By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Lewistown, Montana – In the 30 some years that Tammy Eckhardt worked as a police officer and criminal investigator, it was essential to find solace from the disheartening aspects of her job. She did this by sitting quietly and quilting. And, through the long Montana winters, she was in good company.
“We’re very rural here,” she says. “Most women who do quilting around here are rancher ladies. The winters here are slow, and the women who quilt do the bulk of their quilting in that season.”
The rest of the year, she says, they often search for the best fabrics, a critical element to the quilting hobby, which is not lost on Eckhardt.
For a decade or so, she talked with her husband, Joe, about her wish to someday open and run her own quilt shop. The idea took shape, in January 2015 as she recuperated from having her wisdom teeth pulled, and had time to reflect on her dream. It occurred to her again as she prayed and read her Bible during the early morning of an icy February day that same year.
The dream of opening a quilt shop didn’t seem so far-fetched to Eckhardt. She reasoned that in Montana, residents are used to driving long distances, and that women who are skilled and dedicated quilters would travel to Lewistown if they knew a quality quilt shop was there.
“When I finished praying I had time before I had to get ready for work, so I decided to read an article in the church magazine ‘Vital,’” she recalls. “At the top of the page was a picture of a quilt shop. The article never once mentioned a quilt shop or why the photo was there. But the very last paragraph in the article said, ‘Sometimes you have to do what is right, not what is easy.’”
These ideas remained vague until she participated in a workshop called Recharge Our Community (ROC). Part of the Rural Community Assistance Corporation’s (RCAC’s) Building Rural Economies (BRE) program, ROC workshops increase local entrepreneurship and jobs in rural communities and build residents’ capacity to network, plan and implement economic development. BRE helps rural residents develop catalytic projects that seed additional investments. According to Pam Higgins, RCAC rural planning and capacity building manager, the Lewistown participants came from every part of the community.
“Snowy Mountain Development, RCAC’s community partner, did an extensive job in outreach and recruitment,” said Higgins, adding that the Lewistown cohort was the first among 15 communities around the rural West currently participating in BRE training. “The first session had 68 attendees, and 62 participants graduated from the BRE Recharge Our Community training.”
One of those graduates was Eckhardt.
“In the Recharge Our Community workshop, I learned that starting a business is not just about pursuing what you want to do,” Eckhardt said. “It’s also about looking at your community and what it needs and wants. We completed several questionnaires in discussing what Lewistown was lacking, and we put these on social media and asked others for their opinions. Before the workshop, I had the passion but I didn’t have the right tools to make it happen.”
A Facebook page grew out of those survey questions, Eckhardt said, and Lewistown eventually branded itself as the Heart of Montana. Workshop participants also began several civic projects, including an outdoor stage called the Creekside Pavilion that will host summer concerts and Shakespearian plays. Another business, Big Spring Brewing, has also taken off—“It’s packed every single night,” Eckhardt says.
In the recruitment process, RCAC trainers applied the WealthWorks “Eight Forms of Capital,” explained Higgins. WealthWorks is an approach to local and regional economic development that explores community assets and how they can meet market demands. It aims to expand a region’s economic prosperity and self-reliance, strengthening existing and emerging sectors to increase individual and community wealth.
In Lewistown, explained Higgins, participants considered individual, financial, political, intellectual, social, natural and cultural capitals and also value chains. WealthWorks regional hubs have developed value chains such as agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, labor, downtown revitalization and the energy sector and include public sector entities, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs, colleges, universities, consumer groups and individuals.
“The finance value chain re-started the Lewistown Port Authority to work with new business,” she said. “Tourism has worked to develop tourism maps and promotions for Lewistown. The youth engagement value chain has developed the Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion.
“Lewistown,” she continued, “has hired a community coordinator, which RCAC partially funds. The community coordinator has continued to use the RCAC economic development tools to help local entrepreneurs and to continue the work of the value chains.”
According to Amity Rembold, RCAC rural development specialist for economic development through the BRE, several businesses launched and 46 jobs were created, including: two positions for Trinity Construction; five for Sew Pieceful; two for Benchmark Masonry; and 37 for the Central Feed Grilling Company.
Meanwhile, Eckhardt continued to think more concretely about her own plans for a quilting store. In 2016, she finally opened the doors to the cleverly named “Sew Pieceful” along Lewistown’s Main Street. But, she learned more about entrepreneurship and how to grow her business in the two years since then.
“Because of the training, I thought more carefully about the customers,” she says. “In the past two years, I’ve been able to expand my business because of such incredible customer support.”
Her customers clearly recognize her consideration and service too.
“We are so lucky to have such a quaint quilt shop in our little town,” said Shauna Silberhorn, who lives in Lewistown. “Sew Pieceful feels like home the minute you walk in the door. The choice of sewing machines, fabrics, patterns and notions is amazing. If the shop doesn’t have what you’re looking for they will do their best to find it for you. Tammy and her girls do a great job helping a struggling quilter pick out just the right fabrics for their next project. The shop hosts an array of classes for the beginner quilter to the most advanced quilter. Tammy always says she’s the lucky one but I feel her customers are the lucky ones.”
With such support, Eckhardt recently followed through on her expansion plans. This included adding a 12-foot long machine called a Handi Quilter Longarm, which is used to stitch together quilt tops. Eckhardt also added on another six small rooms to the 2,200 square-foot store where she could teach quilting. Alongside fabrics and sewing machines, she also now sells completed quilted products.
“I can now pay an employee to be there every single day,” she says, noting that she has five part-time employees, who also receive high praise from customers.
“The main reason that Lewistown Sew Pieceful is my go-to shop is the staff,” said Roxann Miller, a Sew Pieceful customer. “Tammy, Kathy and Carla are the best. They have actually become treasured friends.”
The average age among Eckhardt’s customers is 65, but she has noticed a surge in younger women coming to the craft. Moreover, she has observed in practice what she had considered in theory—that a quilter will often travel a ways to find good fabric.
“I have one customer from upstate New York who has visited me three times,” Eckhardt says. “She came when I opened the store, she came last year and this year, too!”
Even further afield is a loyal customer from Denmark.
“The first time she came into the store, she just happened to be in town staying at a B&B,” she says. “Someone told her about a quilt shop opening and she showed up. She’s been back several times.”
They come, she says, because Sew Pieceful is a warm and inviting place, where the fabrics provide kaleidoscopic vibrancy. Displays include attractively upholstered chairs and pillows, as well as color schemes that even the most advanced quilters may not have considered.
“As a quilter, I love their selection of fabric and patterns,” Miller said. “I can generally find everything that I need and, not to mention, some that I just desire!”
All photos were taken by Dustin Love, RCAC publications & graphic design specialist.
(Feature photo: Tammy Eckhardt and one of her employees working behind the counter at Sew Pieceful.)