Framed by soaring volcanoes to the west and windswept steppes to the east, Central Oregon by nature is a place of contrasts. Ski slopes become trout streams come summer. Forests collapse into canyons. Everywhere you look, the land rises and falls into something unique and new. That kind of harmony inspires a special kind of business, too, where art and skill create a demand for extraordinary work. Today, Central Oregon’s maker scene goes far beyond the remarkable beverages that so many know, and a new video series aims to highlight the folks behind it. Here are snapshots of a few craftspeople harnessing their passions to bring wonderful sounds and flavors to the state.
Aerospace engineering brings the sound outdoors
As a kid who loved BMX bikes, Scott Seelye had a major advantage over the other 15-year-olds thrashing around the track. He called it the slingshot, a front derailleur system he fashioned for himself out of other bike parts. “I’d hit that first jump in one gear and land in the second,” says the 46-year-old industrial designer. “By the time I hit the ground my wheels were going faster than when I left.”
Decades later, Seelye is still finding unique ways to use materials. His latest venture, Outdoor Ukulele, is a company and shop based in northwest Bend that makes high-quality, supremely durable stringed instruments out of high-tech components. After years of working in the aerospace industry, Seelye figured out what many manufacturers had believed to be impossible: how to turn a composite polycarbonate into a moldable liquid that would flow fast enough and set thin enough to produce the body, neck and head of a musical instrument. To do it, he must inject the heated plastic into a mold at the speed of sound.
Today Outdoor Ukulele has a cult following. It produces 16 instruments a day, from tenor ukuleles to “banjoleles,” an instrument with a banjo-style body and a ukulele neck that was popular in the early 1900s. Each sounds as close to a wood instrument as it can be but is far less fragile, making it the instrument of choice to take camping or on river trips. The instruments are known for holding up well — and keeping their people happy — under extreme conditions: from backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to paddling down the Amazon River and voyaging in the Arctic. Other companies may make 10,000 instruments a day, but Seelye has no interest in that kind of scale. “You can think of it like cars,” he says. “Hyundai will sell a lot, Audi and Porsche, not so many. We’re happy to compete on quality in our area.”
A firefighter’s service brings irresistible smoked meats
Quality is something Jeff Johnson knows well. Walk into the Sisters Meat and Smokehouse in Sisters and you can instantly smell the former fire chief’s expertise: smoke. “When you fight fire, air control is important,” says Johnson, 59. “We control the air pressure to make sure you get a whiff of that irresistible smoke.”
Mesquite. Alder. Oak. Landjäger. Kielbasa. Brats. This is the butcher your grandparents knew, an artisanal workshop where the masterpieces look as good as they taste. “Because we make what we sell, we don’t have waste,” says Johnson. “If a steak isn’t perfect, it comes out and it’s pepperoni the next day. We don’t have to do all the tricks people need to do to make three-day-old meat look fresh.”
The business is really a chapter in a long family story, and it hinges on the ties that bind Johnson to the Wallin brothers, Wade and Brody, who are third-generation meat masters. They all grew up in Southern Oregon and by marriage and blood grew close over the years. When Johnson retired in 2010, he moved to Sisters and Wade and Brody soon followed. Wade is the “samurai,” the guy who studies the cuts while Brody knows what to do with them, Johnson explains. For years, the brothers would give him Christmas gift baskets full of meat that left him salivating through summer. He suggested they bring their gift to the masses.
And so the shop was born with the three of them as partners. “The most important thing I learned out of fighting fire is how to treat someone when they don’t have a choice,” Johnson says. “You learn to have very sharp receptors for what people care about and what matters. For me, I love the people that work in that shop and come through the door. I’m really a servant at heart.”
More makers building products for a better community
For each of these makers and countless others, business is a vehicle for building a better community. From food and beverage to natural beauty products, jewelry, clothing, crafts, pet products and lots and lots of outdoor gear, Central Oregon’s wildly creative artisans are innovating every day.
Leslie Colvin spent a career as a special education teacher in Redmond and turned her passion for showing students the importance of lifelong learning into her own project, LeCol’s Soap Bar, a business that specializes in small-batch bars made from scratch. New Growth Clothing grew weary of the environmental harm behind the textile industry and brought eco-friendly silk screens, clothing manufacturing and engraving back to the state. Ballokai, a Sisters-based online brand, makes handbags from recycled coffee sacks and jewelry from old musical instrument strings. They sell their wares at Sisters Coffee Company in both Sisters and Portland, as well as other shops.
“Culturally, it seems to me that too many sales are just transactions,” says Johnson, of Sisters Meat Company. “It’s really important to work hard to make sure that’s not the case. It’s an old-school work ethic, attention to detail and caring about your customers.”