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    Old-Fashioned Workmanship | Summer 2011 Out Here Magazine

    R.B. Powers Co. has produced show ribbons for generations

    woman working on part of a ribbon
    Sharlet Thorne attaches loops to a rosette head, one of 120 rosette styles R.B. Powers customizes. Some of the styles are displayed behind Sharlet.
    Out Here

    By Hollie Deese

    Photography by Jay LaPrete

    When an excited young fair contestant reaches for his or her well-deserved show ribbon, chances are it was handcrafted in a small rural factory that has manufactured those marks of achievement for nearly 100 years.

    Third- and fourth-generation workers keep production going on ribbons for county fairs, stock shows, 4-H events, and more at the R.B. Powers Co., located in an old schoolhouse in the farming community of Ashley, Ohio.

    Ed Powers, whose great-uncle, R.B., founded the company, now runs the factory that bears his family's name. Great-Uncle R.B. began a cobbler business in 1909; ribbons were added in 1923, when the first Junior Fair in Ohio was held in Ashley.

    "That was the first time he had done that as far as I know," Ed Powers says. "And then it just expanded from there."

    Now, they make at least one million ribbons every year, Powers estimates. And they keep up production on every single one of those ribbons, even though the fancy ones are all ruffled by hand, with the help of some very special Singer sewing machines.

    "The ruffling, or quilling, on those were originated by Singer," Powers says. "There are newer machines that do it, but having used several of them, we find that the old Singers hold up better."

    So Powers keeps his eyes peeled for the machines — on Internet auction sites or when competitors close up shop — and keeps a few on hand just for the parts.

    "I can do some of the fixing," he says, "but I do have a mechanic on hand, thank goodness, because he has been a lifesaver."

    "The ruffling, or quilling, on those [fancy ribbons] were originated by Singer," Powers says. "There are newer machines that do it, but having used several of them, we find that the old Singers hold up better."

    Not all of the nearly 30 employees are working ruffles on the old Singers. Someone works on the trophies. Someone does silk-screening. And some of them are in the hot stamping department, setting the lead type that releases the gold foil onto the ribbon. Most of the printing industry, including newspapers and magazines, used to set type. Now it is all digital — except at Powers Co.

    "We haven't been able to digitalize the hot stamping business yet," Powers says. "So we are still using machinery that was originated 50-80 years ago."

    But that's not to say there haven't been some improvements over the years. "We have newer presses that still use that old type, but now we can automatically print and cut the ribbons as opposed to laying them on one at a time," he adds.

    Such hands-on production allows R.B. Powers Co. to customize even the most unique requests. They've attached tiny kitten ears on the rosettes for a cat show, printed Japanese characters for a company overseas, and even created ribbons that looked just like roses for the Rose Parade.

    This year also promises to bring yet one more advancement to the company: The creation of a website.

    "We have just within the last eight months gotten email in here," Powers says with a laugh, "so we are finally catching up with the rest of the world."

    Hollie Deese is a Gallatin, TN, writer who loves to take her two sons to the fair.

     

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