With help of horsepower, Copp family sells old-fashioned processes
Thorndike — On the morning of Friday, Aug. 31, each member of the Copp household was busy tending to the family’s two businesses, which together provide a living that is harmonious with the sustainable lifestyle the family has adhered to, based on both religion and a commitment to the environment.
The family owns and operates the Living Grains Bakery in the warm and spacious kitchen at their farmhouse in Thorndike, where Katie Copp was mixing dough in what was formerly an electric mixer that her husband, Kenneth, had converted into one that operates on compressed air.
Katie and two of the couple's 10 children — whose ages range from 8 to 29 — were busy baking the breads, pies, cookies and pastas the family sells in the on-site showroom, a converted dairy barn that showcases Katie’s baked goods and the handcrafted furniture Kenneth makes for the family’s main business, Locust Grove Woodworks.
The Copps are an old order Amish Mennonite family who moved to Maine from Missouri three years ago.
“I like Maine a lot,” said Kenneth. “We liked the community here, especially when we found out about [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association].”
In Missouri, Kenneth said, traditional farmers who wanted to maintain heirloom seeds regularly struggled against big corporations that manufactured genetically modified seeds for produce like corn and soybeans, as well as the farmers who chose to grow the produce that originated with companies like Monsanto.
For their own bakery and farm, Kenneth said, the family is committed to providing all-natural products to their customers.
“We’re not organically certified, but we do avoid all genetically modified products,” he said, noting that Katie uses sweeteners like maple syrup and honey instead of products like corn syrup.
The Copps have since built the family businesses on their faith and belief that making their products the old-fashioned way has a special value that cannot come with the help of the computerized and automated conveniences many have become accustomed to.
The old-world ways of making high-end furniture are part of Kenneth’s daily life, and for the last 14 years he has used what most would consider a unique but practical way of running tools like his saw and sanding table — work horses.
Kenneth first saw the system he now uses while he and his family were living in southwestern Virginia.
“I was fascinated by it,” recalled Copp.
When the family moved to Maine, Kenneth spent his first winter on the farm converting part of an old barn into his workshop, and set up a neighboring room with a large wooden wheel similar to a turbine, where the horses trudge in wide circles to create the power he needs to run his tools. As the horses turn the wheel that is attached to a shaft in the floor, the movement of the system continues through a pipe that houses another spinning shaft. That’s how the power is connected to the pulley-operated tools in the workshop, where the machinery comes alive.
“When the horses go around one time, all of this spins around 100 times,” explained Kenneth.
To alter the speed of the table saw, for example, Kenneth can change the size of the pulleys he’s fitted to each machine in order to use the horsepower. Another, smaller saw is operated by way of foot pedals, and nearby a mechanism fitted with more pulleys uses the horsepower to grind flour used in the family bakery business.
Kenneth said when he's working on a dining set that includes six chairs, for example, it might take him about 75 hours to complete the table alone. The chairs might take another week to make. Kenneth uses linseed oil and wax instead of stains or sealers to bring out the natural color of the wood. He makes everything from office furniture and chests of drawers to cradles and coffins, and that wide variety was the basis for the business motto displayed on Kenneth’s locally made catalogs.
“We make traditional hand-crafted furniture from the cradle to the grave,” said Kenneth with a smile.
The family sells most of their products at the showroom, which Kenneth is working to expand, along with a larger workspace that he plans to use in the future, but they also sell their baked goods at the local farmers’ markets. The family regularly sells eggs to the Belfast Co-op, and Kenneth will have a booth showcasing his furniture at the Common Ground Fair again this fall.
While Kenneth said the family enjoys Waldo County because more farmers adhere to traditional ways of growing, there is more to the Amish Mennonite way of life than being kind to the earth. Yes, Kenneth said, the family uses horses and buggies or bicycles to get around in lieu of cars, and does its best to live off the land. But it’s more about living simply, and doing so outside of the modern world.
“The Amish Mennonite people aren’t doing what we do to be sustainable, necessarily,” said Kenneth. “We do it because it’s a different mindset; it’s about being separated from the world.”
And the Copps operate their businesses in a way they feel is in line with their religious beliefs as well as their ideas about treating the earth as well as they can.
“We’re selling not only a product, but a process,” said Kenneth, who noted his slower, more traditional methods of building furniture ensure that his pieces will last for generations.
Kenneth said he and his family do not feel any sense of superiority over those who take advantage of modern conveniences. They recognize that their lifestyle may not be best-suited to everyone, but believe all are capable of making changes in their lives that benefit the environment — using a bicycle or horse and buggy for short trips rather than hopping in the car, for example.
“We all have different levels of how we can do it, and however you do it, that’s good,” he said. “Because it moves us all in the right direction.”
To learn more about the furniture business, visit locustgrovewoodworks.com.