Hometown impact: McCullough created business partnerships for downtown Wadena success
Hometown Crafts and Fabrics draws people as a crafting destination and for the hub of friendships. The tradition will continue with Dawn Lundgren of Fresh Freeze, who is the new owner as of January.
WADENA — In the creative industry, Cindy McCullough led with bold strokes transforming the Ben Franklin from rows of paper towels to a space for craft ideas with products filling every inch of Hometown Crafts and Fabrics. She owned the Wadena and Detroit Lakes stores.
While geared towards crafts and the community, McCullough owned the store for 15 years with partnerships weaved across downtown Wadena for community-wide success. The tradition will continue with Dawn Lundgren of Fresh Freeze, who is the new owner as of January.
The store drew people as a crafting destination and for the hub of friendships. People come for the basics and specialty items, which staff are glad to help you learn about.
“I want this place to be a place where you come and yup, you can get your sewing and your crafting supplies but you also bump into your neighbors and people you haven’t seen in awhile, and you stand in the aisles and you make plans and you come and have classes,” McCullough said. “It needed to be more than just a place to shop.”
With Walmart opening in 2006 , McCullough figured the fabric and crafting supplies would be covered. But she also had the idea to purchase the Ben Franklin as more people would be coming to town for Walmart. She transformed Hometown Crafts with a mural along the front windows, an added bathroom and new products to fill the store.
“It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life because I really did not know anything about fabric,” McCullough said. “But Linnea (Gray) was here and had been here, and she’s an expert quilter so it was easy to learn fabric, and now I love it.”
After learning the fabric skills from Gray, she’s still a “beginner” quilter with about 20 quilts made since owning the store. She hopes to work on more quilting projects in her retirement.
Cindy and her husband Jerry will share their time between Duluth and Florida after Jerry received a new position in Duluth. He worked as a radiologist at Tri-County Health Care. The move also brings them closer to their family. The Detroit Lakes store closed in 2020.
“I just kind of grew up here,” McCullough said. “When I started here my youngest was only 6 years old. And so as my kids have grown up and then I became a Grandma, and that led me to bring in more toys because I was a Grandma, and so I’ve kind of grown up through the store too.”
She learned shopping lessons, such as how to shop for a range of customers and pick items that aren’t your taste. The wide selection includes customer requests, popular crazes and items that McCullough and Gray discovered on their market trips. Gray has worked at the store for 22 years, and both agree that shopping together is fun and brings variety to the store.
“We always come back really invigorated after a buying trip and the girls will say, ‘Oh geez, they’re going to be bouncing off the walls because you have all this new things that you want to see,’” Gray said. She added their journey has always been a “growing process” together.
They add products on a regular basis with new crazes and craft ideas to try. Of the store’s 42,000 items only 17,000 items are reordered. “Almost two-thirds of what’s in here won’t be here in three months,” McCullough noted. The art crazes flip through her mind just as quickly, from scarf yarns to rubber band bracelets and diamond art. And, smiling, she said they chose to skip some crazes too.
“It’s a creative industry. It’s not an industry where everything is sort of the same every year. It’s very, very creative, and it’s so fun to go to market and just have a chance to look at other people’s creativity from all over the world and decide what’s (my best guess) for Wadena,” McCullough said.
Throughout the rows, you’ll discover yarn, paint, flowers, fabric, scrapbook materials, puzzles, decor items, toys, beads and any item to complete your dream Pinterest project. Though, you might not find the products in the same spot since “we keep (customers) on their toes,” McCullough said.
“People come in and they’ll stay for an hour. I love it,” McCullough said.
It is however easy to know the seasons in the store with the front portion displaying seasonal items. The store explodes at Christmas time from decorated trees to ornaments, lights, stuffed animals, decor and Christmas scenes. McCullough said if they had pictures of the decorated Christmas trees, it would be hundreds.
“I feel like it’s (Christmas) the one time of the year that everybody should share in some sort of happiness,” McCullough said. “We have always done it up right.”
People from across Minnesota have come to see Hometown Crafts’ Christmas and purchase items on sale before the holiday. She enjoys the quieter seasons too, when there are less items in the store.
McCullough started as an “avid crafter” and grew into more interests to boost her own, and others, creativity. Hometown Craft employees share their skills through arts and crafts classes.
“She really was innovative in that way to have things like that that would bring people into the craft business. People that didn’t know anything about sewing or making a quilt or making clothes,” said Dean Uselman, Wadena Development Authority director. “She really did a lot of creative things to educate people and bring them into the craft of making things from fabric, and other crafts.”
McCullough also served on the WDA board for about a year.
With her strong support for downtown, McCullough expected to commute for a year before finding an owner “who was going to be committed to the town.” She said it was “very important to not leave a hole in downtown.”
“If this would close the doors, I think, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Gray said. “Not saying that we’re the place to go, but it’s a big store for downtown Wadena and a lot of people come for that and then they branch out and go to the other stores.”
Before owning the stores in Wadena and Detroit Lakes, McCullough worked as an elementary school principal in St. Paul, and her love for students showed in her Wolverine pride. The storefront windows glittered with blue and gold decorations during homecoming, and she shared crafting skills with kids at Oma’s Christmas markets. She is “a real positive community promoter,” Uselman noted.
If you’ve wondered, "Who’s heading that project?" "Try Cindy," was often the answer. She pulled together businesses in unique partnerships like store promotions that offered prizes and combined funds for advertising dollars. The group also helps direct people to other Wadena businesses.
“She just wanted everybody to succeed and do well,” Uselman said. “Cindy was instrumental to downtown and a lot of the … benefits that we’re seeing with the bustling downtown.”
The success of other businesses means people come to town and shop or eat in different spots for an added economic boost. McCullough said the projects are beneficial and fun thanks to the creative group of business owners.
“There’s never been a more fun time to be downtown than now,” McCullough said, “and the healthier your downtown is, the healthier everybody is.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, staff and volunteers joined local partnerships to create reusable gowns and masks. One of the projects that stretched their limits was the shortage of elastic. For six weeks, staff searched for elastic, ripped up underwear and t-shirts for their elastic and tried using tape.
“We were brainstorming every day, ‘Where could we find elastic to make masks? Where can we find elastic?’ We had plenty of fabric but we had no elastic,” McCullough said. “You just think back to that and it’s amazing we’re all still here.”
The pandemic also bumped up sales on puzzles, which quadrupled in space in just four months at the store.
“With COVID you just had to try and keep the shelves full,” McCullough said. “COVID has been very good for sales, it’s been amazing. And I don’t know what to attribute it to other than people are maybe at home a little more now and I think they’re a little more aware that those of us on Main Street in the small towns need their help to survive. And our customers have been just so loyal.”
A faithful group ran the Ben Franklin and sets of creative people have rotated through since with Gray as the constant.
“Cindy was such a joy to work with because her attitude was always up,” Gray said.
The store itself grew too with sales quadrupled over the 15 years. A few of the regularly stocked items are white flour sack towels, paint and embroidery floss.
On the way to market, while at friends' houses and shopping at other stores, McCullough said she was always looking for ideas. The independent store front also allowed her to bring in and remove items based on popularity.
“We’ve got a good crew that works here. That’s one thing about the store, we’ve always been very fortunate to have very talented girls that work for us, and so it’s just not me or Cindy or Dawn, it’s just the whole group. And that makes it fun to come into work,” Gray said. “Everybody has their own little ideas and their additions to the store. I like to quilt, one of the girls likes to crochet, some like to paint, … so it’s just kind of wow, we can all learn from each other.”
With her final stitch complete, McCullough is excited to pass on the journey to a great team full of support for Wadena.
“I would buy it again. I might buy it earlier in my life. Because I feel like there’s still so much to learn,” McCullough said, “and that’s why I’m excited for Dawn and her daughter Amber because I feel like they have the energy and the intelligence to get a website up and running, and get things a little more digitally friendly.”