Bucking Tradition: Small Businesses Turn Profitable
September 14, 2011 • 31,132 views
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The throng of red and grey refused to disperse even as I angrily pedaled up the hillside, circling the stadium and several hotdog vendors. To my left stood a man, drenched in visible sweat, crying, “Buckeye necklaces! Get your buckeye necklaces! Three for ten dollars,” indicating the dark, globular necklaces suspended from his sun-burned forearm. Ignoring his pleas, I continued my plight—one California girl in a blue sundress pitted against thousands of Ohio State University football fans.
Though the humidity puts a damper (figuratively) on most outdoor activities during the summer, one cannot fault OhioStatefor its lack of school spirit. The school spans across several miles in Columbus, Ohio and boasts 64,077 attending students (www.osu.edu,) yet the orange mass that was the football fans, looked to me like a conglomeration of people of all ages. Never before had I experienced such fervor, such cult-like devotion as state residents and alumni display for their football teams, and for their mascot, the easily-recognizable Brutus Buckeye. Kids, grandmothers, distant relatives—even complete strangers have a shared connection over their favorite team.
As the state tree of Ohio, and the origin for its state nickname (“The Buckeye State”), the buckeye has become so popular that several vendors nearby the college have taken up making necklaces, key chains, and even Christmas wreaths using the poisonous nuts of the tree. I had the opportunity of speaking with a most unlikely source of labor for the popular spirit gear—an elderly father-daughter duo who make the necklaces to sell at local sporting events. Their modest, but comfortable home was littered with boxes of “ripened” buckeyes, multi-color beads, and leather cords.
“I’d say that at least thirty to forty percent of that crowd wears the necklaces,” estimates daughter Sherrie Gutherie, shoving three or four boxes aside in order to find room on the sofa. Few fans realize the tremendous amount of work that goes into making an individual necklace as they are nearly impossible to manufacture. However, with such a profit they turn at football games, they are quickly becoming the staple for Ohio souvenirs.
Sherrie, who works on gathering materials for the project, manually goes and picks the poisonous nuts of buckeye trees, careful to shell them only when they are properly ripened. Otherwise, the nuts may rot or be too soft for necklace material. Then, they must be drilled in order to string on a necklace with the Ohio State colored beads.
The presence of squirrels provides another nemesis to the project: capable of ruining an entire tree before picking, squirrels are the only creatures to which the buckeyes are not poisonous. In fact, I saw several outside, surreptitiously sneaking buckeyes from an unattended box, and darting away lest they be seen from the window.
“Daddy makes all the necklaces,” prompted Sherrie to her father. Across the room sat 92-year-old Bill Welch, happily stringing beads onto a simple, hemp cord. He grinned mischievously, and began chatting about his adeptness in using his new e-mail account. Later, when I whipped out my iphone for a quick photo, he marveled at all the features, exclaiming “I’ll be darned!” I can only pray to be half as spry when I reach that age.
Because of all the labor that goes into each necklace, an individual article can turn a profit of ten dollars per necklace. Members of the family joked that Christmases began getting a lot better after the grandparents began their business. But Sherrie has actually taken the necklaces a step further by developing buckeye Christmas wreaths, Christmas trees, and other house decorations. The largest wreath, by Sherrie’s estimation, is three by four feet, decorated with bows, pinecones, and over five hundred buckeyes. “Well, yeah, it’s bigger than the television,” she decides simply. Such items could have a tremendous appeal to people across the country, as Ohio State possesses a large pool of alumni.
Although the wreaths and Christmas trees have had difficulty taking off due to low advertisement, Sherrie seemed to craft things just for the sheer enjoyment. She even ventured to show us an enormous necklace collection that my mother and I could hardly keep away from. These did not feature buckeyes, but rather ornate beads, shells, and pendants, with turquoise, green, and purple details. Many had matching necklaces and earrings. Awed by such an impressive collection, my mother offered to pay for a few, but she would not hear of it.
Back in the living room, a few finished buckeye necklaces rested, poised for sale at the next Saturday’s game, where Sherrie’s son worked as a vendor. Few products would be better suited for a family business than a family hobby—that is, proudly supporting their hometown.