a lull, we could always produce parts ahead of time (for the Garnet Hill orders).”
Meanwhile, The Vermont Home — which they established in 1988 — gained a foothold in the local retail sector during the 1990s. People had been stopping by the mill, asking if they could buy direct. The Schloffs reasoned a retail outlet would fit the bill.
Kathy deftly steered Vermont Home throughout its history, with Jayne Fjeld her top assistant. It was a fun, informal environment that allowed Kathy to keep an eye on the three children at the same time. The store also became kid-friendly for shoppers and employees.
“We called them the ‘store babies,’” Kathy said with a smile.
Both husband and wife could have retired at 55, but they kept the mill and store going.
“This job became a lifestyle for us,” Merle said, adding, “You have to either run a mill, or it will run you.”
But after 33 years, the couple is ready for some more fun. Both are now just north of 70, and they’ve mapped out ski trips, motorcycling and other diversions. No more being nailed down to the mill and store. Merle can pick up his hammer when he feels like it.
Both Merle and Kathy gave shout-outs to the community, customers and employees for contributing to their success.
“Thank you, Addison County, for making this possible,” Merle said. “This business wouldn’t have succeeded if it weren’t for Jayne Fjeld staying with us for 33 years, and Dave Fowler working with me in the mill for almost 30 years.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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