Let’s kick Father’s Day weekend off in style with a yarn involving Chuck Allen, a married father of four and founder of Earth and Hide, a home-based venture that turns out hand-crafted pottery and quality leather goods.
Four years ago, Allen, 43, was seated at the dining room table in his and his wife Amy’s St. James abode, struggling to come up with a moniker for his just-hatched business. He’d always liked the ring of this-and-that tags such as Deer + Almond or Elephant & Castle, so he was busily looking up synonyms for clay and leather, the two primary mediums he works with, hoping to settle on a pair of words that sounded good together.
Brick and something, he asked himself? Something else and tannery?
John, his second eldest, stopped to ask what he was scribbling down. The elder Allen replied he was trying to think of a name for his company and offered a few points of comparison. That’s easy, John announced; why not call it Ground Beef?
Good one, his father said with a chuckle, but no, that probably wasn’t going to cut it.
Allen was born in Aurora, Ill., to an unlikely set of parents. He laughs as he describes his father as a "gun-totin’, flag-wavin’ redneck from North Carolina" and his mother as a "sweet Mennonite farm girl from rural Manitoba" who met on a weekend camping trip, while his dad was stationed at the Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota.
He spent his formative years in Greensboro, N.C. Every summer while growing up, he and his family would make the long trek north to his maternal grandfather’s farm near Gretna, where he was encouraged to drive a tractor, tend to livestock… be a "real" farm kid, pretty much. (When asked if that’s a southern drawl we detect, he says perhaps, more so if the topic were to change to NASCAR.)
"My grandpa Klassen, who passed in 2002, was the most humble, generous and kind person I ever met," he recalls fondly, noting his mother returned to the Winkler area after she and his dad divorced. "His peers used to think he had a special arrangement with God because he seemingly got everything he wanted. If he needed rain for his crops, he got rain, even when the clouds seemed to miss everybody else."
Following high school, he enrolled in a three-year graphic design course at Guilford Technical Community College, near Greensboro. Photography was far and away his favourite subject and he had every intention of landing a job in that field after receiving his diploma in August 2001. His world, as it did for so many others, changed when the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks unfolded a few weeks later.
"My paternal grandfather had been a U.S. marine so, feeling a patriotic call to duty, I enlisted almost immediately after (9/11). If that meant I’d be runnin’ and gunnin’, then that’s what I’d be doing," he says.
During a 13-week boot camp at Paris Island, S.C., a gruelling experience he decrees to be eerily similar to what’s depicted in films such as Full Metal Jacket, he learned most military divisions include a "combat camera man" whose chief role is to document episodes on the battlefield. He let his commanding officers know photography was one of his passions, which led to him spending the next four months in Iraq, a 9-mm pistol in one hand and a video camera in the other.
Pardon our confusion, but how does one go from dodging bullets in Baghdad to peddling purses at a farmer’s market at idyllic Pine Ridge Hollow, where Allen was due the morning after a newspaper interview? The answer to that lies with Noah, his eldest son from a previous relationship.
In 2011, Allen, four years removed from military service, was working as a video producer in Washington, D.C. One afternoon while driving to their home in Virginia he turned to Amy and said he’d been contemplating a move to Winnipeg, where Noah had lived his entire life. He mentioned his son would soon be starting high school and because that was such a pivotal stage in a boy’s life, he felt it was his responsibility as a father to be there for him, if needed.
"OK, let’s make it happen," came Amy’s response.
Two years later, after going through the necessary channels — and after Allen, who has dual citizenship, recovered from a battle with testicular cancer — the Allens and their three children arrived in Winnipeg, settling into a house a few blocks over from where Noah lived. One problem: because Allen couldn’t find work in his chosen field, he accepted a construction job that paid $12 an hour, a pittance compared to the US$85,000 salary he had been earning in D.C.
"The work was tough but I absolutely loved it. If it hadn’t been for the financial insecurity, I probably would have done it forever," he says, running a hand through his white beard. (Sure, he had traveled to Manitoba dozens of times through the years, but until he moved here permanently, he had never experienced a prairie cold snap before. "Only once during that first winter did I ever head inside to warm up ahead of the seasoned Canadians," he says with a hint of pride.)
Using funding from the Veterans Affairs’ G.I. Bill, Allen took online courses, ultimately netting a business degree from the University of Phoenix. His construction company bosses said they could use "a guy like you" at head office, and promoted him to a manager’s position.
Here’s the thing, though; for as long as he can remember, he has been living with mental health issues. While working with his hands outside was "good for his soul," being stuck in a cubicle 9-to-5 wasn’t. He needed a release, something with an artistic bent, and signed up for a pottery class offered through the Leisure Guide. He became so adept with a potter’s wheel that he soon began working with leather, too, learning how to cut, sew and set rivets, to name a few of his many talents, via what he jokingly refers to as YouTube University.
Earth and Hide made its official debut at a pop-up market at Artlington Studios in November 2017. Five minutes into the sale, a woman approached his table and spent the next 15 minutes trying to choose from among three bags, each priced at around $250, that had caught her attention. Allen tried to maintain a poker face when she let him know she couldn’t make up her mind, so instead would take all three.
"I’m pretty sure I called Amy the second she walked away, to tell her the good news," he says.
The following year he applied to every pop-up market and craft sale he could think of. Sales increased exponentially and after an even more successful 2019, during which he embarked on the "Earth and Hide World Tour," appearing at well-attended events in Saskatoon, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto in addition to his Winnipeg stops, he quit his full-time job to wholly devote his time to the biz.
"It was definitely a big decision to go from a guaranteed income to your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine, but it was a move I definitely had to make for the sake of my mental health," he says, seated in a retrofitted cargo van that serves as a store-on-wheels, which a neighbour of his cheekily dubbed the Chuckwagon. Even during COVID, interested parties have been able to book personal appointments to peruse his wares, which include leather backpacks, belts, clutches, even camera straps and dog collars. (Our favourite? A pair of strap-on ice skates that wouldn’t look out of place on the feet of Hans Brinker.)
"Amy and I sat down and figured I needed to gross a certain amount to make up for my lost income. Her thing is data, organization and projections and after crunching numbers we agreed if I did however many markets a year combined with an online store it was definitely attainable. Honestly, even with the fall-out from COVID and all the events that have been cancelled, I can’t believe how quick it was before we began getting close to that goal."
Again with Father’s Day, we should probably note Allen sells bags named for three of his kids, Levi, John and Caroline, and is currently putting the finishing touches on a "Noah." You can also choose between a "Luella," named for his mother, and a "Mary," after his maternal grandmother, or opt for an "Amy," the latter of which he describes as a combination of the Luella and the Mary, "not too big, not too small, just right, like Goldilocks."
A while back, a buddy commented that to date Allen has done "everything absolutely perfectly," from the timeless look of his merchandise to his easy-to-maneuver website to the ongoing relationships he’s established with other entrepreneurs, such as We Heart Winnipeg, for whom he supplies monogrammed, leather patches for toques and caps, and Cloverdale Forge, which supplies him with buckles and assorted hardware.
His pal added if it ever fell to him to cast a movie featuring a protagonist whose specialty was pottery and leather, Allen would be his first, second and third choice to play the part.
"That was a compliment for sure," Allen says, adjusting his ball cap. "But if I was picking a person to portray me on the big screen, I’d probably go with somebody a little more realistic, somebody who at least looked like me. Brad Pitt, for example."
For more information, go to www.earthandhide.com.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.