Judi Tuell, right, readies her shop at the Porter School Market Place in Alpha for the spring season opener. She receives a helping hand with a display from Pampered Chef consultant Ginger Davis.
ALPHA—There was a specific time when, as Judi Tuell says, the “madness” began.
Tuell and her husband, Alan, had retired in 2004, moved to Iron County from Chicago and began to build a house on a piece of property they’d purchased a mile south of Crystal Falls.
As construction proceeded, Tuell watched in dismay as all kinds of odd pieces of lumber ended up in a burn pile. That’s when Tuell’s inner environmentalist chimed in.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that tree took forever to grow, and we’re burning it,’” she said.
But what was she going to do with all these scraps? Well, make a birdhouse, of course.
And so it began. Ten years later, Tuell still builds and sells birdhouses, but that’s just a smidgeon of what she offers at Room 106 in the Porter School Market Place.
She also sells such items as mailboxes, bird feeders, bee towers, bat houses and collectibles, through the crafts portion of her operation called Dunn Creek Whimsey, and cookies and jams, through what she calls The Cookie Hutch.
To begin her crafting season, Tuell will be set up at the Spring Craft and Garden Show on April 12 at the Windsor Center in Iron River.
Tuell was born and lived in Chicago until retiring to Crystal Falls, but she has always felt a vital connection to Iron County.
“My mother (Angeline Tuchowski) was born and raised in Crystal Falls,” Tuell began. “She went to Chicago for work when she was 18 and met my dad and settled there. But my grandparents still had their farm, and I came up on the train and stayed all summer on the farm.
“I’ve always said, ‘I was probably coming here before I was born.’ I’ve always loved it, I always wanted to come back. I love the peacefulness, the quiet.”
So Tuell stayed for good this time and brought her love of crafting along. Judi started out making doll cribs and different home decorations, among other items, and Al helped her cut the wood. She sold her wares at craft shows and stores but after a while felt like her hobby was becoming a burden.
“It became more of an assembly line rather than fun,” said Tuell, who worked as a bookkeeper before retiring. “I was in five or six stores, and I didn’t want it to grow to that volume. It was just getting out of hand.”
So she scaled back, though her creative impulses never completely vanished. They came roaring back as she and Al went about building their home. Though she had plenty to do with that endeavor, Tuell began to feel the itch to create again.
After a year, she began with her birdhouses, and off she went.
“I just needed to release that creative stuff,” Tuell said. “My grandmother (Mary) was very talented, and my mother was very talented and was always putzing and sewing, so it was a natural thing for me. It was just a natural part of my life.”
She quickly grew to love designing and building her birdhouses. Plus, she was able to reuse materials like old hinges and nails and old oak storm fencing that were lying around her home and property. Her birdhouses, in turn, have a definitive natural look. No two are alike.
But just as she got going at the Porter School Market Place around 2010, the effects of the area’s economic struggle began to hurt her sales. And that’s when she began to add to her repertoire.
“I still needed to make my rent, so somebody suggested that I bake cookies,” Judi said. “So I started that and, well, the cookies just took off.”
Tuell now devotes two or three days a week to baking from spring into the early winter months. She wants her cookies to be fresh for her customers so she will start baking late Thursday or early Friday so she can have them ready to go when she opens on Saturday at 9 a.m.
The entire process of baking, cooling, packaging and labeling takes anywhere from five to eight hours, Tuell said.
Ironically, Judi doesn’t eat her baked goods, even the popular lime meltaways, because she is a type-2 diabetic.
“If it’s a new cookie (type) I’ll taste it, but that’s about it,” she said.
Tuell is planning on adding some gluten-free cookies this season (one made with almond flour and chocolate chips) and will also continue to produce her jams and jellies, made with honey and stevia.
Additionally, Tuell is building a special item this summer for Alpha’s centennial celebration from July 3-5, a model of the Porter School to be sold as part of a fundraiser for the Porter School Library.
As her years of woodworking have proceeded, Tuell has learned to do her own cutting, though Al will help her from time to time.
“I use the chop saw, and I’ve learned to use a table saw,” she said. “I had a gentleman come up to me and say, ‘Your husband must help you.’ But I said, ‘No, I do it now.’ And he looked at me like ….”
Since she began renting her space at Porter School, Tuell has developed a special feeling for the old Alpha schoolhouse and the people who frequent the shops.
“Porter School is a unique place, I don’t even know how to describe it. (And) the people have been very, very supportive from all over. Lots of people come back for the cookies, and now I have customers coming in every year and they’re buying a different birdhouse, so that’s exciting.”
Tuell’s creations will again be available this year when the Market Place opens on May 3.
For the second year, the Porter School Market Place will host fairs on the first Saturday of the month, when crafters can rent spaces and show their wares. Also during the summer, there will be spaces to rent outside of the school that complement the seasonal farmers markets.
For Tuell, the whole operation has come a long way since the “madness” began.
“What did I expect? If I sold one or two birdhouses, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I thought it was great. Then to have people come back every year, that’s even more fun.”