When the American Sycamore Retreat and Lodge opens in April, founders Mike and Dana Van Pelt will fulfill a long-time dream and take on a huge challenge. The school, nestled in the woods near Cloverdale, Indiana, will offer an impressive syllabus of woodworking classes taught by some of the best woodworkers in North America.
“We talked about it for years and checked out other schools around the United States to see what we liked,” Dana recalled.
At one time, Mike had been an industrial arts teacher, but had spent most of his career on the West Coast representing companies like Delta, Porter-Cable, JET, and Powermatic. Those industry connections and a little luck paid off when they began to get serious about the school and met with Delta and Porter-Cable last September to discuss their equipment needs.
“They were already familiar with Mike,” recalled Dana, “He’d been one of their best distributors and now they wanted Mike and our school to take over the training that had been handled by a gentleman who’d recently left the company.”
With the training contract in hand, the couple had to move quickly to get set up. Choosing the location was mostly a matter of convenience. The looked around the country, but Mike and Dana are both from Indiana — they were living in Indianapolis at the time — and wanted to stay close to their families. But as it worked out, they were also not far from several large metropolitan areas: Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, not to mention Indianapolis only 40 miles away. And as it turns out, students from as far as New Mexico and Washington are willing to make the drive.
Hiring a distinguished faculty was the next challenge. Aside from Mike’s own reputation, that process got a boost by way of Brian Murphy, one of Mike’s oldest friends and a partner in the school. When Andy Rae, who sells furniture and plans through Brian’s American Furniture Design Company signed on to teach, he spread the word to all his friends. Word of mouth did the rest.
They’re all listed on the website, but Dana mentioned a few that she was particularly excited about: woodworking icon Frank Klausz (whom Dana can’t wait to meet in person), renowned woodturners Al Stirt and Betty Scarpino, band saw master, Lonnie Bird, and Bill Gullberg, an attorney, who’s also an excellent chairwright.
One quality the Van Pelts feel sets their school apart is their commitment to each student completing his or her project. Since the school is also the national testing center for Delta and Porter-Cable, the workshops are chockablock full of the latest equipment. The instructors pace the class to the student’s ability, and since many of the classes are self-contained, they can be taken without prior experience.
“If a student falls behind, say with their bow-back Windsor chair during the regular 9 to 5 class, the workshops stay open until 10 p.m.,” Dana explained, “And there’s always going to be someone around — perhaps Bill Gullberg himself — who can help them get it done. And that’s why we make a point of hiring instructors willing to hang out with students.”
Aside from the curriculum, Mike and Dana have created a unique environment. Yes, everyone leaves with a nice piece of furniture and some new skills, but they also want their guests to enjoy a quiet week in the woods, to eat well and maybe lower their blood pressure a bit. Most of all, though, they want their guests to have time to talk with each other.
“It’s a place for classes,” Dana acknowledged, “but it’s also a place where the woodworkers are able to talk and visit with each other. It’s one thing to go to class, but it’s another thing to be able to talk to people with common interests and a passion for woodworking. We found that woodworkers really just want to hang out. Even with the lodge still under construction, we have woodworkers stopping out here and wanting to talk for hours.”
One of Dana’s innovations will be to have a masseuse come out and give massages to backs and necks tired from hunching over a workbench all day. One interesting trend they’ve noticed is that more couples are signing up together. And plans for the future include offering weekend projects for whole families.
Though currently only able to accommodate instructors at the lodge — motels and several bed and breakfasts are only five miles away — the Van Pelts envision adding cabins to the property down the road. For accompanying family members, the area offers covered bridges, historic sites, state parks, antiquing, and, in nearby Indianapolis, shopping and museums.