Editor’s Note: Nebraska Rural Living showcases rural entrepreneurs and the businesses they create. We have featured nearly 100 entrepreneurs in rural Nebraska, and as we look back, we notice that our rural entrepreneurs are not only staying in business, they also are growing their businesses. In future editions of the Nebraska Rural Living e-magazine, we will follow up with the entrepreneurs we interviewed and photographed five to 10 years ago. We want to know how they are growing their business, their successes and their obstacles. We like imagining the entrepreneurs thriving and blooming like sunflowers on a Nebraska prairie in August, and we at Nebraska Rural Living grow and bloom with them.
We welcome our reader’s suggestions on specific Rural Success stories we should check back with, to find out what is working for them (or not), and future plans. Send your suggestions to bsayers@Nebraskaruralliving.com
Follow us to rural Nebraska where we check back in with Jim and Marilyn Gaster, whose Beaver Buckets are lending historical accuracy to movies and museums around the world.
Buckets of Success
As a lover of history, a master woodworker and a skilled problem solver, James (Jim) Gaster has found a unique niche in the museum, movie and entertainment industry.
Need a Civil War canteen? Jim can make one. A replica of a washboard used in the early 1900s? No problem. How about a coopered wooden bucket? That’s actually where it all started for Jim and his wife Marilyn of rural Nebraska.
His buckets have been shipped to the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Disney theme parks, China, Australia, Canada, Japan and New York City. And he works from the solitude of a 40-acre piece of paradise south of Indianola, Nebraska (about 10 miles east of McCook).
Ideal location for niche business
Jim and Marilyn seem to have found a way to escape the consumerism of modern day society and enjoy their quiet home in the rolling hills of Nebraska while earning a sustainable retirement income with their Beaver Buckets business.
“We just praise God every morning sitting at the breakfast table and looking out and enjoying the birds and the flowers,” Marilyn said of their rural property. “Sometimes, we see a deer out there or turkeys.”
Jim enjoys the peaceful, non-hurried lifestyle they live.
Jim and Marilyn, both originally from different towns in eastern Nebraska, met on a high school senior sneak trip in Colorado. After high school, Jim served in the U.S. Air Force and then earned degrees in environmental science and fabrication and construction from a technical school. Marilyn earned a teaching degree and taught at schools in Fairbury, Glenvil and Culbertson. She quit teaching when her children were born and later homeschooled their two sons.
Jim’s career brought them to the McCook area, where he worked in engineering and carpentry. The Gasters purchased their 40-acre property in 1977 when they were in their late 20s, and they paid cash. In the 1980s, they began building their rustic log cabin home using their own labor and salvaged materials for most of the interior features. Both Gasters are firm believes in saving before buying, and they have never been in debt.
“We are penny pinchers,” Jim said. “We don’t waste at all. This house is a lot of salvage, but you can’t tell.”
Nearly every feature in their beautiful log home has been recycled and has a story. The wood floor was saved from an old college gymnasium. The marble entryway flooring came from an Omaha building that once housed the state capitol. Jim built the front door from trees that were planned to be chopped down after a tornado. He volunteered to tear down a home built in 1880 to use the scrap wood. Chimney bricks were gathered from a former prisoner of war camp building, and Jim crafted the sandstone fireplace from former state senator Owen Elmer’s leftover building supplies.
Jim’s patient and expert craftsmanship is evident in every area of their home.
Expert craftsmanship extends from home to buckets
So when he was researching ideas for a retirement career, he naturally turned to woodworking, a talent he had nurtured since his childhood days when he carved a wooden spoon for his mom.
“I was always whittling around with wood of some sort,” Jim said.
He had seen a coopering demonstration and decided to try the craft himself. A cooper is someone who makes utensils, barrels, casks, butter churns or other accessories, usually out of wood. It was a popular trade in colonial days, but the time-consuming craft is dying in the modern-day world. Which might have been why Marilyn was skeptical when Jim first mentioned he wanted to make a business out of buckets.
They first started selling at craft shows and through Grow Nebraska in the late 1990s. But that wasn’t the right market for their high-quality, historically correct products. At a re-enactment in Nebraska City, a passer-by urged the Gasters to build a web site to reach a different audience.
Marilyn and their son, Jeremy, who was studying computer science at the time, attended a class at McCook Community College to learn how to make a web site. They also learned the importance of search engine optimization so that when someone searches for “wooden buckets” online, Beaver Buckets comes to the top of the list.
“So we got a web site, and it goes to the whole world,” Jim said.
Web sales set business on different path
Soon after making the web site in 2000, they received an order request from the Smithsonian for a wash tub, a wash board and two buckets. Although at first intimidated, Jim requested photos and measurements from the museum and completed the order. He enjoyed the challenge and surprise that came when other orders that started coming in.
“Every time we got something, it would take my breath away,” Jim said.
The web site made all the difference by opening the Gasters’ door to the world.
Orders sometimes flooded in from the web site. He made buckets for the White House’s Botanical Gardens, a Seoul, Korea, amusement park, and a Broadway musical that required custom-sized buckets for performers to dance on. In 2014, Disney ordered 51 sapling-banded buckets for a new theme park in Shanghai, China.
Hollywood set designers called Jim for orders. His products have been requested for movies such as “Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Alamo.”
A movie executive recently requested custom black-powder kegs with tree sapling bands for the upcoming movie about mountain man Hugh Glass called “The Revenant” and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
And rural Nebraska seems to work just fine as a base for Jim’s work around the world.
“UPS can get to me, and that’s good enough,” Jim said.
Speaking of wood
He enjoys setting his own hours and working with wood.
“The wood kinds of tells you want it wants to do,” he said. “The wood has got its own grain and style.”
Jim orders most of his wood from a lumber yard, but once in a while, he will cut down one of the more than 3,000 trees he and Marilyn hand planted on their acreage over the years.
Jim taught himself the coopering craft, but he struggled to find information about the trade when he was learning. He eventually purchased a bucket from an antique store, took it apart and put it back together to learn.
To help save the trade, the Gasters, with help from their son, Bryan, wrote a book and produced a DVD, “How to Make a Coopered Wooden Bucket.”
Marilyn said the idea for the book and DVD emerged after attending local and state business and entrepreneur assistance programs. They received help from REAP (Rural Enterprise Assistance Project) and attended an EDGE class (Enhancing, Developing and Growing Entrepreneurs).
Their book was published in 2004, and more than 3,000 copies have been sold. They produced the DVD in 2010.
Knowing when to say no
Throughout the years, the Gasters have been featured in local, regional and even national publications, such as American Profile that is inserted into newspapers around the country. That article spurred a six-month glut of business.
“So many people wanted everything all at one time, and then it wasn’t any fun anymore,” Marilyn said.
So, Jim doesn’t accept every job that comes his way. But, he accepts enough to still enjoy his craft, challenge his mind and supplement his retirement income.
And Marilyn’s skepticism about a bucket business has disappeared as she has watched and helped her husband build a business from a single wooden bucket.