Yuletide season in a little yellow schoolhouse
Huson, Mont. — Excitement and activity are building to crescendo pitch at the bright yellow schoolhouse and teacherage tucked among tall pines in a mountain valley off Nine Mile Road.
The sounds emitting from the schoolhouse are not recitations or chalk squeaking on blackboard, but the hum of machines and the bang of hammers, as Hanneke and Les Ippisch put finishing touches on the Schoolhouse Christmas Market, which opens the day after Thanksgiving.
Local folk are apt to refer to the schoolhouse as the ''workshop of the elves ,'' because they know that the Ippisches are busily crafting the holidays there all year long. The result is no ordinary Christmas shop. Instead of manufactured baubles, everything the Ippisches sell is handmade by them. Mrs. Ippisch's four grown children live nearby and help out. Helpers from the community sometimes stuff, sort, and assemble, or make jams, cookies, and other delectables.
As time grows short before Friday, Nov. 25, the machines in the basement woodworking shop are still whirring, turning out yet more and more wooden pigs, puzzles, spice boxes, toy chests, cookie molds, angels, dolls, birds, ducks, and three-legged stools. Hanneke Ippisch is still skillfully wielding her paintbrush , painting on the motifs that are her own unique blend of Dutch, Swedish, and Pacific Northwest folkcraft themes.
Mrs. Ippisch was born in Holland and lived some years in Sweden, where she became steeped in all the decorative folk traditions of the long yuletide season. Trained to teach in the field of arts and crafts, she later taught crafts in California before she and her family moved to Montana in 1970.
After she and Les Ippisch were married (it was her second marriage), they decided to combine her design and craft talent with his knowledge and skills as a woodworker to earn more income and to make a genial new life for themselves. Mr. Ippisch took an early retirement from the US Forest Service.
They decided to specialize in woodenware - toys, cupboards, ornaments, boxes, chests, lovespoons, creches, and the like - that would have Old World charm plus modern practicality. Their door knockers, birds, birdhouses, candleholders, and jewel boxes would offer something different, a distinct touch of themselves.
They purchased the abandoned and dilapidated rural schoolhouse and teacherage in 1975. The schoolhouse, with one entrance for boys and another for girls and a bell tower to crown the roof, was built around 1900 by the Anaconda Company for the children of logger families.
This the family converted into their home, workshop, and setting for their annual five-day Christmas Market. The teacherage, which was home for the turn-of-the-century teachers, was updated with plumbing and electricity and is now the Ippisches' guest-house.
This year the Christmas Market will take place Nov. 25, 26, and 27, and Dec. 3 and 4. What is left after 4,000 visitors have swooped in to have first choice will be sold on subsequent weekends until Christmas. The Ippisches will then close until Easter Market in the spring. On summer weekends they sell from a small, especially built store out back.
The couple work full time, all year, however, to produce all the crafts they offer during the different seasons. One secret of their success, they say, is to keep their designs pared down to their most basic elements.
Mrs. Ippisch's daughter Olleke demonstrates weaving techniques on a hand loom. Daughter Liedeke paints faces on angels and dolls and organizes the luncheon that is served in the schoolhouse each day of the Christmas Market.
Son Jan Rappe, a local ornamental blacksmith, makes fireplace tools, boot scrapers, candle snuffers, and kitchen hooks for the shop and has just forged a new gate for the grounds. Neighbor girls sell roasted chestnuts, and local musicians sing and play Christmas music on the balcony during market days.
The atmosphere is so redolent of the yule season that Jenny Farley, a young mother from Missoula, Mont. (25 miles away), says, ''Christmas simply wouldn't be Christmas without a visit to the yellow schoolhouse. Holly and pine boughs are everywhere, even on top of the fence posts, and tiny bells tinkle in the breeze.
''There is something so special about it all. We love being greeted at the door by the Ippisches and mingling with other friends. I always buy decorated toy boxes to give as baby gifts, and a few more ornaments each year. I get many gift catalogs, but see nothing in them as original and imaginative as the things I see at the schoolhouse. We have taken this couple and their schoolhouse to our hearts. They've become part of our Christmas tradition.''
The Ippisches are fully aware of this. They smile and say, ''It is extremely important for families to have Christmas traditions. We love hearing wide-eyed children turn to their mothers and say, 'Mommy, this is the Christmas House, isn't it?' ''
Mrs. Ippisch says they work hard to bring new items to the Christmas Market each year. This season, it will be people ornaments representing different nationalities. They constantly search out new ideas for the unusual things they make.
The couple have no plans for selling nationally or for devising a mail-order catalog. They don't want to get bigger or employ more people. They just want to do well what they can by themselves, and to make those people happy who find their way to their schoolhouse. ''It is enough,'' they agree. ''It is all we want.'' Eventual retirement? Out of the question, they think. How can a ''tradition'' retire? Besides, they are having too much fun.