About 45 miles north of Kansas City, Mo., a motorist trying to find his way back to Central Illinois can jump on U.S. 36 and breeze east in the summer sunshine.
Open road. Light traffic. Clear sailing.
It was supposed to be that way while driving back from Colorado when a sign with the word “Quilt” caught the eye of my sister-in-law.
Driving in the vehicle behind us, she suggested we take a look. I cringed at the thought of a detour to look at sewing.
I know nothing about quilting and probably never will, but what I discovered in the town of Hamilton, Mo. (population 1,809) will stay with me forever.
Thriving in Hamilton is one of the greatest small business success stories in American history, and it has all happened within the last few years. Here resides a cultural phenomenon, an American dream come to life, the total transformation of a community not unlike many here in rural Central Illinois.
This is the home of Missouri Star Quilt Co.
Not long ago Hamilton, Mo., was a quiet, dusty blip on the map, the one-time home of James Cash Penney, the entrepreneur who founded J.C. Penney department stores.
It was 2008. The economy was in the tank and out in California, Al Doan worried about his parents, who were back in Hamilton watching their modest retirement melt away. His dad was slowly losing his job as a machinist with the Kansas City Star and his mom was working odd jobs to make the house payment.
Al had just graduated from college and had taken a job with a software company. His sister was in Missouri and they wondered what to do about mom, dad and their future.
But their mother, Jenny Doan, had a skill. She could produce quilts. And the kids concocted an idea that has turned their mom into an Internet superstar and is turning Hamilton into what some are calling, “the Disneyland of quilting.”
They started by investing in their mother, spending $24,000 for a rundown building and $40,000 for an long-arm sewing machine that could stitch the backing onto her quilts.
“We essentially took out a loan, bought a building that was an old auto showroom, put the quilting machine in it and finished it out,” Al said. “Just like that, mom had a studio.”
They envisioned mom cranking out a handful of quilts a week, making enough to pay down the loan. Eventually, mom would have a full-time wage doing something she likes.
Jenny, Al’s sister and the mom of a best friend worked there full-time. “For the first year, nobody got a paycheck, nobody took money home,” Al said, chuckling about it now.
“After a year, most people at least got minimum wage. And then raises. It was three years into it before the rest of us started taking a check.”
The turning point came as Al contemplated ways to reach a broader audience. He asked Jenny if she’d film a quilting tutorial that could be viewed on YouTube.
Although Jenny had no idea what YouTube was, nor did she understand the fundamentals of filming a tutorial, she was a natural in front of a camera.
“It was just a way to get in front of more people,” Al said. “I was coming from the tech startup world. I was looking at how to do social media marketing.”
The endeavor started slowly at first. But little by little, people with an interest in quilting began to find Jenny. A community of followers developed, 1,000 after one year, 10,000 after two years. Now there are 270,000 subscribers who receive an e-mail every time a new Jenny video comes out.
“That has equated to 58 million views on YouTube,” Al said.
Indeed, Jenny Doan is now regarded as the Oprah of quilting.
The Missouri Star Quilt Co., has found an international following. It now dominates downtown Hamilton, occupying 16 separate storefronts including the building J.C. Penney once opened as his 500th store.
They employ 200 and from their original warehouse they ship between 2,000 and 5,000 orders a day from their booming online business.
Quilters from all over the country come to see the precut squares and the 25,000 bolts of fabric that line the shelves of their stores.
They arrive in cars from California and Texas, in buses from Canada, and each year a woman from Mexico City flies in to celebrate her anniversary. Another is an annual visitor from Holland. A group from Australia made the journey.
When Jenny walks into one of their stores, chaos ensues. Selfies and swooning greet the woman who teaches quilting in an endearing and inviting way.
“The great thing about mom is that she’s normal,” Al said. “She’s not trying to prove how smart she is or how great she is. She’ll screw up on camera right there with everyone watching and she’ll just say, ‘Don’t worry about that. We’ll figure it out together.’ And they love that.
“The greatness about mom is that when you watch it, you believe you can do it, too.”
Because so many visitors are flocking to Hamilton, expansion was inevitable. There are separate stores that divide fabric into themes (there’s an entire store for holiday fabric).
They’ve built a retreat center that sleeps 38. “It turns into a slumber party for grownups,” Al said. “Everyone goes there, lays out their quilting stuff and goes nuts.”
They’re opening a “man’s land,” where men can relax while the women fawn over fabrics.
They’ve helped finance a bakery, a burger joint, an upscale dining spot and they trumpet the existence of a local brewery. Business has been growing by 200 percent a year.
What Al Doan has come to realize is that they are doing more than teaching how to make quilts. He believes his mom has helped unlock a stifled sense of creativity in people. Somehow, Jenny has given them permission to create again.
“Women are hard on themselves. They don’t give themselves time to have hobbies,” Al said. “We’ve heard from women who are frustrated with their situations and they find quilting and it breathes life back into them. It gives them a purpose again.
“We got a three-page hand-written letter from a lady in Iran who was ordering fabric. She said, “You have filled my war-torn life with color.’”
Hamilton is thriving again. Jenny no longer worries about her retirement.
The culmination came in May when Al and his sister, Sarah Galbraith, where honored at the White House as National Small Business Persons of the Year.