A unique family business venture in East Otter Tail County, with a 12- year track record, is also something of a best kept local secret--until this weekend.
One of 30 vendors and organizations that will be on display July 17 to July 20 at the East Otter Tail County Fair will be Jim and Cathy Kratzke's "Metalcraft by K."
From their shop in rural Perham, the Kratzke's have manufactured thousands of solid steel, powder-coat paint finish signs--most of them personalized to the customer.
A family business in the true sense of the word, Kratzke's Metalcraft displays at 24 shows a year in the Midwest--from Nebraska to Illinois to Wisconsin to the Dakotas.
But oddly enough, the product is less known at the local level. This will be the first time the Kratzke's will set up their display at the fairgrounds.
"The East Otter Tail Fair has always conflicted with the Omaha show," said Cathy Kratzke. "But this year, we managed to split up the family, with three of us going to Omaha and three working the Perham fair."
In addition to the Kratzke's, there are nine new booths and vendors scheduled to participate in the East Otter Tail Fair. The new entries include the Clarissa Bible Church, Nail Art, Humane Society, caricature art by Trevor Meyer, R and A Sales, TNT Tattoos, Up North Photos and Perham Ducks Unlimited. There are 30 booths that will be inside the industrial building and outside on the grounds.
Kratzke Metalcraft's signs --some with models featuring moving parts on a stainless steel drive system--have been displayed at the Focus Christmas Bazaar and at the Phelp's Mill art show, but overall, most of their business has been outside the immediate area.
Jim's fascination with windmills, which dates back to his childhood, is the basic inspiration behind Kratzke signs. Many of the models feature a windmill, which powers moving parts as the wind blows.
The Kratzke signs are sold retail at three large Scheels stores; Fargo, Sioux Falls and Des Moines; but there are no local retail outlets, since most of the local sales are out of their shop.
With the special paint finishes and stainless steel parts, the signs are virtually permanent. "We're testing them ourselves, as far as weathering and fading, because we've had our own signs up for 12 years," said Cathy Kratzke.
The signs range in price from $25 up to $160. All the signs can be personalized with the family name while you wait. The top-end signs are those that are customized with a photo or artwork submitted by the customer, though those are special ordered because of the special labor and processing.
There are more than 200 basic designs, but with customized orders the design possibilities are virtually infinite.
The business is a full-time venture for the entire family. Cathy supplments income with her child care operation. All four children are involved--Jordan, Jeanna, Pete and J.J.--along with his wife Michele. Even Cathy's 16-month-old granddaughter, Kaitlyn, accompanies the family at shows.
"One of our best sales points is the fact that we're a family business," said Cathy. Sales literature states that the products are "proudly handcrafted by the Kratzke family in Perham, MN, USA." "People like the fact that nothing is imported." she said.
But Kratzke signs have been "exported," so to speak. There is a Kratzke sign in Australia, for example, and throughout the United States--from Florida to Arizona to Texas and most states inbetween.
"Everything is made in our shop...by family members. Each of the moving signs requires more than 200 steps in the manufacturing process," she added.