Small tribal company brings art to final rest

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NEW TOWN, N.D. - A woodworking company, named for a community flooded as a part of the Pick Sloan Missouri River Dam Project, is carving a niche in an unusual market.

ElboWoods Works produces a rare and beautiful line of caskets tailored for tribal people.

It may be the first in the nation to produce the hand-crafted caskets with tribally quilted linings. The American Casket Retailers Association reports there are no other companies in the nation that produce caskets with tribal themes sewn into the lining.

While caskets are perhaps the company's largest interest, it produces other wood products including china hutches, tables, bookcases, cedar chests, coffee tables, juniper bed frames and playground equipment. The small company also refinishes furniture.

Originally it was a woodworking company along the banks of the Missouri River - before the great dam projects flooded the small tribal community. When the community was flooded, it was lost.

In 1999, the economic development department for the Three Affiliated Tribes looked at starting a tribally owned woodworking business. ElboWoods Works was first considered as a funeral home because there are none on the Fort Berthold reservation and the tribe was looking for a way to assist tribal residents forced to seek much more costly services off the reservation, said General Manger Darian Morsette.

Instead, tribal leaders decided building its own line of caskets and other wood products would be a good start to provide wares to tribal members at a reasonable price. It also would provide employment opportunities for tribal residents.

The company started with a grant of less than $500,000 from the Administration for Native Americans. The tribe bought a building on the Main Street location which once housed an automobile dealership.

Now, two years into production, the company employs five tribal residents and has sold more than 78 handcrafted caskets during the past year with hopes of expanding its market. Company representatives attended the Great Plains Tribal Federal Conference in Aberdeen last month to showcase ElboWood Works' product line. They have begun talking to tribal governments about subcontracting to provide the coffins for needy tribal members who can't afford the cost of often lesser quality coffins.

The company ships in select cedar, oak and pine for its products and the finish of each piece resembles a work of art, hand-sanded and hand-rubbed.

"ElboWood Works is dedicated to providing well crafted and affordable burial caskets. ... crafted in the finest solid wood and lined in either Pendleton-brand blankets or in satin star quilt designs," Morsette said.

Even the names of the different styles produced are derived from tribal names including Elbowoods, Charging Eagle, Four Bears, Red Butte and Golden Eagle.

Morsette said the only company that remotely comes close to producing a similar product is in Dubuque, Iowa. However, that product include the personalized touch his company gives its clients.

"We're the only one that offers the quilted star on the lid. That's why it is unique."

The quilted star has become the company's trademark, but the small staff's attention to its craft is unique in a nation filled with companies that mass produce products. This commitment to hand-crafted products sets the company apart. While mass production is possible, Morsette said the tribe wants to produce the highest quality product.

If expansion is in the future, he said it would more than likely take place on the Fort Berthold reservation.

Each of the five workers was chosen by the tribe for a particular skill. Morsette, who attended the tribal college, was chosen for his marketing background and serves as a salesman as well as the general manager.

Russell Bird, a 59-year-old tribal elder and a long-time woodworker, indulges his passion for carving wood into art. He said he loves the feel of the wood and molding a new piece into a unique piece.

Coosie Duckett, 58, has been quilting for more than 30 years. She quilts the satin linings for the caskets and other custom embroidery which may include incorporating the theme for tribal clients with American Indian names.

A customized, handcrafted casket can be finished within a week. It takes about two hours to cut the wood and assemble the pieces. The remainder of the time is spent finishing the wood and placing the lining inside, Morsette said.

The company can produced as many as 10 caskets each week and tries to keep at least 50 in stock at all times so they are readily available. The company already has clients from other parts of the nation.

The company grossed more than $78,000 last year in casket sales and produced more than 120 of the unique coffins since production started.

When the small company surfaced, funeral homes and larger companies which make similar wares didn't take the tribe's enterprise seriously. That attitude changed as more tribal residents began to use the products made at ElboWoods Works, the general manager said.

He said the price is competitive and often lower.

The competition has driven down funeral expenses for tribal residents. Local funeral homes began offering their caskets at a lower price to compete, Morsette said.

Moving into the market wasn't without a challenge. Morsette said at least one funeral home attempted to sabotage the small tribal firm by unscrewing fasteners which held one casket handle. Morsette said he believes the event took place when the casket was sent to the funeral home where the client's remains were prepared for burial. Since then, the company has used bolts to secure the handles, preventing tampering.

Caskets range from $1,100 to $3,000 depending on how much customization is involved and the wood used. The price is often lower than similar products which are mass produced. The Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Ind., is perhaps one of the nation's largest manufacturers, he said. It produces 500 different types of caskets and employs more than 3,500 people.

Morsette doesn't see the tribe moving in that direction because such plants are highly automated facilities and equipment is expensive. Morsette said it costs nearly $1 million for a machine that produces only the coffin lids.

Staff members said they stood in disbelief when they were approached to join a company that produces caskets. They thought the people were kidding. When they found out about a concept of producing a product for the tribal people with a sensitivity to their burial needs, they were quick to sign on.

"I thought they were kidding, but when they started talking about benefits I realized they were serious," said 44-year-old Sharon Gravos, another long-time woodworker.

A willingness to come to the shop when a special request is received or a casket - with special instructions - is needed immediately, demonstrates the commitment of the workers. Morsette said his employees have left their homes during the weekend to assist family members in providing a special refuge for a loved one.

"I think everybody has come in late at night or after hours," Morsette said.

ElboWoods Works produces uses all of its scrap wood in other products such as feather and shadow boxes instead of disposing of it - right down to the sawdust. It often is used as a paste in finishing wood products instead of expensive wood filler.

"They are a reflection of their time and the effort they put into it. In the end, it is beautiful," he said.