“CARHARTT MIGHT NOT BE LOUIS VUITTON, BUT IT’S LOUIS VUITTON TO US.”
Aterrible noise, like thousands of bolts clattering together, rends the air. In the parking lot of demolition specialist Bierlein, three men are hard at work unloading an enormous excavator arm from a trailer, shouting themselves hoarse as they push and pull. At their feet, the white carpet left by heavy snowfall over the past few days has turned to dark slush. The cold feels arctic on this Thursday afternoon in the northern state of Michigan, but Eric, Joel and Paul are dressed for it. All three are wearing quilted bib overalls with hooded fleece sweatshirts over them. “Without these, we’d really be in trouble!” Eric shouts over the noise. “We’ve been over by Lake Michigan for the last few days. It was seriously freezing, but we didn’t feel a thing.” Paul shouts down from the cockpit of his crane: “I wear this thing 12 hours a day, and I know I won’t come to any harm, even if I catch fire.” The material of the overalls is indeed flame-resistant. “It’s like a second skin,” adds Joel as he unties the giant cables around the excavator’s arm.
Like all their colleagues at Bierlein, the three men are kitted out from head to toe in Carhartt, the apparel provided by their employer. “We used to work in Wrangler gear, but it wasn‘t as good,” says Tony Reder, the company‘s purchasing and warehouse manager. Once a year, he calls each employee into his office and notes down what they need. Overalls, overshirts, thick socks. They can ask for whatever they want, but management has decreed a limit of five garments per person. Armed with his orders, Reder then goes to the nearby village of Chesaning. “We order everything there, from Ed Rehmann & Sons. That store is like family.”
ORANGE HAT AND FREE DELIVERY
Chesaning, smack in the middle of Michigan, is home to 2,394 souls, a main street and a multitude of colored houses. The town is bordered by a river on one side, a forest on the other, and dominated by the Swartzmiller family’s huge grain silo. “We’re a small, hard-working rural community,” says Dianne Stanuszek, president of the Chesaning Historical Society. “We used to send sacks of flour by boat throughout the region. We also had a good football team for quite a while. Our men are strong, thanks to our Germanic roots.”
Ed Rehmann & Sons is one of the town’s rare stores, and it’s certainly the busiest. Located at 151 Broad Street, next to the little American Legion dropbox where people can leave any star-spangled flags they no longer need, it covers a large part of the block. The door is plastered with old stickers featuring the famous Carhartt logo. Inside, in a large room where slabs of meat were once sold, rows of clothes spread out in all directions. There are jeans, hooded sweatshirts, shoreline bib overalls – the original name for quilted work
In deepest Michigan, where the brand was born in 1889, Carhartt still belongs to farmers and workers. As proved by a modest shop in the small city of Chesaning, which beats all the Carhartt sales records in Michigan.
overalls – and, of course, the famous jackets in duck canvas, the heavy, usually brown fabric that is Carhartt’s signature. Double-knee pants, designed so that the knees never tear, are of course also on offer. And then there is the rest of the range: hats, ski masks, gloves, suspenders, lunchboxes and even penknives and wallets.
While Stormy Kromer caps and Red Wing boots can be spotted here and there on the shelves, in the kingdom of Ed Rehmann & Sons, one brand reigns supreme. “We’re the biggest Carhartt retailer in the state of Michigan,” Rob Rehmann says with pride. “The brand provides the clothes; we provide the service.” With his brother Ric and sister-inlaw Nancy, Rob has been running the store for over 30 years, dividing his time between the glass-topped counter, the mezzanine where the paperwork piles up and the shop floor stacked with garments. “Carhartt might not be Louis Vuitton, but it’s Louis Vuitton to us,” says Nancy with a smile.
Ed Rehmann & Sons is never empty of customers on any day of the week – or weekend. Most are men, many of them burly, with mud-splattered boots. Here, for example, is Travis, a Genesee County highway worker who spent the morning clearing snow off the roads then drove several dozen miles to get here and buy himself some new bib overalls. “I don’t care about the distance,” he says. “When I need Carhartt, this is where I come.” Ric Rehmann hands him a pair in XXXL. “A while ago, Carhartt added buttons to the waist to make them more adjustable,” he says, “as well as Cordura [an ultra-resistant synthetic fiber] to the bottom of the legs so they last longer.” Travis pulls the overalls on over his jeans then goes over to a long mirror. He turns around, glances over his shoulder, arching his back as he finishes his inspection. “Well, what really counts is that I’ve got enough pockets for my tools,” he says with a smile, as though only half-satisfied with what he sees in the mirror.
The next person to enter the store is a man who wants to buy a black padded vest. Meanwhile, in another part of the shop, a young woman sighs as her boyfriend tries on an orange hat. “You’ve already got six like that,” she says.
The store does so much business that the Rehmann brothers and Nancy have to top up their stock every day with fresh orders from Carhartt, whose historic offices – along with many of their logistics warehouses – are located in Dearborn, Michigan, less than an hour-and-a-half’s drive away. Today, Ric is filling out an order form by hand for a series of crewneck T-shirts, worn by all the men in the area under their flannel shirts. “This design comes in 14 different colors. I’m ordering all of them; that’s over 200 T-shirts. At that price, Carhartt’s not going to charge me for delivery,” he says as he stamps the order.
THE AMERICAN DREAM, MADE IN AMERICA
December 1909, Port of Cherbourg, Normandy, France. After crossing Europe from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 17-year-old Edmund Rehmann gripped his only suitcase as he boarded an ocean liner heading for New York and the American dream. Several weeks later, with one $20 bill in his pocket, he arrived in Chesaning, where other members of his family were already settled. A trained tailor, the young man was soon hired by Mr. Greenebaum, a Jewish retailer selling suits and the odd Carhartt garment in his store at 150 Broad Street.
Edmund Rehmann spoke fluent German, Slovak and Italian – the native languages of most of the local immigrants – and was quickly promoted. Ten years later, in 1919, he married one of his coworkers, the beautiful Eva Fox, and bought out Mr. Greenebaum’s business. From then on, customers were pushing open doors marked Ed Rehmann & Sons. The store continued to expanded the number of Carhartt garments it carried. During the 1950s, there were some 30 models on sale, including bib overalls, priced at $1.49 a pair. “I remember we used to go to one of the big hotels in Detroit several times a year, where Carhartt would book a huge suite to show its new collection,” reminisces the elderly Al Rehmann, the last of Edmund’s sons still living.
Business was good because Edmund was a smart man. When harvests were poor and local people couldn’t afford new clothes, the boss was always happy to swap a pair of overalls for a chicken. “My dad was a classy man when it came to how he treated people – and to clothes. He always wore a suit, which he’d buy from Curly Clothing in Saint-Louis, Missouri. He never lost his very European sense of style. We used to have a cabin on the banks of Lake Huron, but he didn’t really change much even when we were there. He’d maybe wear a white T-shirt, but he’d keep his suit pants on.”
When Edmund died in 1962, the Broad Street store was taken over by his three sons, Rich, Don and Al. Then, in the time-honored family tradition, Don’s two sons, Rob and Ric, took over the reins in 1986. “It’s our duty
ROB REHMANN, CO-OWNER OF ED REHMANN AND SONS “WE’RE THE BIGGEST CARHARTT RETAILER IN THE STATE OF MICHIGAN. THE BRAND PROVIDES THE CLOTHES; WE PROVIDE THE SERVICE.”
to protect what our grandfather built,” says Rob. “Just look what happened to the Baritt family business down the road: they sold it, and now it’s closed down for good.”
Over the decades, Rob and Ric Rehmann have seen Carhartt evolve and the product improve. “Years ago, the duck canvas jacket was so stiff you had to wash it several times before wearing it. Today, the fabric is softer, and it’s become a garment for everyday wear,” says Ric, who also remembers the introduction of the B17 jeans, a classic design reminiscent of Levi’s iconic 501s. “It was a revolution for the guys around here.”
Of course, there’s always the occasional customer with a gripe. Right now it’s someone grumbling because he can’t find his favorite sweatshirt, the rain defender: rain and snow slide off it as though it were waxed. Ric comes to the rescue, explaining that they now sell a new version of the design. “It’s thermally insulated against the cold, whereas the old one was just padded. You’ll see, it’s even better,” says the salesman. The customer is not convinced: “It’s a shame they changed it. The old one was warm,” he says. But then he gets out his wallet.
“What’s important is that the quality’s still there,” says Ric. And although some garments have been manufactured in Penjemo, Mexico, since 1998, most Carhartt workwear is still made in the USA. The brand currently has four factories on American soil, located in Kentucky and Tennessee and employing nearly 2,000 people. The bib overalls and duck canvas jackets, hats and thick socks are made there. Many of the fabrics and trimmings used by Carhartt are also produced locally. Woolen fabrics, for instance, are made by Green Mountain Knitting in Milton, Virginia, while the cotton is woven at Mt. Vernon Mills in Alto, Georgia. The zippers are YKK, produced in Macon, Georgia.
PIG FAT AND BEESWAX
A short distance from the shop, the Darling family has held sway over around 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of wheat and soybean fields since 1964. In a dusty shed piled high with harvesting equipment, a rusty tin Carhartt advertising sign hangs on the wall. “Maybe it was a gift from Rehmann & Sons, who knows?” says Jim Darling. “My grandfather used to buy Carhartt stuff from them. I got my first coat there when I was 13, a chore coat. It had an inside pocket, and I thought that was amazing.”
Since then, the farmer has remained faithful to the Rehmanns. When he spots a Carhartt garment he likes in the local Tractor
Supply Company, he takes a picture of it and goes to Rehmann’s in Chesaning to buy it. “The people there know my size, they know what I need, and they’ll put it aside for me if I ask them to,” he explains. His Carhartt wardrobe is carefully organized. There’s a section dedicated to henleys (three-button cotton jersey work shirts) and another for long-sleeve T-shirts. “They’re full of holes, covered in mud and paint, but I like them like that,” he says with a smile. Another part of his wardrobe is given over to what he likes to call “adventure shirts” in a nod to their camo patterns. “Carhartt is a badge of identity; it says exactly who I am: an American farmer,” says Darling.
A little farther down the road, behind a sort of fenced-in clearing where pigs snuffle in the snow for acorns, is a building decorated with Native American amulets and feathers. This is the entrance to Eric Shevtchenko’s Old World Farm. Recently returned to his native state after spending a few years in California, he’s a new client for Ed Rehmann & Sons. “I was shopping for tools in town one day and asked where I could buy Carhartt other than the malls,” he says. “That’s when I heard about the store.”
Last week, he headed to Broad Street to buy gloves so he could patch up a section of his fence. But Shevtchenko is most attached to another Carhartt garment, a pair of weathered bib overalls hastily patched up after his dog got to them. Between the breast pockets, the letter “D” has been scribbled in pen on the canvas. D for Dick, his grandfather. “When I moved back to Michigan, these overalls were hanging in the garage of our family house. I’m fairly sure my granddad bought them at Ed Rehmann & Sons.” To make sure they have many more years ahead of them, Shevtchenko regularly treats his overalls with a homespun method: he melts a block of pig fat in a pan then, over low heat, adds beeswax. The last step is to use a brush to coat his overalls with the thick mixture. In a demonstration of just how effective his method is, he pours water on the overalls. They are totally waterproof. “That’s how they used to make their clothes last back in the old days.”
Things are not always easy at Rehmann’s, however, even with such loyal customers. Ric complains that “everything’s changed around here.” A few miles from Chesaning, the Tuscarora plastics plant closed down in the early 2000s, with the loss of 70 jobs. More recently, the meat-packing business Peet Packing went bust, taking another 300 jobs with it. The Wardin brothers’ dairy farm, which used to produce up to 10,000 liters (2,200 gallons) of milk a day, has been sold, as have the farms that used to belong to Leo Gross and Tony Kulhanek. Lots of places that people thought were immovable features of the local landscape have been swept away.
“Recently a store just like ours, Schwan’s, shut up shop. It’s scary,” admits Ric. Encouraged by Marc Rehmann – Ric’s son, who hopes to take over the family concern one day – the company recently set up an online store. It has also ramped up its daily social media activity, attracting customers from all over Michigan to the Chesaning outlet. Lauren, a young mother, has driven all the way here just to buy a tiny pair of Carhartt bib overalls for her son Ginger, sitting alongside her in his stroller. “He’ll dress like my dad, my brother and my husband,” she says with a grin. “That’s the way it is.” A man standing right behind her chips in with a smile: “With Carhartt, we teach our kids what work really means.”
JIM DARLING, FARMER AND ED REHMANN & SONS CUSTOMER “CARHARTT IS A BADGE OF IDENTITY; IT SAYS EXACTLY WHO I AM: AN AMERICAN FARMER.”