For my 25th wedding anniversary, Carol and I were blessed with the opportunity to visit the Finger Lakes region of New York and learned that all roads (at least those between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes) lead to Ovid, a village of roughly 600 where the Holden Coal family business resides.
Mark Holden is a wonderful brother in the Lord married to a wonderful wife and the two of them have many wonderful children and a growing number of wonderful grandchildren. They bought an old coal business several years ago from a retiring gentleman who had acquired several buildings and lots of stuff. They’ve turned it into a profitable business with a continuous, slow but sure, makeover from the inside out. The functionality of serving the community with the resources God has given them has been their priority, rather than the all-too-current trend of making everything look easily accessible, while outsourcing customer service overseas to people who don’t know that when you need a hotel in Rochester, NY because your departing flight has been cancelled, you really don’t want a hotel in Rochester, MN that has a free shuttle to its medical clinics… but I digress. Instead of having customers waiting in line for custom coal orders (everything used to be a custom order), the Holdens have streamlined the operation, packaging coal into 50 pound bags ready for pick up or delivery and making custom coal orders of any size a quick one-two man job. (I wished I would have taken pictures or video, but you can find out more in an upcoming video series – Family Works, Volume 1 – from Franklin Springs Family Media, another great family run business).
His oldest two sons, Jeremy (business mgmt, renovations, trucking and more) and Micah (vehicle maintenance and bag coal… moves 70 to 80 thousand bags of coal per year) work full-time. Everyone else in the family pitches in as needed. With virtually no notice, Isaiah (14) and Nathaniel (9) demonstrated how quickly they can turn an empty bag into a packaged 50 lb bag of coal.
I got a tour of the majority of the mostly-attached facilities that took up a small portion of the village block:
- A small office where customers can enter and make transactions;
- A small workshop where things get fixed… including my sandals that had an issue while on vacation;
- The storage facility where large trucks deliver coal;
- The “processing” building where the coal bags are packaged and stored;
- The large sheds for the trucks;
- The house (in which the Holdens no longer live due to complications of the tax code that makes living in it “income” rather than resourcefulness… they hope to rent it out soon);
But one of the largest and most versatile buildings, “The Grange” (do a google search on “History Grange” to learn about how buildings were bought and used for agriculture in the past), though put to some use, is significantly underutilized. Why?
Well, Mark thought it would be a great idea to have the local church assembly meetings in this large building on one floor. After all, the building was originally used to house a Baptist church more than a hundred years earlier. Now that it had 3 floors (due to renovations in the intervening years), one of the floors – the main floor accessible from the main street, remarkably named Main Street – would be more than adequate for the small assembly meetings (40-70 people on average).
So, Mark respectfully asked the local inspector, “what would I need to do to the building so I can have assembly meetings here?”. Building a ramp (for all the handicapped people who aren’t currently part of the assembly) and getting running water into the building for a bathroom facility were the main things he was told. These seemed reasonable to Mark, so he got an engineer to sign off on his ramp plan (because it couldn’t possibly be proven to be sufficient otherwise), bought the wood and scheduled a bunch of guys from the church to come by for a day to build the ramp.
In the midst of the construction of the ramp, another inspector showed up and asked to see the plans. He didn’t quite see how it was going to work “according to code” since the entrance door was 40 inches wide rather than 36 inches wide the code called for. The engineering plans were irrelevant to him. (Why the inspector didn’t realize that a wider door would actually make it MORE accessible rather than making people fly off the ramp and be hurdled into the street into oncoming traffic when the extra 4 inches of door was opened, I’m not sure). He told Mark and all the men who arranged their day to volunteer their service to “stop work” until he could investigate further. And then he said the fateful words, “well, while I’m here, just let me look around a little”.
You can probably guess what happened next. He came back with all kinds of other requirements to upgrade the building that basically shot Mark’s plans out of the water. Ovid is a quaint, somewhat depressed little village, whose Main Street is not that impressive. There are a variety of buildings on Main Street whose market value is extremely low and are not in active use because updating the buildings to meet the inspector’s approval would be prohibitively expensive. Otherwise, they could have many uses. Stuff that prevents good stewardship happens in the cities and towns. It also happens in the rural settings.
In an article written by Joel Salatin titled, “Everything I want to do is Illegal” he lists more of these issues that stop families trying to do good with the resources they have. But, I don’t want this to just be a rant.
There are families that are moving forward like the Holdens who recently expanded into a Water Conditioning and a Dumpster business. The Dumpster business is more active in the summer when the coal business is slower and slower in the winter when construction is slower and the coal business is “heating up”. It has allowed them to not only keep their family members busy and thriving, but also allows them to keep employees all year long rather than having to hire and train new people every season. Joel Salatin, toward the end of his article points out,
Those of us who would aspire to opt out — both consumers and producers — must pray for enough cleverness to circumvent the system until the system cannot sustain itself. Cycles happen. Because things are this way today does not mean they will be this way next year. Hurrah for that.
In looking back, Mark pointed out that he could have just made a better opening from “the house” that was attached to “The Grange” and had people enter his home for a “home meeting” that happened to meet in the large room in the back of the home (which happened to be part of “the Grange”). But now, that the building has been “flagged” with red tape, Mark has a half-finished ramp (which is probably more of a safety concern than a finished one would be) and a large storage room that is being “watched” for any suspicious activity.
As you begin to think about how to have a more family-integrated life and come up with wonderful ideas of how to be good stewards of what you’ve been given, I would encourage you to ask the question, “Is there a way to do this which will serve a good purpose for our family and others that does not need to be ‘permitted’ by those who don’t seem to permit good stewardship”.
I’ll write about some of the ideas I’ve come up with or heard of in the (hopefully not too distant) future. I need to think hard about how I write about some of them, because there are those people out there who may decide they need to close some of the loop holes. Hopefully they’re not “inspecting” this blog too closely.