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Artistic creations and sweet treats bring a local flair to holiday gift-giving

holiday gift guide

Self-isolation has brought out the maker in many of us. From sourdough bread to knitting, weaving to woodworking, people are exploring their creative sides and, in many cases, finding success. Unfortunately, some of us have discovered through trial and error that we are not makers. 

It’s still possible, however, to fulfill your gift-giving needs with authentic, handmade products from people who were makers long before a pandemic rearranged our world. Just in time to help you check off your holiday shopping list, here are seven of our favorite regional makers. Shop in person or online; either way, you’ll find a great selection of gifts.

Sammysoap 123 W. Argonne Drive, Kirkwood, Missouri. or (314) 287-7020


Sammysoap products create jobs for people with disabilities. | Photo courtesy Sammysoap

If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught us to wash our hands often and properly. So, what better gift this holiday season than handcrafted soaps that do not dry out your hands?

Karen Copeland received home-made soap for Christmas in 2013, and that’s the spark that lit the fire to launch sammysoap. So, in February 2014, she established her business, bought a former fire station in Kirkwood, Missouri (a St. Louis suburb), built a little factory in the back, and a fun little store in the front. Sammysoap opened in November 2014.

Copeland loves to talk about the soap-making process, but her other passion is providing real jobs for adults with disabilities. Her son, Sam, is a graduate of the Special School District. Although the factory is not open for tours at the present time due to COVID-19, workers continue to make these small-batch glycerin soaps, which are all vegan and fair trade, using all-natural ingredients that do not harm the water supply.  

“The more I wash my hands, the softer they get,” she said.

Enticing soap scents include jasmine, orange blossom, and almond. Sammysoap also carries a fun line for babies and pets, as well as candles, perfumes, and other gift items. 

Alto Clay Works 595 Main Street in Alto Pass, Illinois (located 19 miles south of Carbondale). or (618) 697-4258

ceramic pitcher Alto Clay Works

New to the Alto Clay Works studio, these pitchers are beautiful and practical. | Photo courtesy Steve Grimmer/Alto Clay Works

A funny thing happens when wood is burned at temperatures above 2,000 degrees. The ash melts and forms a natural glaze over anything it lands on.

When the melted ash falls upon clay pottery being fired in a wood burning kiln, it creates this natural sheen that cannot be replicated in electric kilns. When the oak and hickory come from southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, it is indeed one of Mother Nature’s creations.

And that’s what inspires Steve Grimmer, owner of Alto Clay Works, to invest so much time and effort in the pottery he makes at the former schoolhouse in Alto Pass, Illinois. He fires his pottery just three times a year, requiring at least four cords of wood at a time. But don’t worry; he’s not cutting down trees. He uses scraps from a nearby sawmill that would be considered waste product and burned anyway.

Alto Clay Works, which opened in 2014, is known for functional tableware, such as mugs, bowls, and plates. One of Grimmer’s newest creations are pitchers, perfect for water or iced tea. Because Alto Pass is on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, he has found customers prefer to fill these beautiful pitchers with sangria.

The studio, located south of Carbondale, Illinois, is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday–Sunday or by appointment. 

Moon Marble 600 E. Front Street, Bonner Springs, Kansas. Shop online for shipping or curbside service. or (913) 441-1432

How long has it been since you’ve been down on the floor or in the dirt shooting a game of marbles? 

Since 1997, Bruce Breslow has been the man behind the magic at Moon Marble in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Prior to COVID-19, his passion was hosting groups to show them how he uses a blow torch to create perfect round balls of glass with such fun names as Cat’s Eye, Red Devil, and Bumblebee. It takes about 10 minutes to make a marble that becomes a showpiece to last a lifetime.

Although the group demonstrations are suspended, Breslow is at the shop  to accommodate online orders that can be shipped or picked up curbside. 

In addition to the thousands of colorful marbles, there are marble games and vintage toys and games. Shoppers will find plenty of great stocking stuffer ideas here. Grown-up gifts include glass paper weights, hand-blown glass ornaments, and marble kaleidoscopes.

Schimpff’s Confectionery 347 Spring Street, Jeffersonville, Indiana. or (812) 283-8367

schimpffs confectionery

Handmade candy makes a sweet gift for the holiday and is perfect for stocking stuffers. | Photo courtesy SoIN Tourism

The holiday season is when many home-based makers turn their hands to candy making. Some turn out pretty well, but then others learn that the confectionary process is best left to the pros.

In business since 1891, Schimpff’s Confectionery is one of the oldest, continuously operated family-owned candy companies in the United States. Located in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the company uses equipment that dates to the early 1900s. The store is open Monday through Saturday, but the best time to catch candy-making demonstrations is on Saturday.

Schimpff’s is known for its hard candies, particularly lemon drops and cinnamon red hots, but chocolates, toffee, and caramel-covered marshmallows known as Modjeskas also are popular. Holiday ribbon candies and candy canes are available in November and December. Enjoy soup and a sandwich at the lunch counter and 1950s soda fountain.

BoBrook Farms and River Bottom Winery 13810 Combee Lane, Roland, Arkansas.

For fans of pumpkin-spiced anything, now add pumpkin wine to the list. Bobby and Karen Bradford have about six acres of pumpkins at BoBrook Farms in Roland, Arkansas, near Pinnacle Mountain State Park. After Halloween, they turn their leftover pumpkins into wine using an old recipe Karen Bradford found in a vintage cookbook.

Pumpkin takes nearly a year to turn into wine. The Bradfords add a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon to create the perfect sipper for after dinner. They begin bottling in early November and fill about 100 bottles, so hurry with your order.

River Bottom Winery, which is open daily, also bottles cranberry and apple wine, which are perfect for holiday gatherings. Warm the apple wine for a step up from hot apple cider. 

Clay Creations 220 Main Street, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

In New Orleans, find her art at Fleurty Girl, NOLA Gifts, Home Malone, and Rose Lynn’s Hallmark.

clay creations

Images of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi are featured at Clay Creations. | Photo courtesy Clay Creations

Anyone who has been to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, knows the white building with the big Coca-Cola® sign painted on the side. That’s where, for the past 27 years, Jenise McCardell has been living her dream as a clay artist.

Her business, Clay Creations, specializes in clay architecture. Capitalizing on her location just 45 minutes from New Orleans, Louisiana, McCardell recreates the facades of some of the city’s most beautiful buildings on clay tiles. Churches, schools, hospitals, and parks are among her work.

“I do a lot of custom work of houses where people were born, where they went to school, the businesses where they worked,” she said. “Basically, I do people’s memories in clay.”

In addition to her clay creations, McCardell owns Gallery 200 next door that includes the work of more than 30 artisans.

Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter, New Orleans, Louisiana, is closed until large gatherings are once again considered safe.

Live music in New Orleans took a direct hit from COVID-19, but that hasn’t silenced some of the city’s best jazz. Preservation Hall is first a performance venue that supported about 60 musicians in concerts 350 nights a year. Its gift shop has always carried CDs and vinyl featuring these musicians, and downloads from Spotify and iTunes also generate plenty of sales.

However, when COVID-19 shuttered the hall, the staff focused on boosting online store sales, adding clothing, jewelry, and more that “celebrates the colorful, free spirit of New Orleans music,” according to artistic director Ron Rona.

You’ll even find pen pal kits that include postcards and notecards showcasing musicians and New Orleans locations. 

Please connect with these makers in advance before visiting in person. If ordering online, remember to allow for extra delivery time during busy holidays. 

Note that shops are following health and safety regulations per their local ordinances. But this holiday as you shop for presents, consider gifting one of these makers—or other small businesses in your area—with your support. That truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a travel writer based in Kansas City, Missouri.

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