Handcrafting utensils in East Glacier Park

STORY & PHOTOS by JUSTIN FRANZ

East Glacier Park is a lonely place in November. A closed sign has been hung on the legendary Glacier Park Lodge and Brownies Hostel & Bakery is boarded up for the winter, as a cool chill whips the tiny village at the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front. Snow is in the air and the village that anchors Glacier National Park’s southeast corner is all but closed.

Almost.

A twirl of smoke radiates from a small shop and a sign out front welcomes visitors to ring the bell for service. A press of the button brings Charley Wagner out with a welcoming wave and an invitation inside.

Wooden spoons, spatulas and scoops line the walls of the aptly named Spiral Spoon, which a sign declares is “The World’s Largest Wooden Spoon Shop (if you don’t get out much).” Charley and Jo Wagner set up shop in 1999 selling handmade wooden utensils that are meant to be used, not just admired. Their trademark spoons feature spiral handles that are easy to wrap fingers around. The small crew of five employees (including Charley, Jo and their daughter Amber) make about 2,200 utensils a year and most are sold during the summer months, when thousands of tourists drive past on Highway 49.

Before moving to Montana, Charley and Jo lived in Arizona, where he managed a credit association on the Hopi Indian Reservation. In 1993, he was presenting at an economic conference where he met a group of representatives from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation who invited him and his wife to visit Montana.

“We took a vacation and fell in love with this place,” Charley said. “It was one of those things that we knew this is where we belong.”

SpiralSpoon3.1They purchased a house in East Glacier in 1995 and moved north three years later. During that time Jo, who was teaching, began carving wooden spoons. When the couple arrived in East Glacier, Jo began selling them out of a storefront made from an old shack. Before they knew it, Jo’s pastime became a busy business and Charley had to quickly expand the store. Evidence of the hurried expansions is seen in the flooring, which includes old signs from local businesses. By 2004, Charley retired from his consultant job and started working full-time making spoons just to keep up with growing demand.

“She’s the one who created the monster and now we have to feed it,” Charley said.

The Wagners have used more than 50 different types of hardwood, including some exotic woods from Tajikistan and New Zealand. Most utensils start from a piece of board that is cut up like a sheet of cookies – the surplus wood that can’t be formed into a utensil is burned in the wood stove to keep the shop heated.

With a bandsaw, the utensil is shaped before the bowl of the spoon is carved out with a Dremel. Next, the piece is sanded and soaked in water, which brings out the grain of the wood, at least three times. After it’s buffed and polished with fine-grade sandpaper, its soaked in mineral oils and bee’s wax, which adds a protective layer.

Charley says carving the spoon is pretty simple once you master the craft – the tough part is knowing when to put the piece down and start on the next.

“The hardest thing in the world is knowing when the damn spoon is done,” he said.

Charley and Jo are unsure how much longer they’ll make spoons, but their daughter Amber says she wants to take over the business in the future. The story of their lives still surprises Charley every time he walks into the little shop, fires up the wood stove and gets to work.
“It’s still kind of amazing to me that we could make a living making spoons,” he said.

Although Charley, Jo and their small crew are often the only ones holding down the fort at East Glacier Park during the winter, they’re not alone in what brought them there. It’s that same special pull this area has had on so many others – a pull to their own personal paradise.
“As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,’” Charley said. “That’s how it works.”

For more information, visit www.thespiralspoon.com.