Wintergreen Northern Wear - Passion, dedication
BY Christina Monson
product photos by Steven Tiggemann
If you've been around Ely or northern Minnesota for a decade or more, you're probably already familiar with the Wintergreen Northern Wear brand. What you might not know is that it's rejuvenated, newly vibrant and its resurgence into the outdoor apparel industry is gaining steam and great momentum now after a hiatus. This iconic brand is back and better than ever! In fact, original owner Sue Schurke just reopened the retail doors in June 2015!
The story of Wintergreen Northern Wear is one that will amaze and surely impress even those difficult to impress. It's one of dedication to a lifestyle and determination to outfit that lifestyle, and those who love it, with the most superior protection and detail to quality and performance.
Originally founded in 1986 by Sue and Paul Schurke, Wintergreen Northern Wear has been a staple in many northern Minnesota households for decades. Their signature embroidered Nordic trims are highly recognizable by many in Minnesota but also all over the country and in many foreign nations. What started as a love for the outdoors and a recognized need for superior clothing to endure that harsh climate, became a lifelong business and remarkable chapter in Ely history.
This company not only helped create exposure to the town but also captivated the world with its quality. Wintergreen has its roots in a 1986 expedition to the North Pole, a National Geographic-sponsored venture that made exploration history as the first surface trek to reach the top of the world without resupply. Wintergreen was forefront in the 1990 Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition from Siberia to Alaska (Paul presented Mikhail Gorbachev with an anorak!), the 1991 International Trans-Atlantic Expedition, contracts for NBC affiliate news crews, projects with Dateline NBC and Discovery Channel and much more! This company is nothing short of remarkable and their quality has been recognized by dignitaries, serious outdoor adventurists and everyone else.
So what makes Wintergreen so special? Sue and Paul quickly realized that the outdoor cold weather apparel options of the early 80s lacked the performance and protection that was essential for the extreme cold. Their early arctic expeditions of the early 80s led them to closely examine the traditional garments of the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic. The Inuit garments retained warmth and repelled water but required extensive and regular maintenance including scraping frost and repairs for wear and tear. Around this same time, the industry saw the development of several companies developing new synthetic insulating fibers and shell fabrics. These companies (Borg Textiles™, DuPont™ and others) became partners in the quest to produce superior fabrics for products like Wintergreen. From these partnerships, Wintergreen would end up field-testing early versions of Gore-Tex®, Cordura®, pile and fleece, Hollofil® and others.
Their original focus on serious adventure enthusiasts soon expanded to a broader consumer base. Sue and Paul realized that their products met the needs of more than expedition teams - the modern day family would outfit their loved ones in warm winter gear and before long, Wintergreen had an extremely loyal customer base.
Fast forward to 2009, Wintergreen had expanded to two locations outside of Ely and their growth had increased so much that the Schurkes decided to sell the clothing company, slow down a bit and focus exclusively on their incredibly popular and successful dogsledding business, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. For five years, the couple's life centered around guiding these expeditions. Then in 2013 the new Wintergreen owners went out of business and something inside of Sue stirred and a renewed sense of motivation grew within her. She took ownership again and spent the majority of 2014 with head seamstress, LaVerne Ellis, recreating patterns and prototypes. Sue's unwavering love for the business and her dedication to the craft was inspiration enough for many of Sue's original sewing technicians to come out of retirement to work for her again. It was the collective effort of all of these people that made this comeback possible. The patterns that had lived in their minds for so many years were now needed to bring back the highest quality garments they had worked on years before. "We're all a family here. Everyone has an equal say in the business decisions," Sue says.
This culture and attitude is evident the moment you walk into their storefront. The store is colorful with racks of anorak coats and snow pants standing tall above the hardwood floors, brightening the already warm feel of the room. There are hats and gloves and even children's snowsuits. There are styles to fit all personalities and a guaranteed excellence to each product for sale.
Beyond the sales floor is the cutting room and above that, the sewing and pattern room. There you'll find Sue and LaVerne discussing patterns, adjusting a seam here or tucking in a seam there. The atmosphere is comfortable and homey. This truly is a family operation. Sewing machines and tables line one side of the room while the spools of signature Nordic trim line the shelves opposite. Everyone is smiling. Everyone truly seems to enjoy their job; their role. It's a refreshing story of love and humility and respect.
When you buy a Wintergreen product, you can be guaranteed that it was handmade with care in an environment of true respect and equality. Wintergreen epitomizes the "American way" and demonstrates that companies can (and should) operate with everyone's best interest as a priority.
Next time you're in Ely, make sure you stop in to see Sue and the Wintergreen family. Ask for a free tour and see for yourself... you'll walk out rejuvenated and inspired!