Many more people are about to become familiar with Essex Industries now, after it merged this spring with Chad Smith’s Adirondack Canoe Co. to produce a line of elite lightweight boats to rival any on the market.
All of the above is well and good with the Essex Industries workforce, but it is also beside the point. The men and women with developmental disabilities who mill the lumber, run the machines, craft the products and pack the shipping crates take pride in the work in ways that the non-disabled can’t. Many are doing something they have at some point in their lives been told couldn’t be done: They are showing up for a job, producing a desirable product and earning a paycheck—supporting themselves.
Mountain Lake provides the services they need, be they a little or a lot, with programs that include early intervention, therapy and family support. Along with wooden products, participants make and sell baskets and locally sourced food at the Mountain Weavers’ Farm Store in downtown Port Henry, which opened in 2019 after the community lost its supermarket. They also operate Mountain Lake Consignment and Engraving, a clothing and arts shop where participants gain retail experience. The store serves as well as a retail outlet for Essex Industries products.
Employees put on fashion shows, show people how to weave baskets and develop their own lines of apple sauce, cider and soups. “They’re running their own little businesses, really,” said Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services.
Unlike most commercial enterprises though, Essex Industries does not focus on employee retention. Just the opposite. The ideal is to build skills and confidence to the point where Mountain Lake participants can assimilate into the broader workforce. That’s good for them, good for businesses seeking help and, ARC partisans are fond of saying, good for all to see how fortunate they are to live in a community with persons with developmental disabilities.
“Right now, there’s a glut on the market because people are cutting their ash trees” as a pre-emptive strike against the bugs’ advance, Gereau said. “But in the future, I don’t know what we’ll do—and it won’t be long.”
In the meantime, business is good. Lightweight boats are in high demand, with waiting lists of weeks or months. Gereau said the goal of Essex Industries is to increase production to 100 boats the first year, and 500 boats after five years. From one line of four boats, he said plans are to grow to four lines of canoes with different performance qualities, for a total of 16 models. The next venture is likely to be paddles.
As the product line swells, so does the employees’ satisfaction. “It makes them proud to be part of something like this. They’re learning skills and gaining confidence, and they also benefit from the socialization. The mission is to provide support for people with disabilities so that they can live their very best lives.”– Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services