The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in
central Montana. Sometimes, it appears not just in the form of the
young and energetic but also in the hands of the tried and tested.
“The Woodpecker Man,” Earl Osse, and his partner, Jerry
Gantz, are two such seasoned entrepreneurs.
Synchronistically, an article about Osse and his wood-peckers was just about to come out in “Country” when I ran into Earl and son Ed at The Stage Stop in Shawmut, last fall. That national magazine, based in Illinois, had requested pictures of Osse’s work and eventually hired a Billings Gazette reporter to drive to Ryegate for photos and an interview. I took my own turn so that Mr. Osse is getting extra press these days.
Asked how business is, Earl smiled and responded, “Oh, pecking right along. It will be good until after Labor Day, then it will die down.” I suggested that things might be busier this year with the increased media attention.
Twelve years ago, Earl and Jerry made 12 woodpeckers and then nailed them to power poles along the highway - Highway 12, of course. The power company didn’t like them on their poles, so Earl and Jerry moved them to trees along the way until they had 42 lining the highway.
“So, what got you started in the woodpecker business?” Earl saw a 3-foot long woodpecker in Harlowton and decided to make some smaller ones. The present series comes in three sizes - 18 inches, 6 inches and doorknocker.
The woodpecker men have made 6700 of the 18-inch variety over the past dozen years. They can get 25 large ones and 10 smaller out of a sheet of plywood. When they started plywood cost $14.50 a sheet. The present cost is $28 and sure to go higher. Nonetheless, each woodpecker sold for $10 years ago and still carries the same price.
Like Wall Drug, the wood-peckers are represented all over the world from Russia to Germany to England to Africa and Australia. Asked about a website, Earl said, “No, no, no. We have got all we can do to keep up with the business we have.”
The Woodpecker Man said, “Advertising never cost us a dime. The woodpeckers sell themselves stationed out there along the highway.”
Actually, the woodpecker builders had some help early on with unpaid advertising thanks to Margaret Eklund. She said, “By God, that’s a good idea. I’m going to get the TV station to do a piece on the woodpeckers.” And, she did. Radio, magazine, and newspaper articles followed. Ed McIntosh showed off one of the woodpeckers on a weather-vane featured in his Tuesday weather program for a time.
Were they surprised at the popularity of the woodpeckers? Both Osse and Gantz freely admit that their success was unexpected. Making woodpeckers has occupied the two for years now. They still have 33 of their feathered friends on Highway 12 between Ryegate and Harlowton despite the fact that many trees have been felled over the years along the road.
The Ryegate entrepreneurs work “pretty near every day.” They used to make 12 birds in a day. Now, “it takes 12 days to
make six birds.” I suspect that’s an exaggeration. Nonetheless, Osse and Gantz have slowed down - some.
Each man has his assem-bly line chore: Jerry traces and rough cuts the birds on plywood, then Earl sits at his bandsaw and trims the woodpeckers neatly, Jerry does patch work, priming, and body paint, Earl finishes off the face of each creation.
Osse and Gantz make a great team. Earl says, “We’ve been buddies forever.” Well, at least, 40 years. Osse is the “marketing man” and Gantz is pretty much “the silent partner.”
Both men are 80 years old, or nearly so. Osse hit that mark last summer. When Gantz made 80 in March of this year.
Earl Osse moved to Ryegate in the 50s after he was injured in a mine accident near Roundup. He ran the north
mail route as well as held the office of mayor in Ryegate for over 30 years. Osse handled city maintenance and was the town handy man for many years.
Jerry Gantz worked for many years as janitor at the Ryegate School. He started his other business in 1966 running a meat house but just handling wild game. While Osse has been nicknamed The Woodpecker Man, Gantz is widely known for Jerry’s Jerky. Osse says, “When Jerry is making jerky, I work by myself.” But obviously, he prefers it the other way.
The Woodpecker Man and Jerky Jerry show us another side of the entrepreneurial spirit. They might even go a long way
to prove that you can start and run a business. An idea, a partner, and plan may be enough to get one off the ground.