Entrepreneurs Beth and Chad Days of rural Corunna have taken a page from the history of the Great Plains and turned it into a thriving business. In the shop behind their home they measure, cut, stitch and bend all the elements that go into making floating boat garages called Conestoga Covers.
A germ of the idea began 16 years ago when Beth's father, Joe Pranger, agreed to help a friend construct a floating boat house because his lake front was irregular and a normal boat storage structure wouldn't work. Joe and Chad worked on a design using 4-inch, sealed PVC pipes as a floating frame that upright pipes could be attached to support a fabric cover. Their first prototype was glued and bolted together but turned out to be too rigid for strong wind and choppy water. It broke!
After many tries they came up with a flexible design that would support the cover, which by the way looks just like a Conestoga wagon, and not break during a storm. They patented the idea and took a sample to a few boat shows where it was greeted with less than resounding enthusiasm. A couple dealers in Michigan, however, showed interest and Conestoga Covers gained a market foothold.
“Anchoring,” explains Chad, “is extremely important. We use several standard pier posts on the side opposite the dock. Ropes are loosely looped around the float and the post so the entire structure can move up and down with the action of the waves. Ropes are also looped around the pier posts."
“At first,” Beth said, “things were really slow and our season was only April, May and June. But once we sold one to a person on Fenton Lake in Michigan, word-of-mouth began circulating and people began showing up at that location for a look. Now we have 20 on that lake alone and the same thing has happened on several other lakes up there. We installed 20 more in Michigan the first weekend of May and have sold 30 so far this year. Word-of-mouth is our best advertising, but we do have a website (www.conestogacovers.com) and their eighth-grade daughter, Eliana, is learning to be our social media vice president.”
May was an extremely busy month for the Days. Besides installing covers all over Michigan, their cows had calves and their sows had piglets. Chad works as an estimator for Pranger Enterprises in Ashley and is president of Conestoga Covers, while Beth is vice president of sales and manufacturing in addition to one who answers the phones, heads up the installation crew and serves as supervisor of loading.
“They're fairly easy to put up. It takes about an hour to install and just 45 minutes to take down. Of course,” she added, “we have five children (9 to 15 years of age) who are part of the installation team. Everyone has a specific job to do, so when we get going we really get them installed quickly. We've got seven pairs of waders. Some of the crew get in the water and some are on the dock. At a recent installation, the water was too high and we had to postpone. Some people install it themselves, while others want us to put it up and take it down for them.”
Sixty to 70 yards of solution-dyed polyester fabric goes into each cover. The most popular size is 28 feet long for pontoon boats, but some are as big as 35 feet to as small as 17-and-a-half feet for speed boats. Pontoon covers come with two zip-shut doors that match up with the openings in the boat's railing, and all Conestoga Covers are custom made. PVC pipe is purchased in 11-foot lengths, cut to size, placed in an oven to soften and then bent around a form to the Conestoga wagon shape. Covers come in 6 and 8-foot-tall sizes.
Sales in the last four years have risen sharply and the fact that the pleasure boat industry is doing well has been a plus for Conestoga Covers. U.S. customers mainly buy covers for pontoons, while Canadians prefer the speed boat sizes. “We hear from customers,” Beth said, “that they use their boats more because they can just zip open the door, step on the boat and go without the hassle of unsnapping a cover and storing it before getting on the lake.”
The Days met at DeKalb High School. Chad earned an agriculture-business degree from Joliet (Ill.) Junior College, and Beth was bookkeeper for her brother's business. “Conestoga Covers,” Beth said, “sort of just happened. It's been growing slowly each year, kind of like our family. The bigger we got, the more jobs it required.”
By Rod King for The News-Sentinel
Beth and Chad Days at the sewing table in their rural Corunna shop holding a custom 28-foot Conestoga Cover that will house a customer's pontoon boat. Zip-shut doors are installed on each side of the cover that line up with the opening in the pontoon's railing. The couple hired their first employee recently to do the sewing which Beth did for several years.
Seven pairs of waist-high waders are part of the Days family installation crew gear. Each of their five children (ages 9 to 15) has a specific job. They can install a Conestoga Cover in less than an hour and take it down in just 30 minutes.
Huge sewing table is required to handle the 60 to 70 feet of solution-dyed polyester fabric that goes into every Conestoga Cover. Most popular size is 28 feet long, but they are available in 35-foot and 17-and-a-half-foot sizes, as well.
Rolls of solution-dyed polyester fabric are stretched onto the cutting 20-foot-long cutting table where Beth Days precisely cuts the 13 pieces required to make a Conestoga Cover.
Conestoga Covers folded and stacked along the shop wall are ready to be installed. The Days put up 20 the first weekend in May and have sold 30 to get their season off with a tremendous start.