SMYRNA MILLS, Maine — Long before the tiny house craze swept across the country, a community tied directly to the land in northern Maine began turning out hand-built sheds, camps, tiny houses, outhouses and even treehouses.
Sturdi-Bilt Storage Buildings LLC stretches out along a half-mile or so of Route 2 in southern Aroostook County, in the heart of Smyrna Mills’ small Amish community. In two workshops, eight craftsman, each members of the 20-family Smyrna Amish church, work year-round building everything from simple storage sheds to elaborate camps ready for occupation.
“All of us who work here are the owners [of Sturdi-Bilt],” Jason Johnson said. “It’s not so much that we are employee-owned but that we are owner-operators.”
Johnson, 29, is the face of Sturdi-Bilt, manning the front office, answering the phone, taking orders from customers and keeping track of inventory. Sturdi-Bilt, according to Johnson, began in 1996, when community member Irvin Hochstetler began building sheds.
“He was really the brains and brawn of getting this going,” Johnson said. “The opportunity to work here was handed to me after I grew up here in the shop.”
Johnson’s father ran the business before he took over two years ago, he said.
“It may not always be the same person you see working here in the office,” Johnson said. “But it will always be the same, quality product.”
The key to the company’s quality control, he said, are its people.
“Every building made here is built from memory,” Johnson said. “There are no blueprints.”
Designs range from what Johnson calls “four walls and a roof” storage sheds to livable buildings most often used as seasonal camps or tiny houses. From the minute the order comes in to the second the finished product goes out the door, it is the sole responsibility of one of the company’s seven builders.
“We assign one project to one worker,” Johnson said. “That one person is responsible for that order, [and] the customer knows the man who laid the skids also put on the ridge cap and did everything in between.”
A half-mile up the road from the company’s office and main shop, is a second shop where Jonas Yoder was hard at work on sections of what was to become rental storage units.
“This shop is my second home,” Yoder said. “And by the start of the year, God willing, it will be mine [because] I will be the new owner of this shop.”
Yoder, 29, worked in construction in Missouri before moving to Maine, and he felt it was an answer to a calling from a higher power.
“I am a Christian who was raised Amish, but was not always living a Christian life,” he said. “I work now to live that Christian life [and] feel God called me here to do his work.”
Yoder said he feels blessed to have found a home in the northern Maine community for his family and a job with Sturdi-Bilt.
“My house is three-quarters of a mile up the road, so I can be home for lunch with my wife and children,” he said. “The work I do is indoors, so I can work rain or shine.”
He considered a moment and then laughed.
“Of course, that means I am obligated to keep working,” he said. “There are no rain days for me.”
Yoder said he was taken in immediately by the experienced builders and taught the techniques and plans of the buildings.
“After that first year, I figured I was as good as I could be,” he said. “Having a memory is really a blessing, isn’t it? I was able to remember what they taught me, and I now find every year I do this, I am remembering more measurements in my head.”
Yoder said he is constantly challenged by the work and takes a great deal of satisfaction in the finished product.
Materials such as hardware, lumber, insulation, siding and roofing are purchased and delivered right to the shop — the metal roofing and siding from a nearby Amish-owned metal shop.
Everything else — roof trusses, doors, windows and interior walls — are built by hand in the shop.
“Some days I come in and just build trusses,” Yoder said. “Other days I come in and build nothing but windows or doors.”
He works a great deal alone, but at times enjoys the company of some or all of his five children who seem to be on their way to learning their father’s trade.
“My son made that,” Yoder said, pointing to a toy truck made from lumber scraps. “I made the wheels for him, but he put it all together.”
Materials for the buildings are unloaded at one end of the 34-foot-by-102-foot shop that Yoder has organized to best fit his construction style. Sometimes, there is just one project under construction, other times, he has multiple buildings in varying stages of completion lined end to end. Finished buildings are raised by hydraulic jacks and placed on large, wheeled dollies which require remarkably little effort to maneuver.
“I never would have thought one man could move an entire shed or camp,” Yoder said. “But this method really works.”
Yoder and his fellow workers do use power tools, but in keeping with the Amish faith, they are not powered by electricity. Instead, every tool — from small palm sanders to larger table saws run off pneumatic air powered by a propane air compressor.
Once complete and out of the shop, the buildings are ready for delivery to the new owners.
The buildings have been sent all over Maine, and Johnson said there are entire “communities” of seasonal camps along the coast or near remote lakes made up of Sturdi-Bilt camps and tiny houses.
Deliveries are handled by a crew from the Mennonite community in Bridgewater.
“They have delivered thousands of buildings for us,” Johnson said. “I can’t say enough good things about them or their work — they are the last face the customer sees and that makes them the most important face.”
Base prices on a Sturdi-Bilt building start at $1,100 for a simple 8-foot square shed and go up to $5,900 for a vinyl sided, 14-foot-by-32-foot premium building. Outhouses go for between $350 and $400. Options to the buildings, which include extra windows and doors, interior paneling, flooring, interior walls, chimney and siding, are offered at an additional cost.
And while Sturdi-Bilt builders work from standard, memorized plans, Johnson said his crew loves to work directly with clients on custom projects — within reason.
“The biggest building we can do is 14-by-32,” he said. “People always want us to go higher, but we have to stay within what the legal on-road limits are for delivery.”
At the start of the traditional building season in the spring, Johnson said they have between 40 and 70 completed structures for clients to look at and purchase. If a customer does not see what they want, Johnson works with them to plan out a customized building, which takes between four and six weeks to complete.
“People like Jonas and [the other builders] are the spinal cord of this business,” Johnson said. “I might be the one who sells it, but without them, there would be no product to sell.”
About a year ago, Johnson turned quality control over to the builders.
“I can’t be out there badgering them, and they know the reputation of this business rests on their shoulders,” he said. “They know their trade. We’re not a factory here, these people are craftsmen.”
Once per week the entire crew gets together over coffee and donuts to discuss all aspects of the business.
“There is a real division of responsibility here,” Johnson said. “I am not responsible for construction, but the men who are trust me to have the materials here when they need them and to sell the buildings they build.”
He does it all without computers.
“We have no computer system,” he said. “There is no electronically monitored running inventory so I need to keep track of what goes out and what needs to come in.”
Johnson admits there are times he also has to dial back clients’ expectations.
“If you are looking for a big Swiss chalet, I’m sorry we just can’t do that,” he said. “But if you can keep your dream 32 feet long and 14 feet wide, we will see what we can do.”
The company does virtually no advertising and relies primarily on word-of-mouth, repeat customers and folks driving by who spot the display buildings, much like Ron Iverson. The Old Lyme, Connecticut, resident has property in Island Falls and was looking to put a storage shed on it.
“I’ve driven by here a few times and decided to stop in and see what they have,” Iverson said. “I like the rustic look of what they do here.”
Johnson said he really likes working with the public outside of his community.
“Our being Amish and our customers not being Amish does not cause any difficulties,” he said. “We like to look at the larger picture, [and] we are not here for ourselves, but to serve Jesus, and if our customers see what we do as good, it is because we are doing it in service to God.”