Careful planning and a good deal of footwork turned a challenge into a success.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
When one door closes, another door opens.
That old saying pretty much sums up what John Raber, owner and operator of Hillside Harness Hardware in Millersburg, Ohio, had experienced last year.
It all started when Weaver Leather, LLC, a leather goods manufacturing, distribution and retail business based in a 300,000-square-foot facility in nearby Mount Hope, Ohio, had cancelled its annual consignment auction indefinitely. To Raber, and many other folks part of the large Amish community in Holmes County and beyond, the event had become a long-standing tradition. “A lot of people enjoyed that auction,” he said.
Raber, 41, who has been running his family business for 10 years, saw a need within the Amish community — and an opportunity — to keep this valued auction tradition going. “We had people in the industry telling us there should be an auction. But I always thought there could be an auction and an expo with vendors, hardware, machinery — anything to do with harness and leather,” he said.
He decided to check out the feasibility of launching a new auction to replace the canceled one and adding a trade show. But, in order to estimate possible risks involved and to find ways to organize the venture, a significant amount of planning, experience and community support were needed.
First, he had to find the best place to hold this kind of occasion. In 2017, Raber had hosted a consignment auction at his place for a Harness Makers Get Together event, which is held in a different state each year, typically at the residence of a harness maker or distributor related to the harness business. But now, it seemed a bigger facility was needed to accommodate the newly proposed, two-day attraction.
The place of choice turned out to be the Mount Hope Event Center, a 61,000-square-foot facility located in Millersburg, only three miles from his home workshop. “They have a great facility and are good to work with,” he said.
“Ohio is kind of central to the Amish community,” he explained. “The Mount Hope Events Center is a busy place. It regularly holds a number of auctions and other events that bring a lot of people into the area, like horse and tractor pulls, buggy auctions and the Holmes County Steam and Engine Association Show. They’ve got a lot going on there.”
The next step was to contact key individuals directly involved with the Events Center. “Well, we talked with auctioneer Orus Mast. And, he said he’d be willing to help. And, I talked with Thurman Mullet and Paul Money, who run the Mount Hope center.”
The new project, now named the 2021 Mid-Ohio Harness and Saddlery Expo and Consignment Auction, got the green light. The date was set for August 19th-20th. “We advertised and sent out flyers to our customers. And, there was word of mouth. The event was open to all.”
Yet, the startup had its uncertainties. “Planning for the first year, we didn’t know if people were going to come or how we’d do on getting consignments. We didn’t know what to expect.” he said. The unknowns added to the usual stresses that invariably accompany new ventures. “I was glad when the first one was over! There are things to learn every year. You learn.”
The extra stress, however, heightened the satisfaction that followed a successful outcome. “I would say it exceeded expectations. Things went really well. We had a good turnout, over 400 to 500 buyers. And, other people from near and far came for the show. I would guess the turnout was at least 800, all together. It worked out all right!”
Besides local vendors, that first trade show/consignment auction drew vendors from half a dozen different states, he said. And, it attracted buyers from about 15 different states, as well as Ohio.
“Seems like people enjoyed the event. A lot of equipment sold well: harness leather, sewing machines, a lot of hand tools and saddles, a lot of tack and a lot of rolls of leather — anything related to leatherwork. It was probably bigger than the consignment auction we held at our place in 2017.”
Men and women came for the leatherwork, harness or tack shops, he added. “We had children come, too. The first evening we had a free supper and we’re going to continue that in 2022.”
The second annual, 2022 Mid-Ohio Harness and Saddlery Expo and Consignment Auction is set for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 3rd-4th. This year, the event will hold a benefit for Willing Hearts Workshop and Day Care, a place for Amish children with special needs.
“We’ve got over 30 vendors and there’s room for more. We’re getting a good bit of interest in the second event,” Raber noted, this past spring. Vendor fees are determined by the size of the booth space. Two sizes are offered: 10-by-10-foot and 10-by-20-foot.
“There are not a lot of auctions around for leather or leather machinery, not a lot of options,” he noted. “It fills a niche, a place where people can sell their products. We now know a little more what to expect.”
“Here, there’s a shortage of help. In our area, in Holmes County, unemployment was at two percent. It shows you that people are working. But you can’t find anybody to work! We could use a couple of employees.”
— John Raber, owner, operator, Hillside Harness Hardware
OHIO WORKSHOP IS BUSIER THAN EVER
Hillside Harness Hardware of Millersburg, Ohio, a three-generation family business, was founded in 1958, by Daniel Raber, a farmer who made harness and sold hardware and leather. In 1988, the business then passed on to his son, Andrew “Andy” Raber. Then, his son, John Raber, who had been working with his father since about age 12, stepped up to run the business on New Year’s Day 2012.
The well-established wholesale distributor of hardware and supplies for the harness, tack, saddlery and pet industries, has seen steady growth over the years. Today, they ship to all 50 states. And, they’ve widened their outreach. In January of this year, they set up a booth at WESA’s International Western/English Apparel & Equipment Trade Show in Dallas, Texas.
“It’s the first time we’ve gone out of state,” Raber said. They offered their full line of imported stainless steel, nickel and brass harness and saddlery hardware in a variety of finishes. Also included were goods manufactured in the family workshop, such as halters made of leather, BioThane and Beta riding tack (a web-coated nylon) and horse training equipment.
Overall, the business has weathered the pandemic well. “For us during COVID, we were busier than we’ve ever been. A lot of people were doing more with pets and horses. People changed their lifestyle. I’m sure people started new businesses. The pet industry really took off. It has come back down, but it’s still busy,” he said.
The company’s biggest sales come from hardware and horse-related products, like halters and lead ropes. Raber’s brother, Jonas Raber of Raber’s Harness, makes a lot of the leather products. He lives about a mile from the company workshop. Another brother, Ivan Raber, works in the office in shipping. The close-knit family group includes their father, Andrew Raber, who works on lead ropes.
This year, however, brought a whole set of new challenges, namely the current spike in U.S. inflation, which has posed widespread difficulties for countless businesses. “Metal prices are very unstable. Prices are everything. It is just going up,” John Raber said. “Leather, hardware and freight for imported products have gone through the roof — probably tripled and quadrupled. Supplies are hard to find. Certain sizes of hardware are hard to get. It affects prices.”
Today, the business has nine employees, down two from 2017. But they’re looking to hire. “Here, there’s a shortage of help. In our area, in Holmes County, unemployment was at two percent. It shows you that people are working. But you can’t find anybody to work! We could use a couple of employees,” he said.
On the plus side, Hillside Harness Hardware’s new, full-color, 280-page wholesale catalog will be printed before the second Mid-Ohio Expo and Consignment Auction, set for Aug. 3rd-4th, at the Mount Hope Event Center in Millersburg.
“We try to send out a new catalog every year. It contains hardware, animal health products and horse-related materials: BioThane, nylon, leather and whatever people want to make a harness. Everyone on the company mailing list is mailed a catalog. It’s 20 pages bigger this year. We’ve added some new hardware and leather products,” he noted.
Folks interested in the catalog can contact the company and request a copy. The business does not have a website or sell online. Instead, sales are made through advertising and word of mouth. “People can call from 8 a.m. to 12 noon and can leave a message any time. Or they can fax in their orders,” he said.
GET IN TOUCH
Hillside Harness Hardware, Ltd.
John Raber, owner, operator
4205 Township Road 629
Millersburg, Ohio 44654