Garnet Hill at 40: No Longer a Family Business, Still a North Country Staple

Oct 19, 2016

In 1973, twenty-somethings Grant Dowse and his wife Pegge Kirschner were coming back home to Franconia from Europe and they were in love – with flannel sheets. 

There were flannel sheets in America, but the ones they’d slept on in Europe seemed so much nicer. Higher quality.

And they came up with the idea to import them. They named the company after a hill not far from their home, which was a former sugar house that lacked running water.

Pegge’s brother, Buddy Kirschner, still marvels at it.

“Very innovative and very creative,” he says. “A couple of hippies living in the woods.”

In 1976, they finally put a tiny ad in Yankee magazine and began mailing out catalogs.

To show off how great that imported flannel felt, employees took small squares of the cloth and stapled them into the catalogs.

And it worked...people started buying the sheets.

Garnet Hill quickly became a small-town success story and people were thrilled, says Marilinne Cooper, who worked there in the early days.

“They were very friendly, charismatic, friendly like of people; and they hired their friends to work there and when they shot the catalogs they used local people as the models,” says Cooper. “They shot it up at Cannon Mountain, they shot it in Sugar Hill. It was a very hometown, local experience, the way they ran it.”

Garnet Hill's founders, Pegge Kirschner and Grant Dowse

The salaries were good and many of the employees were women who were suddenly their family’s main bread winner, Cooper says.

That was so unusual she put on a seminar about dealing with the stress of “being a female head of household.”

Garnet Hill also spawned a handful of small, local businesses that sewed things like nightgowns and snow suits from imported, natural fabrics.

The business grew.

The money helped Franconia, but most of the workers came from neighboring towns, so there was a regional impact, says Dr. Charles Wolcott who knew the couple and watched the firm grow.

In 1983, there was $100,000 in the bank, prompting a huge celebration, according to a 2014 remembrance written by Betty Moody, one of the company’s first employees and ultimately a top official.

Then, everything changed.

In 1985, Dowse and Kirschner were in a small plane flying back to Whitefield after a business trip. The weather was bad, their pilot became disoriented and crashed into a nearby mountain. All three people on board died.  

Dowse and Kirschner left behind a five-year-old daughter, Ashley.

A year later, relatives sold the company to a local family that owned it for about a decade before selling it to the Home Shopping Network’s Cornerstone division.

“It’s been interesting to see how much it has changed,” says Ashley Dowse, the daughter of Garnet Hill's founders.

Ashley Dowse still lives in the family home where her parents founded Garnet Hill
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

Today, Ashley lives in the sugar house where her family lived and where Garnet Hill was started by her parents and their friends, many of whom were graduates of Franconia College.

“That’s what’s really cool, that it was such a community project, I feel like, getting started.”

Ashley doesn’t have any involvement with the company today.  But she has paid attention to it's evolution.

“It’s gone from a company where if the snow was great they would close down and the people would go skiing to a company where you have to have badges to get in.”

As president of Garnet Hill, Claire Spofford has one of those badges.  She took over in 2014 and is now steering the company through an increasingly competitive market.

“This market is crazy. There are very few happy retail stores out there.”

Claire Spofford is currently at the helm of Garnet Hill
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

So what’s her plan?

“The best way I know how is maybe overly simplistic is to stick to your knitting, do what you do well, stay true to your brand and I think, you know, that’s what we try to do every day.”

Garnet Hill is also reaching beyond catalogs and the internet. Last year it opened a small retail store in the Hamptons. Spofford doesn’t rule out a few more carefully located shops, but doesn’t see a big chain of Garnet Hill stores.

Like other companies, Garnet Hill faces strong competition from giants like Amazon and Wayfair, says Russ Gaitskill, who led the company for thirteen years. But, he says, it’s well positioned to survive.

“Garnet Hill’s strengths always have been this incredible loyalty and as long as that doesn’t get violated by quality or some other aspect I think that is going to be the greatest strength.”

He says another advantage is that, while Garnet Hill started with those flannel sheets and a focus on natural fibers, now it sells a wide range of products including home furnishings.

And that’s a good thing, says Gaitskill.

It makes it possible for the company to add more products without loyal customers thinking there’s something wrong, that the company has changed.

“As a competitive advantage I think that is huge.”

But Gaitskill does worry about one change. Garnet Hill’s parent company – Cornerstone - is publicly owned. He thinks that means there could be an emphasis on quarterly returns.

“It is not well served by having kind of the knee-jerk that quarterly pressures put on businesses.”

Garnet Hill co-founder Pegge Kirschner poses with her daughter Ashley in an early Garnet Hill catalog

Earlier this year Cornerstone said it would sell two of its companies – siblings of Garnet Hill - due to disappointing sales.

Current Garnet Hill president, Claire Spofford, says such things happen in publicly owned companies and it’s her job to make sure Garnet Hill succeeds.

“Hopefully, we have laid the right groundwork over the last two or three years to continue the trajectory we are on,” she says.

Garnet Hill has about 200 employees now, including around 40 in a new office in Exeter. Those are jobs that were previously based in the North Country, and the move was not well received above the notches. 

Spofford says the company is on track to double its employees in the next five to seven years, and there is no plan to move the company south.

She won’t disclose the current payroll, but Beno Lamontagne, a state official who works in economic development for the North Country says there’s no doubt it has a “huge impact.”

To commemorate its 40th anniversary Garnet Hill held a party at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, but Ashley Dowse wasn’t invited. The event was for current employees, a Garnet Hill spokeswoman said.

Dowse says she’s not sure – had her parents lived – Garnet Hill would still be in the family.

“I have actually heard some stories that people are not sure, if they were still alive, that they would still own it,” she says. “You know that they had wanted to start it, but then there had been talk about other things.”

Dowse also says the growth of her parent’s company has been a wonderful thing for the community, and she’s proud of what her parents started four decades ago.