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Rural Missouri Magazine
A good life comes in small packages
Bill & Marilyn Kiel build a business making reproduction Shaker boxes

by Bob McEowen

The wood is wet and warm as Bill Kiel pulls it from a stainless steel tank in his workshop. Working quickly, before the board can cool and stiffen, he wraps the thin strip of maple around an oval-shaped oak block. Once the ends of the band overlap Bill taps a few brass tacks in place.

Bill Kiel bends a wooden strip around an oak form to create the body of a Shaker box. The boxes are sold through folk art galleries and museum gift shops across the nation.

Although many steps into the process, only now does the form of Bill’s project become apparent. He is making a Shaker box. Originally created by members of the Shaker religious sect as kitchen canisters, today these oval boxes are popular with collectors and others who admire their simple style.

Once a bottom is glued and nailed in place and a top constructed the canister will receive an oil finish. The plain container, suitable for stashing a few keepsakes, will bring about $60 in a museum gift shop or folk art gallery.

These boxes, in a dozen sizes and as many configurations, are the stock in trade of Wooden Dreams. For 16 years the business has allowed Bill and his wife, Marilyn, to live and work from their southeast Missouri home near Marquand.

Like the originals, Bill’s boxes can be nested inside one another or stacked. But unlike those made by Shakers, few are used to store flour or sugar. In fact, many of Bill’s creations, while similar to the originals, are adapted to modern uses.

Collectors often buy sets of Shaker boxes. Bill and Marilyn offer an entire range, from 00 size, suitable for storing pills or sewing needles, up to a size 10 box, which are often purchased to hold photographs or other mementos.

Tiny No. 00 size boxes receive a bent wooden handle and are sold as Christmas tree ornaments. A medium No. 6 box is modified with dowels to hold spools of thread. One box becomes a purse while another is lined with velvet to hold jewelry.

“We say they are Shaker inspired,” Bill says. “The shakers didn’t believe in jewelry so I doubt they made too many jewelry boxes.”

Raised in south St. Louis, the Kiels moved ever outward in search of a quiet life and a safe place to raise their kids. They lived in south St. Louis County, then Jefferson County. When their 40 acres there became surrounded by urban sprawl they moved to their current home on a remote piece of ground in Bollinger County.

Along the way Bill worked odd jobs, first building swimming pools and later houses. The couple boarded horses for a time and for six years Bill taught building trades at Perryville High School.

At some point Marilyn’s mother gave them a magazine that contained an article about Shaker boxes. Bill decided to make one. “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” he says.

Bill cuts the "fingers" of a swallowtail joint, one of the characteristic features of a Shaker box.

“If every box took as long as the first box we’d have been out of business a long time ago,” the Black River Electric Cooperative member says. “I had no idea how thick the bands should be. That first box must have weighed about 20 pounds.”

In time, Bill perfected his craft. He learned to saw birds-eye maple, cherry and other hardwoods into stock less than an eighth of an inch thick and to bend the wood into boxes that rivaled the originals for quality and workmanship.

“Some of the people we’ve sold to who were truly into Shaker collecting have commented that ours have a quality that wasn’t in the mass-produced boxes,” Bill says. “They’ll use plywood for the top. Now it’s veneered plywood but ours are solid wood. It gives the box a different feel.”

With Bill’s boxes ready to sell, Marilyn took on the task of marketing them. Today the couple’s products are sold through a handful of specialty shops scattered from California to Michigan to Kentucky. Originally, though, Marilyn sold Shaker boxes practically door to door.

“He made a bunch of stuff and I put it in the back of my little red truck and drove all over the country selling it,” Marilyn says. “I would walk into a shop and say, ‘Hey, you want to buy a box?’”

Bill and Marilyn pose in front of their home near Marquand. The Shaker box business has allowed the couple to work from their home for the past 16 years.

While Marilyn made a few sales in Missouri, business really picked up after the Kiels joined a Shaker study group and were welcomed into a community of Shaker enthusiasts and collectors.

The couple learned that Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, were a religious group that formed communal societies in the Northeast and Midwest during the 18th and 19th centuries. The group practiced celibacy — men and women lived separately — and shared all property. They earned the moniker “Shaking Quakers” by trembling violently to rid themselves of evil.

“I think some of their attitudes about work are a good thing. I find that appealing,” Bill says while explaining that his and Marilyn’s fascination with the Shakers only goes so far.

“That I shouldn’t be married does not appeal to me. That I shouldn’t have kids does not appeal to me,” he says. “We don’t carry it too far.”

Though they once numbered about 5,000, only a small colony of Shakers remains today in Maine. The Shaker’s influence is still felt, however, primarily through a style of architecture, furniture and design characterized by simplicity and utility.

One design closely associated with Shakers is the oval-shaped canisters that fascinated Bill.

“I call them the original Tupperware because they nest inside each other and they were made to carry and hold things,” says Diana Van Kolken, who sells the Kiel’s products at her Holland, Mich., store The Shaker Messenger and Folk Art Gallery.

Bill squeezes drying blocks into a just-bent band of maple. Each box is handmade.

“They make wonderful gifts,” Van Kolken says. “A lot of people who sew use them. You could store photographs in them, love letters, a number of things. We’ve had a number of people buy them for memory boxes.”

Besides traditional oval Shaker boxes the Kiels sell a number of other woodworking products. A new item is a recipe box with dovetailed joinery that retails for about $60. They also make lap desks, tables and an adjustable candle holder. The simple lines and functional designs the Shakers were known for inspire all of these products.

According to Van Kolken, who for 18 years published The Shaker Messenger, the products from Wooden Dreams are also true to the craftsmanship of the originals.

“When I get them and I unpack them I love touching them and looking at them,” she says. “You get the smell of the new wood and you think this is something that somebody spent a lot of time making. It’s hand crafted. It’s American made.

“They put their heart and their soul and love into the product that they make.”
Indeed, producing Shaker boxes and other hand-crafted products one at a time offers Bill and Marilyn the chance to fulfill a dream of earning a living from their home in the country.

Using a band saw, Bill resaws lumber into narrow strips. Each box uses a slightly different thickness of wood.

“The goal was to find a place like this,” Marilyn says. “We were trying to find something we wanted to do and do it here, away from everybody. And we were thinking along the lines of woodworking of some type.”

For Bill, the transformation from laborer to craftsman came easily.

“I can’t say I spent many long hours at night pondering just how I was going to get from where I was,” he says. “Good fortune just led from one customer to another.

Even at prices which range from $25 for a pill-sized No. 00 Shaker box to $250 for a sewing case, he’s not getting rich. But it’s work he enjoys, he says.

“There’s easier ways to make a living,” Bill says. “It’s time consuming. If I figured what I make per hour then I don’t do that well but since I enjoy doing it, if I work 10 or 12 hours, I don’t mind.”

For more information, contact Wooden Dreams, Rt. 1, Marquand, MO 63655 or call (573) 866-2283.

 

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