Meet the Oakers: Jim and Merlyn Wisner

Featherbone Home and Garden

Journeyman is proud to call the small southwestern Michigan town of Three Oaks home. It’s not just the amazing location only a few miles from Lake Michigan that makes us love it; it’s the people in the surrounding community that make us sure we wouldn’t want to call anyplace else home. We’ll be introducing those people and their stories to you in a new feature called Meet the Oakers. Our hope is that when you visit the distillery, you’ll venture beyond our brick walls and discover all the other amazing local businesses the area has to offer.

First up are Jim and Merlyn Wisner, owners of the Historic Featherbone Factory Home & Garden Décor and The Generation Styling Salon and protectors of Three Oaks tradition.

Journeyman Distillery calls part of the historic Featherbone Factory home, but if it weren’t for Jim and Merlyn Wisner, there’s a good chance neither the factory or the distillery would be in Three Oaks. In 1956 the Warren Featherbone Company shuttered its plant and moved down south to Georgia rather than renovating the almost 75-year-old property. For almost two decades the property sat more or less unoccupied, slowly falling into a state of disrepair. Then, in 1974, the local couple came to the rescue, purchasing the property. For the next four decades and on into a fifth the couple has focused on restoring what they could and preserving the legacy of the building.

Merlyn Wisner comes from a long line of Three Oaks residents. Her twin aunts worked at the factory when it was still producing corsets and she would meet them on Main Street for lunch on many afternoons. Jim Wisner grew up in the area as well, setting a scoring record that still stands in a basketball game against New Buffalo. This connection to Three Oaks and the Warren Featherbone Company heavily influenced the Wisner’s decision to purchase the factory.

At the time Jim worked in the pattern business and the original plan for the buildings was to store patterns. Those plans would quickly take a different turn. Part of the boiler house of the factory was converted into a beauty salon that still operates today. The Wisners live in a separate part of the boiler house. Just over fifteen years ago Jim used the portion of the factory that currently houses the distillery to produce garden stones. The business would become the largest of its type in the Midwest. When Journeyman purchased the rest of the building in order to expand, the couple moved its Home and Garden Decor Shop into another factory building on the property where it still operates today.

The Wisners have made turkeys a prominent theme in decorating their various spaces. “The turkey made Three Oaks,” says Jim Wisner, himself wearing a shirt adorned with the bird. It was the turkey feather, after all, that revolutionized the corset-making business, eliminating the need for whale bone.

Artifacts from the town’s past are prominently displayed throughout the buildings. There’s the original highway sign that promoted the town as the setting of the 1989 film “Prancer”. Several of the doors were salvaged from the old Three Oaks school. The road bed behind the factory was constructed using brick from the factory. “Americans just tear down things,” says Wisner. The couple has done its best to repurpose as much as they can.

Journeyman is thankful for this belief. Without it there would likely have been no historic factory to locate in back in 2010. It’s a belief that the distillery has woven into its own space, using the floor joists from the factory to create a viking-style table and wood from the family farm in central Indiana to create tables and line the bar. Jim is happy to see Journeyman adopting the same belief in reusing as much as possible to pay homage to the factory’s past.

The Wisners are not sure what the future holds for the factory. There are dreams of a possible restaurant in the factory’s former underground reservoir, a truly unique location. Jim has converted the factory’s chimney into a wood-fired pizza oven, likely making it the world’s tallest. For now the couple is focusing on taking it one day at a time. It takes a lot of work and money to maintain such a historic property, but, for the Wisners, maintaining those ties to the community and past generations is more than worth it.

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