Heading Around the Next Bend

When Glenn and I started Sweetgrass in 2006, it was meant to be a modest venture intended to do our part in keeping the tradition of bamboo rod making alive and well in Twin Bridges. Our goals were simple. We wanted to craft a very nice rod and offer it for a very reasonable price. We also desired to provide impeccable service to our clients while educating the general public to the joys of fishing with bamboo.

It didn’t take long, however, to realize that a modification of this original business plan was in order. Within months of our inception we received so many orders of support from dedicated anglers around the world that it necessitated hiring a few capable individuals to help accomplish our goal. But the orders kept on coming, even through the difficult economic times of the past five years. During that period we moved three times until we finally settled into a very fine facility that was built for us on Main Street by our friend Bill White. And thanks to the help of several employees we ultimately delivered to everyone who stood by us patiently waiting over the years the rod that it was our honor to have built for each of them. During that time frame we also realized that our company had transformed into a limited custom production shop much like some of the high-end production shops of a bygone era. Again we saw this as an opportunity to keep that tradition alive as well.

It has been my privilege to work with Glenn Brackett for 30 years. Beyond being the master craftsman that he is widely known to be, more importantly, Glenn is the best friend anyone could have. For the past eight years together we worked extreme hours to establish a company of which we both can be proud. Perhaps the real story though is that throughout this entire period we both endured extreme emotional hardships within each of our lives, but still we persevered in our shared goal.

Personally every day spent with Sweetgrass was done under the shadow of my wife’s illness and eventual death. Debra was diagnosed with ALS in 2006. She passed away in 2009. Her dying hope was that I had something to do after she died, and she saw Sweetgrass as my salvation. To honor her life I did the best I could to fulfill her wish for me. Thanks to Glenn, his wife Chris, my friends at Sweetgrass and in Twin Bridges along with fellow anglers and clients from around the world, I was able to move on- but not without their support.

Since Sweetgrass Rods is now on solid ground with a bright future, the time has come for me to look forward and reconnect with life. I will still be involved in many ways with the company, but my time at the bench will be limited and yet to be defined. I will be around doing Sweetgrass things here and there. Thank you to everyone, and I hope to see you all along the way.

 

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Fading Away

We do not start from the plant, from the technical activity of man, but from man himself…. In a Community of Work, accent is not on acquiring together but on working together for a collective and personal fulfillment.

The Sane Society
Eric Fromm


Where the memories once hung, bare walls stared back, bewildered and baffled by the emptiness that now filled the room long known in the world of bamboo as a shrine. Somehow our spirits once mingled among the swirling electrons responsible for the energy that defined the worn down old building, but the essence within the machine filled space now mourned the dying embers of bygone years. A good portion of our lives had been spent there. And though the company considered us just employees, we regarded ourselves as guardians of the flame, touch bearers of a grail that was to be honorably handed down to the next generation like it had been for the past three-quarters of a century. This craft of historical proportions was our legacy to protect, and the way we saw it, it was our duty to pass on as well.

For us, what we did wasn't just a job. It was a labor of devotion: a mission, a quest, a passion, a love affair. After all, we were creating an object that was more than just a tool used for fly fishing. What we built possessed qualities that extended far beyond the realm of flesh and blood - of this we were convinced. This artful object constructed of reconstituted grass was a sort of talisman that, when used on a perfect day for all the right reasons, would conjure brief and fleeting moments of lasting significance. This was what we believed, and no matter what some might think, that was all that really counted.

"Everyone works with the idea of doing the best possible job and a time limit is not put on doing it. There are no fixed working days or hours that anyone has to adhere to. If one of the trout streams beckons they are free to go. This provides us with the artistic freedom and inspiration we need to accomplish what we feel is outstanding work…. We refuse to compromise." Years before Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard established his extremely successful company based upon similar principles, Tom Morgan and Glenn Brackett included these words in the 1979 company catalog. When Chouinard's philosophy blurred the line between work and play, fostering creativity, loyalty, and a sense of belonging among his employees, it led to a content workplace and a business that has prospered over the years. It just makes sense, he figured, that a company producing outdoor goods should provide the opportunity for its workers to partake in outdoor activities. Tom and Glenn already had this vision, and it was an essential ingredient to be incorporated into their business as it expanded into the future. For those of us at the bamboo shop, we lived by this credo for over two decades.

Not perfect by any means, the four of us were modern day misfits, non-conformists in an age when blind faith acceptance of fuzzy facts had become the norm. Opinionated, outspoken, and irreverent, gentle, kind and compassionate, our attributes were not compatible with the bland concept of what a new-age employee should be. Even our appearance projected an unresolvable enigma to those consumed by the straight-laced black and white rules of righteousness and the my-way-or-the-highway dogma of the almighty corporate deity.

Although many acknowledge a corporation’s autonomous right to do whatever it takes to accomplish arbitrary goals set by those in charge, where is it written that this has to be the case. Outsourcing, downsizing, and devaluing the human effort has become industry standard since the turn of the 21st century. By not cultivating the fulfillment factor of its employees, however, corporations seem intent on selling out their most precious resources for short-term gains at the expense of long-term well-being.

A 2006 poll suggested that what eighty percent of today’s workforce want more than better compensation is greater respect and appreciation for what they do in the workplace. Self-serving CEOs seem incapable of acknowledging intangible assests as important, yet understanding this one aspect of human dignity could be the secret ingredient behind developing a truly successful company. Like Chouinard’s Patagonia, it would seem that the fly fishing industry would lend itself perfectly to a similar strategy. But unfortunately many of these companies throughout the past fifteen years have fallen into the wrong hands - vision-less, soul-less, and oblivious to the benefits of nurturing the human spirit.

At the bamboo shop we were throwback individualists, but we were also devoted to the company and for what it once stood for. No one could refute our intention in that regard. But what happened, they say, was just business. Never mind that what we did and how we did it wasn't broken; it was just not tolerable. Sure, we were profitable, but could we keep up with growth projections. How many more rods could we build before a line was crossed?

For us, this was a conundrum. It was like asking the distillers of twelve-year old single malt to knock a few years off the process. We may have been able to comply, but the compromise was not worth the price. It would have cost our souls. Making a rod on a time clock is not the same as making a rod without looking at the time. There is a distinction, and to pass on that distinction would take some training, contemplation, soul-searching and commitment to ideals foreign to the bottom line society that we have become. Freedom is only as good as the courage it takes to stand up for what one believes. In the end, standing up for our idealism was all that we had left.

The final days were painful. They were only made bearable by the support and encouragement of so many friends. The burden of our decision challenged our obligation to the legacy that was entrusted to us, but that responsibility was snatched from our grasp and ultimately disregarded as unimportant. For Glenn thirty-three years of undying commitment to a craft he cherished and a company that he once owned burned like a laser through his entire being. We all shared his suffering. This was not a scenario that any of us ever envisioned, yet the stark reality stifled all ability to make sense of our fate. It was our honor to have built one of the finest bamboo rods ever made. But as the light of our careers was fading away, we realized that the sole accountability of not passing this tradition on with the integrity it deserved would forever be our burden to bear.

When the lights turned off, the shop was still. So many years had come down to this. There soon would be new faces, hopeful and willing to breathe fresh life into an old way of doing things. On that day, though, no one was there to say goodbye. As the door closed on our eighty years, all we had was the building, our old friend, as it whispered farewell upon our departure. The keys were left behind. The door latched for the very last time.

The next day, I was told, the locks were changed.

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Sweetgrass Rods ~~ P.O. Box 415 ~~ 501 North Main Street ~~ Twin Bridges, Montana 59754
406.684.5440 ~~ booboys@3rivers.net

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