The kids always knew Mom was kind of a ham.
She was a hoot around the house when they were growing up, but come on — they set her up in a business so she could sew a few quilts to the good people of Caldwell County and now busloads of women from Australia are rolling into town.
“We want to see Jenny!”
That would be Jenny Doan, mother of seven, grandmother of 21 and now a YouTube star some are calling the Oprah of quilting.
The visitors don’t come from just Down Under, but from All Over. The guest book to Missouri Star Quilt Co. shows sign-ins from virtually every state, plus France, Israel, South Africa, Thunder Bay, Ontario, and so on around the globe.
They come to an old brick building next to the barbershop in a little farming town of 1,800 about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City.
And why do they do this — come all this way? It’s not like Capetown and Tel Aviv are just up Interstate 35 a ways.
Sarah Galbraith, Jenny’s daughter and manager of the day-to-day operation, shakes her head at the question.
“If we would have tried to do this, we couldn’t have done it,” she said. “This just happened.”
The adult children started the business to help the parents, Jenny and Ron, supplement their retirement income. Maybe pay for groceries.
But today that little business has nearly 50 employees, ships out a thousand orders a day and might be the biggest seller of precut quilt pieces in the world. The family is rehabbing two more downtown buildings into a retreat, essentially a hotel for out-of-towners who come to the Missouri Star Quilt Co.
It will sleep 40 in upstairs bedrooms. Sort of a “quilters slumber party,” Galbraith said.
The startup business shows the effect one family and one idea can have on a small town. It’s put cars on the main street and money in cash drawers.
Mayor Allen Gentry of Hamilton didn’t see it coming.
“I didn’t know quilting was so big, but we got busloads coming in here,” Gentry said. “They’re going gangbusters over there and this town can sure use it.”
The business started slowly in 2008 but took off after a few months when one of Jenny’s sons asked if she would like to do a tutorial for a company website. Good call. Put legs and a smile on a bolt of the most vibrant, flowery fabric in the store — that’s Jenny Doan.
“Sure,” she answered her son. Then she added, “What’s a tutorial?”
Today those YouTube segments have been viewed by more than 20 million people worldwide. Watching, people say, is like sitting down with an old friend. A French magazine came to town to feature the business in an article and video.
Letters and cards — fan mail, really — pour into the store in Hamilton.
“You have filled my war-torn world with color,” a woman wrote from Iraq.
Jenny reads the letters and sometimes she cries. Like the one from a building manager in New York who struggled for years to get past the horror of 9/11. Or the woman grieving from the loss of her husband. Another writer was coming back from cancer.
All found renewal in the videos of Jenny Doan, which play like a harmony of vocation, muse and neighborly chitchat against a backdrop of quilted beauty.
“I feel humbled and blessed every day,” Jenny said last week, a letter in hand. “Sometimes I read these and wonder, ‘Who am I?’”
She came from California, with a truckload of family.
Jenny had worked as a costume designer in theater. Ron Doan was a machinist. Life was good until the area where they lived around Monterey Bay saw a jump in crime.
“You should home-school your kids,” somebody told Jenny.
“There’s a bunch of them,” she said.
One of the children needed costly medical care.
“It just wasn’t a good life out there,” remembered Al Doan, a son. “Seven kids, doctor bills and trying to live in California on a machinist’s salary.”
So about 20 years ago, the whole family loaded up a Ryder truck and headed east to Missouri farm country and to Hamilton, a town they knew from a family friend. Jenny found work in social service and Ron worked as a machinist for The Kansas City Star.
In 2008, some of the children got the idea for the quilt shop.
“The kids were all grown and gone, and they felt I needed something to do with my hands,” said Jenny, who had recently learned quilting at a vocational class in Chillicothe. “They also thought we needed extra money.”
So Sarah Galbraith, Al Doan and David Mifsud, Al’s best friend from a Mormon mission to Ukraine, set her up in business in an old building two minutes away from Jenny and Ron’s house.
“Mom would run it and we would all help if needed,” Galbraith said.
They would be. Particularly after adding the website and Jenny’s videos. Even those 21 grandchildren chipped in.
Early on, they all worked for free. Today, Galbraith manages the operation; another daughter, Natalie Earnheart, runs the store; Ron keeps the quilting machines going; and Al Doan handles the technology side.
Another son, Jacob Doan, produces the tutorials that linked the little business to the world.
“Once she (Jenny) got in front of the camera, she just took off and the business took off,” Al Doan said. “My earliest memory of her is as a performer, so this was where she was supposed to be. That’s why hundreds of orders come in every day and that’s why people come here from all over the world.
“They want to meet this woman.”
A town revived
The boyhood home of J.C. Penney sits on the main drag through Hamilton, and every day cars roll into town and park, and the occupants get out and walk to the opposite side of the street.
Pretty much the same thing for Hamilton native and baseball hall of famer Zack Wheat. A nearby monument pays tribute to Wheat’s greatness, but these days the left fielder can’t match that gal on YouTube.
Visitors to Hamilton head straight to the Missouri Star Quilt Co.
One day last week, Shari Johnson arrived after an eight-hour drive from Illinois. She was looking for the perfect pattern to make a quilt for her mother-in-law.
She found it: Tulip Festival.
“I’ve been to a lot of quilt stores and this one is worth the drive,” she said. “It’s a long way, but I’ll be back.”
Kay Owsley from Cross Timbers, Mo., stood in awe of row after row of fabric bolts and the precut pieces — jelly rolls, charm packs and turnovers — that people sew into quilt tops that are later attached to batting and backing.
“It looks small from the outside, but then it just goes and goes,” she said.
That’s just the store. Around the corner in another building across from the grain elevator is the warehouse with seven shipping stations.
“Printed 1,100 orders so far today,” a worker said before noon.
Morgan George works here. She was the company’s first nonfamily hire — to clean the bathrooms. She was 15. She will soon head off to college to study business. Then she plans to return to Missouri Star Quilt.
“This is the best place in the world to work,” she said.
Twice a day, a postal truck picks up packages.
“They certainly keep us busy,” said postmaster Christi Biggerstaff, who appeared in a photo with Jenny Doan on a USPS website.
Next door are the custom quilting machines.
“Look here,” Ron Doan said, thumbing through the quilt tops people have sent for final sewing. “North Carolina, Florida, Maine, Oregon”
On the other side of the store, workers prepared sheet rock for the new retreat, which should open in October, the next phase in what Sarah calls “the Disney World of quilting.”
And bouncing between it all is Jenny Doan, always busy and always glad to see cars and buses pulling up in front.
She smiles. Just more old friends dropping in.