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Iowa Couple's Feather Business Proves to Be More Than Fly-by-Night Operation

September 06, 1987|DAVID SPEER | Associated Press

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — Don and Dorothy Hobbs are no lightweights in the feather business.

Hobbs collects, washes, dries and sells 250,000 pounds of raw turkey, goose and duck feathers each year.

Dorothy Hobbs deals in fancy feathers--dyed, trimmed and fluffed plumes that are known by those who tie fish flies from coast to coast and in 10 foreign countries.

Together, the bulk and fancy feather divisions make up the Hobbs Feather Co., wholesaler by the pound or fractions of an ounce of almost any kind of plumage available.

"I deal in anything that is used in fishing, in feathers or furs," Dorothy Hobbs said at the couple's West Liberty factory. "We're constantly searching the market for new materials, new colors."

Hobbs and four employees crisscross the Midwest from October to April each year, picking up duck and goose feathers for the company.

The turkey feathers come from the Louis Rich processing plant in West Liberty. Calf tails, squirrel tails and deer tails come from processors and fur companies.

Used in Pillows, Coats

The Hobbses' raw feathers are washed and dried at West Liberty. About 50,000 pounds of duck and goose feathers go to processors each year to be purified and then to manufacturers to make pillows and down coats.

The washed and dried turkey feathers go for boas, feather dusters, archery, crafts, decorations, jewelry, dolls and those Indian headdresses popular with campaigning politicians.

At the peak of last season, when the company was processing furs as well as feathers, it employed 47 people, including part-time workers. There are about eight regular workers in fancy feathers and seven in the raw feather operation.

Drying the washed feathers takes 45 minutes to an hour in a large commercial dryer. "We sack them, sew them, tag then and get them ready for shipment," Hobbs said.

Dorothy Hobbs handles the company's more exotic offerings: marabou feathers dyed in 58 colors, orange duck wings, fluorescent rooster necks, pheasant skins and guinea, partridge, grouse and wood duck feathers.

She has helped her husband with bookkeeping and other chores since they went into the feather business in 1962. They moved to West Liberty in 1971 to buy feathers from Louis Rich.

"About seven years ago, I got somewhat bored being at home. The family was mostly raised," she said. "I wanted to involve myself in fancy feathers. I've always been interested in that."

Family Business

She said her parents also had been in the feather business.

The enterprise began with selected feathers from processors. "They would get a feather from the side of a mallard duck. A prettier feather that would be selectively picked," she said. "We were doing that with pheasants and a lot of other birds, too."

Soon, she began to build up an inventory of different types of pretty feathers.

"At that time, hatbands were beginning to become popular, so I began marketing the feathers for hatbands," she said. The hatband market also led the Hobbses to develop dyed feathers.

"The hatbands continued for three or four years and then they bombed," she said. "The market just went.

"I had purchased 15,000 pheasant skins. And I was just stuck with them."

She rebounded by selling the feathers for use in tying fishing flies and now supplies the large mail-order businesses such as Orvis and L.L. Bean.

The Hobbs business is packed with barrels full of feathers dyed maroon, country blue, Hawkeye gold, badger, bronze and root beer and 52 other colors. They are shipped out to suppliers in plastic bags with some orders amounting to little more than a fraction of an ounce.

Fly-tying materials make up about 70% of the Hobbses' fancy feather business. "But that will change if the market changes," Dorothy Hobbs said.

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