By Tim Leeds/Havre Dialy News
A series of problems, including mistaking Chester for the town of Creston near Flathead Lake, led to a former Californian starting a successful business pressing plants in Joplin and turning them into works of art.
"It's the best mistake we ever made," Cherie Moss said about coming to north-central Montana. Her business, Montana Naturally Inc., made some 21,000 pieces for sale last year.
The business' gross income, which has grown more than 700 percent in the last five years, was about $175,000 last year, she said.
Montana Naturally mainly sells wholesale to retail stores, and the products are distributed to about a dozen states including Montana, she said. They go west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, south to Wyoming and Utah, and east to the Dakotas, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Kentucky.
"We have some 360 stores we sell to," Cherie said.
Plans are in the works to expand sales through home show marketing of products by Montana Naturally and other Montana companies, modeled after Tupperware or Pampered Chef parties, she added.
Cherie's botanical art also has traveled overseas to Australia, Germany, Holland and England.
Montana Naturally produces a variety of artwork using pressed plants. The products range from bookmarks and minibookmarks to framed art and pressed plants set against a painted backdrop framed by antique windows.
Cherie grows and presses the flowers and other plants she uses, or harvests a few plants from fields in the area. Her husband, Ralph, and children, 16-year-old Amanda and 15-year-old Tyler, help with the business.
The business employs three part-time workers.
Everything she makes is from plants and materials grown or purchased in Montana. Buying everything in Montana and using Montana products gives other Montanans the opportunity to work, Cherie said.
"You're keeping someone else here," she added.
The story of the Los Angeles family moving to Joplin starts with a friend going back to California after visiting the land his parents had bought near Flathead Lake.
"He came back and told us he was moving to Montana," Cherie said. He never did, she added.
Ralph, an electrician, had been building props for film studios like Castle Rock Entertainment. He helped build the set for the pilot episode of "The Power Rangers."
About 10 years ago, Ralph was laid off and Cherie suggested going to Montana.
"I said, 'Let's sell everything and move,'" she said. "And we did."
They loaded up a motor home with their possessions and their children, towing their pickup behind it, and set out for Montana.
They originally stopped in western Montana, "like all rue Californians," Cherie said.
After 11 days of looking for work in Hamilton, Ralph saw an ad about a job with Liberty Electric Inc. in Chester.
He thought Chester was the town of Creston, northeast of Flathead Lake, and applied for the job. The family was soon arranging a one-month lease for their camper at a campsite outside of Kalispell, he said.
"This is a classic," Ralph said. "I called to say we were in town. The secretary said, 'You're 200 miles away. You need to be in Chester.'"
After driving to Chester they found no camp sites available for four days. They parked their motor home in a city park, with 50 feet of water hose going one way and 50 feet of electrical cord going the other, he said, "looking like a bunch of vagrants from California."
Ralph was laid off from his new job after four months. He went to work for Benchmark Equipment, an agriculture equipment dealer in Chester.
Cherie worked at the nursing home in Chester until she broke her back and was unable to continue.
"At that point I just threw myself into flowers," she said.
She had been working with flowers most of her adult life, she added.
Since the Mosses didn't have much money that year to buy gifts, Cherie said, she made art out of pressed plants to give to family members. The recipients liked the gifts so much, she decided to start making and selling them full time about eight years ago.
"Here I am today, just as busy as can be," she said.
The Mosses look at another misfortune as an advantage.
Normally in the agriculture equipment business, Ralph said, the workers tend to rest up over the winter to prepare for the busy harvest season. In 1999, he had trouble recovering from the harvest season. He said he had problems that included losing his balance.
He kept working until August 2000, then had to quit. Ralph was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about two years ago, a disease that damages nerves and causes a variety of symptoms.
The family has turned that into a plus.
"You can always make something good out of bad," Cherie said.
"The timing was really good for being sick," Ralph added.
For the first time in his life, he said, he was able to spend a lot of time with his children, to go to their games and other activities.
"My whole life I hadn't been there for their occasions," he added.
Leaving Benchmark also gave him more time to work at Montana Naturally, Cherie said. Ralph has always made some of the frames for the company, but was unable to keep up with the demand while working at Benchmark. If he hadn't quit that job, she would have had to hire a full-time framer, she said.
Ralph said he helps as much as his condition will allow, and he has taught Tyler how to build and assemble the frames.
"(Tyler) calls it 'man's work,'" Cherie added.
Cherie is working with three other Montana businesses to jointly expand their marketing, and anticipates being able to give back to Joplin by creating jobs, she said.
The new company, American Home Show, will use a catalog featuring products by Montana Naturally, Montana Bounty Foods of Kalispell, Baskets Galore of Whitefish, and RoseworksMT of Whitefish, which makes copper art. The four businesses also will buy candy from Montana Flathead Fudge and Chocolate Co., manufactured at Montana Tom's Chocolate Factory in Columbia Falls, to resell in the catalog.
The catalog will be used to sell the products in shows in homes. The group plans to expand its catalog every year. Cherie said that at first they will keep it exclusively products made in Montana, although it may eventually expand to products from other states.
But it will always remain 100 percent American-made, she added.
The new marketing will start in August, she said. She added that she expects the demand for Montana Naturally products to increase enough to need as many as 15 or 20 additional employees in about five years.
"(The catalog) would provide a tremendous amount of jobs for this community, we hope," she said.
Cherie said the Montana Naturally Web site is temporarily offline, but she expects it to be back up in a few weeks. The Web site for American Home Show will go online Aug. 1, she said.
On the Net: Montana Bounty Foods: www.bountyfoods.com
Montana Montana Flathead Fudge and Chocolate Co.: www.mtfudge.com