Approximately 20 years ago James Steffen and his wife, Lorraine, were making pine bough wreaths for the holiday season, just as they had for years. Then Jim felt inspired by the bright white bark of the paper birch trunks and the glossy brown, almost black color of their twigs.
“It’s a very beautiful wood,” he said.
Jim gathered a bundle of brush, cut it to about 18 inches and clamped it into a wreath ring to make something he had never before heard of, a birch brush wreath. He soon found they would sell.
“When I first started out it was phenomenal, and it still is, in a way, because I’m real unique and there is no one else that makes wreaths and birch bark furniture like this,” Jim said.
Since then Jim, Lorraine and their five children, who live in Backus, have been making birch décor. In that time the business has changed. Their production methods have improved, their product line has increased and their business model has grown.
In the past Trailside Birch Products was little more than a family making wreaths in the garage; some seasons it was even advantageous to bring their wreath making tables into the freezing cold woods rather than hauling the brush home.
Today, the use of better equipment and facilities has changed the business, but just a bit.
“We get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, go out to the woods and do some logging and get select pieces for furniture and frames. We use all the brush that’s on the trees, for wreaths,” Jim said. “We get all that out of the woods and bring it home. Then we have a heated pole barn where we make it all.”
Many stores in the area have carried these products, including Fifth Avenue Furniture, Pine Peaks in Crosslake, I Saw it in Minnesota in Princeton, The Log Shop in Pequot Lakes, Northern Exposure and Walker Floral in Walker, and others. But Jim’s products aren’t only sold locally.
Once or twice a month the Steffens load a van and trailer with product destined for Madison, Wis.; Columbus, Ohio; Valley Forge, Pa.; or some other distant city. There Jim, and sometimes his sons, display wreaths and furniture for purchase by retail shops.
This fall Jim decided it was time to open a retail location. Jim opened shop on Aug. 1 at 4407 Main St. in Pequot Lakes, in the building that once housed Timeless Design Builders and Seriously Fun Marketing. Before that Gabby’s and Sweet Pea Floral used the building.
Trailside Birch Products has too many products to list, but they include birch brush wreaths, frames with birch bark veneer, colorful ornamental birdhouses, birch log tables and even a birch log futon. Jim even offers custom work.
Though Trailside Birch Products has always been exclusively a family business, Jim’s new store also houses products consigned to him by friends. The items include handmade soap, wooden games, lamps made from rocks from the North Shore and award-winning fish decoys carved by Jim’s twin brother, Dean.
The Trailside Birch Products store hasn’t been open long enough to predict how well it will do, but Jim has good expectations. January has always been his best month for selling his items wholesale. As for retail, Jim is just waiting for the weather to warm up.
“I think summer’s going to be really good,” he said. “We’re just starting in retail and I think it will really pick up and be busier.”