By Lynn Ascrizzi
If you visit Millersburg, Ohio, you’re in Amish Country, plain and simple. The village, centered in rural Holmes County, is part of the region’s wider Amish population — the largest in the world — an area where folks seek to foster the traditional values of simplicity, faith and hard work.
This unique group is perhaps most famously known for preferring the horse and buggy over the motor-powered car, a choice that, for generations, has given rise to a dedicated hub of skilled artisans who excel at making horse tack, buggies and pony carts.
And, when it comes to equine tack, the most popular material currently being used by this horse-centric populace, is polyester strapping manufactured by BioThane Coated Webbing, whose 30,000-square-foot facility is located in North Ridgeville, Ohio,about 65 miles up the road from Millersburg.
Naturally, in a community where people know how to work and build things with their hands, a sizeable local economy has sprung up around this in-demand, synthetic webbing.
One such entrepreneur is harness maker and BioThane distributor Merle Mast. His industrious, two-generation family business, Fairview Country Sales, buys directly from the manufacturer.
“Twenty years ago, 75 percent of local harness makers made leather harness. Now, only a few actually manufacture leather harness,” Mast said. “I would guess that 90 percent of people here are using BioThane. We have a local delivery in Holmes, Coshocton and Wayne counties — 25 stops.”
What makes synthetic strapping appeal to a community that typically chooses to use more traditional, natural products and materials?
“Well, BioThane is lightweight, stronger, cheaper and needs less maintenance,” Mast replied, with the natural ease of someone who has described the distinct qualities of this material countless times. “If it gets dirty, you can wash it with soap and water. And, it’s not affected by disinfectants.”
According to company information, BioThane webbing comes with TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) coatings.It also is waterproof, antimicrobial, UV protective, durable, and mold, mildew and chemical resistant. Flame retardant products and custom coatings are also available. And, the strapping can be riveted and welded.“We do a lot of BioThane RF (radio frequency) — welding straps together,” Mast said.
Leather harness needs to be oiled once a year, he noted, proper maintenance that helps to keep it water-resistant and add years to its life. “A lot of the older generation likes the look, feel and smell of leather,” he said.
Mast’s family-run business is located in a 9,000-square-foot workshop and warehouse situated on the family farm where he grew up, which he calls “the home farm.”
His father, Myron Mast, first built a harness workshop on that site, in the early 1990s. “In 2004, my father and I built a different shop and moved in. In 2015, we built the current big shop. My brother, Norman, bought the original shop-warehouse building on the property.”
About 75 percent of business at Fairview Country Sales is wholesale, which includes the distribution of all things BioThane. Its workshop also builds and sells horse and pony tack, and dog collars and leads made of the coated webbing. And, they carry leather saddles and supplies for everyday horse care,like stable blankets, shampoos, liniments, grooming products and more.
In addition, the shop makes and sells E.Z. Entry metal pony carts. Handsomely crafted by Aaron Beachy, the sturdy frame is constructed of 11-gauge, 1-inch steel tubing and comes with torsion axles. Carts are available in five different sizes and have about seven different options. Aaron’s dad,David Beachy, of Beachy Blacksmith, LLC, based in nearby Dundee, Ohio,founded the company in the early 1990s and originated the cart designs.
“We assemble the cart parts in the shop,” Mast explained. “We’re his distributor. Beachy Blacksmith actually manufactures the carts and the wheels. The only thing on the cart that is imported is the tire and tube. He does the rims — makes the complete wheel. They’re basically an American-made cart.”
Besides the carts, Fairview also sells an Easy Rider four-wheel open buggy manufactured by Weststar Enterprise, LLC in Indiana.
Altogether, the company has 11 employees, including owner Merle Mast. Mast’s cousin, Ray Mast, is in charge of RF welding and shipping; Willis Troyer is manager and salesman; Ray Allen Miller and Joe Yoder handle cart assembly; Ina Miller is foreman of Petz Products; Rose Miller and Delilah Erb work in manufacturing in the Petz department and Emily Hershberger makes harness.
“Women are good on sewing machines,” Merle Mast pointed out. The responsibilities of his niece, Laurie Mast, include shipping and manufacturing. His daughter, Sheila Mast, and his niece, Darlene Yoder, handle secretarial duties.
“We’re all relatives, except for one neighbor,” he said.
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
Merle Mast has been a BioThane distributor for about 27 years. When it comes to nitty-gritty, first-hand knowledge about the diverse types of coated webbing offered by the manufacturer, including its selection of colors, textures, shapes and many uses, he is like a walking encyclopedia on the versatile stuff.
“When my dad first started the business in the early 90s, BioThane was pretty much black.Now we stock seven different coatings and different colors, as well,” he said, citing examples in quick succession,“Gold 101, Granite 281, Diamond 401 and Griamond 481.”
Griamond 481, for instance, is a combination of the Diamond and Granite coatings. The thick, two-grooved BioThane strapping stays flexible in cold weather and is useful for making belts and equine tack.
Mast also named some Beta products, such as Beta 520, Beta 560, Beta 580. “Beta is a PVC coating used for the driving lines of a harness. Beta 520 often gets used on pet products, like dog collars and leashes. It’s also used for boat handles and even for weaving baskets. TPU Foam is a product designed for the wear point of a harness, the part that would rub against a horse,” he explained.
Strapping also comes in different thicknesses, he noted, citing about 13 different dimensions, from 3/8 inch to 4 inches. And there’s more: “The super-heavy Beta products carry about 25 colors, like gold reflective, which in our shop mostly turns into dog collars and leads,” he said.
It soon becomes obvious, that there are so many BioThane products for distinct purposes that it takes someone like Mast to sort out all the details.
“We probably stock over 500 different SKUs (stock-keeping units) –different sizes, thicknesses and colors – of BioThane products. Generally, we’re shipping between 40 and 50 UPS packages per day, which could be anywhere from 1-10 rolls of BioThane per package. We can put up to 10 rolls,” he said.
Today, Fairview receives, on average, two truckloads per month of the synthetic strapping, which amounts to approximately 35,000 pounds, or 17.5 tons. “It goes all over Ohio, the states and into other countries. We have a customer in almost every state,” he said.
“BioThane guarantees its products to be made in the USA,” he continued. “They will stand behind their product 100 percent. I have never returned a product to BioThane that they refused to cover. They are a super company to work for. They spend a lot of time on quality control.”
WEATHERING THE VIRUS CRISIS
During the current, COVID-19 pandemic, Fairview Country Sales has managed to stay resilient.
“It’s kind of amazing. Our sales dropped some, due to the virus, but not drastically,” Mast said, this past May. “We sell a lot of BioThane to people producing pet products. People might be doing more of this kind of work, at home. And, working horse tack sales went up. I think that people, off work and at home, are doing a little side business.”
His company suffered no layoffs, he added. “But for a while, in April, a couple of the girls were working three days a week instead of full time. Now, they’re back to full time. They were only off five or six days.”
Throughout this past April, the tack shop was closed on Saturdays, but by May, they were open again. “Church was cancelled through April and restaurants were closed. But drive-through (take-out) businesses and carry-out restaurants were open,” he said.
Fairview Country Sales has also been selling more BioThane being used for medical products. “We’re accepted as an essential business. As a distributor, we sell a small percentage of what we do on a normal basis to this sector — for example, strapping to be used for stretchers.
The BioThane company, itself, has sold thousands of feet of webbing to big manufacturers, for items like the strapping that attaches to a mask,” Mast pointed out. “They’re putting those orders in front of ours.”
Around mid-May, Holmes County had 13 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death, a remarkably low count compared to thousands of confirmed cases reported throughout Ohio’s 20 other counties.
“Holmes County is not in the city. We’re not sitting on top of each other. The farms are spread out here. We have a lot to be thankful for,” he said.
Merle Mast, owner and operator of Fairview Country Sales, recollected his growing up days in Millersburg, Ohio, and shared how the family dairy farm turned into a distributorship for BioThane Coated Webbing, manufacturers of synthetic coated strapping that is based in North Ridgeville, Ohio.
“Mom and Dad, (Myron and Frieda Mast), had 11 kids. I’m the youngest in the family. I had a lot of teachers. Seven brothers and three sisters,” Merle said, with dry humor.
“We’ve had a lot of blessings out here. We’re an Amish family. We were raised on a farm. There was not a lot of activity, except work. We milked 25 cows by hand and sold the milk to a local cheese house. They came and took the milk with a truck.”
Education was through the eighth grade. “One thing we looked forward to once a year was when we went to the Columbus Zoo, a two-hour ride. We had a driver. We looked at the animals and went to the amusement park. We had a lot of good times.”
When he turned 16, his father was about to retire. “That’s when he started making harness. I was helping him on the farm and making harness by 1992.”
Around that time, Fairview Country Sales was born. “He bought a few rolls of BioThane and sold a couple of extra rolls to other harness shops. Finally, his customers depended on him to distribute BioThane. Over the years, that just grew,” Merle Mast said.
He and his wife, Edna, and their four children, Elaine, 20, Sheila, 19, Micha, 9, and Evonne, 7, live in a ranch house set on 38 acres of fields and woods in Winesburg, about a mile and a half from the family business. “We have 12 horses. Kids like to play with horses and ponies,” he said.
The family is looking forward to daughter Elaine’s wedding, to be held this year on July 15. This means that Fairview Country Sales will not be attending the Harness Maker’s Get Together, set for July 16 – 17, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I will be putting in price lists and catalogs at the BioThane booth,” Mast said.
Fairview Country Sales distributes catalogs to wholesale customers; and they offer a retail catalog for anybody who requests it. For a free catalog, folks can call, email or fax the company.
FOR MORE INFO
Fairview Country Sales
Merle Mast, owner, operator
3024 County Road 160
Millersburg, OH 44654
Monday – Thursday, 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. EST
Friday, 7 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, 8 a.m. – 12 p.m.
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