Local business goes downhill, and that's good
Under tall old pine trees in a quiet corner of Carlton lies an almost unnoticeable but successful business.
Arrowhead Wood and Toboggan Company sits along old Highway 61 in Olsonville and was the brainchild of Dave Grinnell in 1995.
According to his wife, Teddy, Dave spent a long time researching and experimenting in their pole barn before he found the perfect technique for crafting the toboggan of his childhood memories.
Dave discovered the mighty oak would not bend for the curve necessary in a toboggan, but black ash did and there was a plentiful supply available.
The business has grown from 50 sleds in that first year to more than 300 sleds now.
The business also has a new owner, although Dave and Teddy are still very much a part of the process.
Scott Belsvik owned a sawmill in Saginaw 30 years ago and sold it when life got busy, but he always yearned to get back into the business.
"I have sawdust in my blood," said Belsvik with a laugh.
Off and on over the years he would ask Dave to do special wood projects for him.
When Belsvik called in 2015, Dave said he wasn't doing that type of work anymore. Belsvik asked if he would be interested in selling any of his equipment.
Dave didn't miss a beat.
"I asked him 'Why don't you buy the whole thing?" remembered Dave with a chuckle.
According to Belsvik, everything fell smoothly into place once his wife, Robyn, gave him the green light.
Dave mentored Belsvik as he learned the ropes of his new business.
"He had a lot of questions," Teddy said.
The current best seller is the child-size sled. In the past the favorite was the Big Chief six-foot toboggan. They also make a eight-foot Big Chief toboggan, which can fit four people.
Dave, now 79, attended several festivals each year in Minnesota and one in Denver, Colo., where he sold his sleds. The husband-and-wife team shipped a large crate of their toboggans and children's sleds to Colorado each year for the festival.
Over the years, Dave became a familiar face in Denver's Winter Festival and, when a toboggan was needed for a McDonald's television commercial during the Salt Lake City Olympics, they called Dave.
Dave still gets a kick out of having one of his toboggans used in a commercial.
He is also proud of all of the interviews and stories his small business was featured in over the 20 years he owned the business.
The Festival of Trees in Duluth was one of the couple's favorite festivals to attend, as was Applefest in Bayfield, Wis. Teddy tells of a family that stopped in and were so impressed with the quality of the beautiful toboggans that they bought three Big Chief six-foot sleds for their kids as Christmas presents.
As much as they enjoyed the festivals, the majority of their sales came from selling to larger businesses like Costco and Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) as well as L&M Supply and LL Bean.
In 2009, after being approached by a man inquiring about making a snowshoe frame, Dave added snowshoes to his winter fun product line.
Dave credits much of his success to his master craftsman, Don Christian, 37, and other employees.
Toboggan production is done in the fall to be prepared for the winter season.
Christian explained the sled making process. First a six- or eight-foot plank of black or white ash is soaked in water and, after sufficient soaking, it is put on a special machine and the curve is set that makes the wood resemble a ski. Once it is taken off, a string is tied to each end of the curve to help keep it in place. Finally it is laid on the floor to dry. By the end of the workday, many skis cover the shop floor and are left to dry overnight.
When the ski is dry, the curve is set and will hold its familiar toboggan shape.
"There's nowhere to go so we have to totally hopscotch around the shop," Christian said. "When we bend that's all we do and when we are done it's time to go because you can't do anything as the floor is covered with a couple of hundred skis."
The skis are put in several vices to hold them in place while Christian places the screws. There are no staples to pop out on these toboggans.
When orders come in, it is usually several at a time and results in several hundred sleds that need to be done in a quick fashion.
Belsvik is expanding the business to include more furniture and the southern style shutters contract he recently landed.
Belsvik — whose typical day begins at 6 a.m. and ends about 8 or 9 p.m. — is a hands-on owner and enjoys keeping busy. He is involved with everything from production to maintaining the machinery.
Business is good, Belsvik said.
"Even though our area has had a warmer winter, other parts of the country have had plenty of snow," he said, noting they sold about 225 toboggans and roughly 150 children's sleds. "Sled sales were up by 50 percent for the 2016-2017 season and snowshoe kits and snowshoe sales were up 30-40 percent."
Belsvik has nothing but praise for the former owners. He informed Teddy that she reminded him of his own mother, who had passed away five years ago. Teddy's eyes got moist as she smiled over at Belsvik, her fondness for him evident in her expression.
Both Teddy and Belsvik complemented Dave in his persistence in the early days of building up his business, as well as his mentoring of Belsvik.
The old-timer had a huge grin and said pretty soon his head was going to be too big from the praise heaped on him by the pair.
Belsvik has been working on a showroom next to his shop in Olsonville to display the products, which he hopes to open this spring. The business also does custom woodwork projects like matching vintage-looking woodwork for old houses, or making one-of-a-kind quality custom doors.
Belsvik was at the Laskiainen Finnish Sliding Festival in Palo, Minn., with his sleds last weekend. He will be at the Duluth Boat, Sport and Travel Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Feb. 15-17.