Branson’s Engler Block Fosters Artisans

There’s music in the air inside the Engler Block this afternoon.

Art Reed is playing dobro on the Pickin” Porch, a popular gathering place in the Engler Block where 30 shops offer visitors a wide variety of handcrafted items, gifts of all sorts and the pleasure of watching artisans at work.

Reed is a luthier, the term for a person who makes stringed instruments. His wife, Faith, is plunking the rhythm on an upright bass. Jim Wiggerman, a retired teacher visiting Branson from Fort Dodge, Iowa., edges up onto the porch, taps his foot and sings along with the Reeds’ version of the old hymn “How Great Thou Art.”

Wiggerman’s wife, Bonnie, leans forward in one of the rocking chairs in front of the Pickin’ Porch. She watches her husband with an almost reverent smile. At home in Fort Dodge, he plays dobro with a group of friends who entertain at local restaurants and retirement homes.

“I may have him build me a dobro,” Jim Wiggerman says. And later, he places the order.

Training and Therapy

Art Reed makes his living building stringed instruments by hand, including guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and ethnic folk instruments. But he’s more than an artisan. He’s fostering new artisans, and that’s significant as the number of new artisans dwindles. Fewer children these days grow up watching Grandpa whittling on the front porch, says the fifth-generation woodworker.

So Reed, who’s also been a minister, looks for young artisans with promise and shows them ways to make a living with the craft they love. He provides space for them to work and sell, and gets a small cut of the profits. And he teaches them tricks of the trade, such as selling peripheral products like the how-to-play music books he’s published.

His business also is good therapy. Reed, who is 66, discovered in 1992 that he had Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve been a motivational speaker, and I knew music was great therapy for aging men,” Reed says. “It’s really been great therapy for me, and the doctors say it’s bought me 10 years.”

A Small Village

The Engler Block has long offered a welcome refuge to artisans and to those who stroll, shop and maybe have dinner here or snack on something from the bakery.

The business began in 1963 when Iowa builder M.D. Harris came to Branson to manufacture souvenirs. Soon after, he acquired the 30,000-square-foot warehouse. He joined forces with Lou Schaefer and Gene Keckler who owned a novelty business called Lougenes, says Bill Skains. Harris was his father-in-law, and family members still operate Engler Block.

The partners started making souvenirs that were sold wholesale to the recently opened Silver Dollar City and attractions at Wisconsin Dells, Skains says.

About that same time, woodcarver Peter Engler took a shop in Silver Dollar City. As word of Engler’s work spread, other carvers were attracted to the Ozarks. It wasn’t long before their work gained national attention, and Branson became known for its fine woodcarvers. Other artisans also gathered for the season at Silver Dollar City, but it wasn’t a year-round attraction.

In 1987, Engler joined the Harris’ warehouse, and the Engler Block was born.

“This was the first true, year-round operation for the crafters, to bring them inside under one roof to work,” Skains says.

Peter Engler later moved into Peter Engler Designs in the Grand Village shopping center where he continues to carve, with Santas his specialty.

The block-long warehouse has now been expanded to about 50,000 square feet. For visitors, it’s like exploring a small village with a new shop around each corner. The artisans produce jewelry, stained and blown glass, pottery, soaps, silver, leather goods and much more. There are other unique products as well including home furnishings, quilts, grandfather clocks and a coin shop.

Customers Come Back For More

Bobbie Hackbarth is picking out several pieces of blown glass jewelry in Helwig Art Glass near the front of the Engler Block. She’s already bought oil lamps and glass coasters to take home to Neenah, Wis., for gifts.

“This is my second trip to Branson,” says Hackbarth, who is director of corporate administration for Landmark staffing service. “I was in here a year ago, and I had to come back to get these items, and I’ll probably come back again tomorrow.”

Glass artist Wren Helwig has been in the Engler Block since it opened 20 years ago, but he’s been doing art glass for 40 years. After he earned a bachelor’s degree at Drury University in 1973 in nearby Springfield, he opened a studio and explored glassblowing as an art form.

“I didn’t know how to do anything else, so I thought I’d better stick with this,” he says. Having a gathering of artisans helps attract customers.

“There’s always strength in numbers,” Helwig says.

One of the most spectacular pieces in his shop is a large pink glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling and priced at $75,000. He was inspired to make the piece by a photo in National Geographic of the pink tentacles and gills of Hawaii’s spaghetti worm, a six-inch ocean reef-dweller.

It took two years to build and weighs about a ton, he says.

Hackbarth’s husband, Stuart Hackbarth, says he’s impressed with the Engler Block and the resident artisans.

“We don’t want arts like these to be lost,” Hackbarth says.

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