Essex Industries turns out lightweight canoes, prideful workers
By Tim Rowland
Adirondack canoe aficionados, who collect boats as ants collect crumbs, at some point in their paddling adventures may have been exposed to beautiful, handcrafted components made at an Adirondack plant they have probably never heard of.
Lacking an iconic name like Hornbeck, Wenonah or Old Town, Essex Industries operates anonymously amid the rusting ironworks of Mineville not far from the shores of Lake Champlain.
Within the walls of a former Catholic school building, Essex has for decades churned out the good, old-fashioned wooden stuff—seats, yokes, gunwales—that accent the space-age materials that go into modern canoe hulls.
Its parent company, Mountain Lake Services, is the largest employer in Essex County, and Essex Industries is among the county’s largest manufacturers, with annual sales of canoe parts exceeding $1 million. (Essex Industries also produces furniture, picnic tables, camp stools and other wooden products.)
Many more people are about to become familiar with Essex Industries now, after it merged this spring with Chad Smith’s Adirondack Canoe Co. to produce a line of elite lightweight boats to rival any on the market.
All of the above is well and good with the Essex Industries workforce, but it is also beside the point. The men and women with developmental disabilities who mill the lumber, run the machines, craft the products and pack the shipping crates take pride in the work in ways that the non-disabled can’t. Many are doing something they have at some point in their lives been told couldn’t be done: They are showing up for a job, producing a desirable product and earning a paycheck—supporting themselves.
It is not a routine they take for granted, nor are they shy about expressing how happy it makes them to be a valued part of the community in which they live. That happiness invariably rubs off on the people they work alongside. “They make it impossible to have a bad day,” said John Gereau, operations and marketing director at Essex Industries. “And I’ll put our quality up against anyone’s.” Of the 65 employees at the shop, 35 are people with disabilities, he said.
Employees able to do more can earn more than the minimum wage; those who can do less are paid by the piece, which at day’s end they are proud to report. Most live with housing assistance provided by Mountain Lake Services, a private, not-for-profit chapter of NYSARC, a state-regulated organization founded by family members of people with developmental disabilities.
Mountain Lake provides the services they need, be they a little or a lot, with programs that include early intervention, therapy and family support. Along with wooden products, participants make and sell baskets and locally sourced food at the Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store in downtown Port Henry, which opened in 2019 after the community lost its supermarket. They also operate Mountain Lake Consignment and Engraving, a clothing and arts shop where participants gain retail experience. The store serves as well as a retail outlet for Essex Industries products.
Employees put on fashion shows, show people how to weave baskets and develop their own lines of apple sauce, cider and soups. “They’re running their own little businesses, really,” said Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services.
Essex Industries sells their products in the Adirondacks and around the world. As she packed a shipment of folding camp stools bound for Tokyo, employee Jessica Meehan said Mountain Lake has provided a family atmosphere where she felt comfortable learning a job, and has helped her deal with her coping issues and given her confidence about her ability to make her way in the world.
“I just think it’s neat how I’ve grown at Essex Industries,” she said. Now she has greater goals, like going back to school for a GED and maybe one day working with children.
Essex Industries takes to the next level other ARC programs in and around the Adirondacks that prepare people with disabilities to enter the workforce, by, for example, teaching job interview skills and presenting opportunities for arts and crafts production or work in janitorial services.
Unlike most commercial enterprises though, Essex Industries does not focus on employee retention. Just the opposite. The ideal is to build skills and confidence to the point where Mountain Lake participants can assimilate into the broader workforce. That’s good for them, good for businesses seeking help and, ARC partisans are fond of saying, good for all to see how fortunate they are to live in a community with persons with developmental disabilities.
It has been fortunate for Chad Smith as well. He founded Adirondack Canoe Co. 20 years ago. His ultralight boats add a little weight and rigidity to the floor, in contrast to the lightest boats on the market. When Essex Industries called in search of a partner, Smith said the timing was good.
His regimen that produced 80 boats a year left him little personal and planning time and limited the models he could produce. With Essex Industries resources, he’ll have more opportunity to design and be with family with the gratification that comes with teaching employees to do something they never thought possible.
“Training is a big part of the job, and they’re happy to learn,” Smith said. “It can be frustrating at first, but you develop a love for it.”
The boats begin as a fiberglass mold, into which is tucked a sheet of Kevlar or carbon-fiber fabric. A hardener is added to a pail of liquid petroleum-based resin, which must be briskly and expertly brushed over the fabric before it is no longer pliable. After the material has hardened overnight, it’s popped from the mold and fitted with its wooden parts.
Gereau said the idea of canoe production has been percolating for some time. And it made sense to go with an established name rather than starting from scratch.
“Adirondack Canoe is well-known in the industry,” Gereau said. “Chad was the missing piece of the puzzle—he’s fabulous to watch.”
For the employees, said Mudge, there is a meaningful difference between making parts of a boat and making a boat. Parts are theoretical, while a finished product adds a level of understanding and accomplishment. “Some of them didn’t see (the components) as part of something greater,” Mudge said. “Now they clap when a canoe goes out the door. It’s nice they can see the value of the boat and say, ‘I was part of that.’” The company makes everything but the hull.
Many employees are outdoors aficionados who enjoy paddling and fishing as part of Mountain Lake Services’ recreation program. Two are 46ers. “They’re very engaged in the Adirondacks,” Mudge said.
Public perception tends to focus on disabilities without understanding that those who are lacking in one area often have skills that, without cultivation, would go unnoticed. “They may have deficits, but they have abilities that outshine those deficits,” Mudge said. “We teach them to overcome those deficits.”
Stigmas do remain, but as Essex County residents encounter people with developmental disabilities—and see them succeeding at their jobs—they become more comfortable with the association. “Our group is very much a part of the fabric of the community,” Mudge said.
Mountain Lake Services believes boat building will help close the divide. Its employees have confidence with machinery and technology, including computer-controlled routers and complex sanders.
Essex Industries is also exploring the next generation of canoe components, a necessary transition brought on by the emerald ash borer. “Ash is the best recreational wood because it holds up so well in the elements,” Gereau said. But woodworkers know its days are limited, as the borer inevitably marches across the land.
“Right now, there’s a glut on the market because people are cutting their ash trees” as a pre-emptive strike against the bugs’ advance, Gereau said. “But in the future, I don’t know what we’ll do—and it won’t be long.”
In the meantime, business is good. Lightweight boats are in high demand, with waiting lists of weeks or months. Gereau said the goal of Essex Industries is to increase production to 100 boats the first year, and 500 boats after five years. From one line of four boats, he said plans are to grow to four lines of canoes with different performance qualities, for a total of 16 models. The next venture is likely to be paddles.
As the product line swells, so does the employees’ satisfaction. “It makes them proud to be part of something like this. They’re learning skills and gaining confidence, and they also benefit from the socialization. The mission is to provide support for people with disabilities so that they can live their very best lives.”– Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services