A keen eye and courageous
spirit are important in both art
and entrepreneurship for one
woodworking couple.


Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

This story begins with an ending. Stan and Sue Jennings went to work in the mines of Preston County one cold day in December 1984 when they discovered all employees had been laid off. The couple was forced to find creative ways to bring in extra money in order to make ends meet—like making trinkets from wood scraps to sell. “We didn’t intend to be business owners,” Sue says. “We just wanted to pay a few bills.” But Stan and Sue realized they enjoy working with wood, so they took their products on the road to exhibit for craft shows. Whether or not they planned it, a business had begun. Neither of them has any formal education in business, but observation and experimentation have led them to a comfortable, rewarding level of success.

wooden spoon“I study everything,” Sue says. “I get a lot of inspiration by seeing how other people do things. It gives me an advantage, to be exposed to a lot of like-minded people with a great sense of creativity.” For example, when the business started out as Allegheny Harvest in 1990, they made a variety of items from West Virginia hardwoods. But in observing other successful artists, they realized specialization was paramount. “You have to pick a specific art form and become very good at it. If you don’t, everything you do will be fractured,” Sue says. Far and away, their kitchen utensils were the best-selling objects. So they changed their focus and their name—treenware is an old Saxon word for wooden utensils related to food preparation.

Some lessons came from observation, but some simply came from experience. The couple asked for help when they needed it, and they relied on common sense and trial and error to find what worked for them. They discovered they complement each other as business partners. Stan handles logistics, keeping everything organized
and driving production. Sue keeps the artistic side of the business thriving with her versatile approach. But they still had some dynamics to tweak, figuring out how much time to spend on self-promotion
and traveling, administrative duties, and hands-on creating. Sue could learn to process payroll, for example, but if she
paid a minimal fee for a payroll service to handle it and spent those three or four hours creating new works to sell instead, would she make more money? Turns out, she could—but only if she actually spent that time doing work. “An artist’s biggest asset is their dedication and self-discipline,” she says. “There’s so much taking you away from creating. But as an artist, you need to be working on your product as much as possible. Your time
is so valuable.”

Which is why the couple chooses to control their market. “We reached a place where we were close to overstretching ourselves,” Sue says. “We had 12 employees at the time and an out-of-control demand for product.” They considered going into debt to create a more mechanized workshop—the market was there, and they knew they could make it. But Stan and Sue are both happiest when they’re working with wood, and that move would require a lot more of the business aspect than the hands-on work they loved. “We said no. We changed our market from retail shows to wholesale,” Sue says.

This allows the couple to spend their days on the 45-acre complex they call both home and work in Preston County. They still juggle many roles—artists, business owners, distribution managers, and most recently, tour guides. Visitors are free to stop by during business hours to get a glimpse of life in a successful studio. It’s become one of Sue’s favorite responsibilities. “We get to share our work and how we make it, but we also get to share our life. Our shop is in our backyard,” she says. “We take a piece of them with us each time, and when we get back to work, we still have that. It keeps me inspired.”

 

Allegheny Treenware,
1922 South Evansville Pike, Thornton, WV 26440,
304.892.5008, alleghenytreenware.com

Written by Miriah Hamrick
Photographed by Katie Hanlon