By Lisa Snedeker
“If I have one piece of advice, don’t burn your business down.”
Solid advice from Strong Oaks Woodshop founder Mike Schmiedicke. It comes from someone who doesn’t want to see what happened to him, his family, his employees and his community happen to someone else.
But this isn’t a story about what Schmiedicke lost in a blaze this past April. It’s about what he found. It’s about friends and community. It’s about how, when we pay it forward, it can come back around in ways we can’t even imagine.
One of those ways is about to become a reality the second weekend in August. Out of the literal ashes of Schmiedicke’s former woodworking shop is going to rise a permanent stage for his friends and neighbors in Front Royal, Virginia, at the home of Appaloosa Roots Music Festival.
“Despite everything, we’re still going forward, and it’s fairly miraculous,” Schmiedicke reflects in a recent phone interview from his home in the verdant Shenandoah Valley.
On Saturday, Aug. 26, members of this small, rural community about an hour west of Washington, D.C. (depending on traffic, of course) will come together for an old-fashioned barn-raising of sorts. Except this “barn” — recycled from actual old Virginia barn wood generously donated by Bold Rock Hard Cider — will become the main stage for Appaloosa Fest and will, in many ways, mirror the Watson Stage at MerleFest.
Fitting since Appaloosa is the festival founded by the Celtic-rock band Scythian, who call Front Royal home and who tasted the group’s first inklings of musical success at MerleFest a decade ago. The late, great Doc Watson discovered Scythian busking in front of the gates of his hometown music festival and he invited the band in. Fast-forward 10 years and Scythian, who performed four sets on Friday at MerleFest 2017, is now considered not only a fan favorite but the festival’s house band.
This is a story about community and coming full circle.
Late Saturday evening, on April 29, someone spotted flames shooting from the old stone building and an adjacent wood storage building that housed Schmiedicke’s thriving woodworking business. Fire companies from around the region battled the three-alarm blaze using water from the nearby Shenandoah River. But the dry wood combined with the combustibles used to make everything from restaurant and bar furniture to caskets proved too fierce a combatant. By Sunday morning, all that was left were the blackened, smoldering pillars of the stone walls and the acrid smell of defeat.
“It was so disheartening,” Schmiedicke recalls. “It felt like death.”
A former web-developer with a master’s degree in Library Science, Schmiedicke took a U-turn in his 40s, decided to follow his passion and become a woodworker.
“This business was a dream come true, it was a second chance,” he says. “Who gets that chance to majorly jump careers? But we worked really hard and it happened. We were a family of misfit toys behind the railroad tracks. We were a tribe making furniture. And we were on the brink of much bigger things when disaster hit. It was so deeply ironic. The fruits of our labor literally up in smoke. It was devastating. My heart was broken.”
The cause of the fire is still unknown and under investigation; a string of arsons were reported in the area, according to official reports. “The cause was inconclusive,” Schmiedicke says. “All the power was off but my whole building was an accelerant, so everything was destroyed. There’s no good answer.”
But if Schmiedicke was disheartened the Sunday following the blaze, it was nothing compared to what he felt on Monday, when the insurance company told him that a clause in his contract — you know that small print no one ever reads? — invalidated his claim.
His community stepped in. “By Tuesday, the page had already turned,” he explains. “The local response was amazing. Someone started a GoFundMe account and another Front Royal business owner who had suffered a devastating fire and had his business burn to the ground was one of the first donors I think, in part, because I had helped his son who runs a custom wood shop design business.”
Schmiedicke learned paying it forward can really pay off. Whether in the form of a loaned table saw, a wood planer, donated food or just words of encouragement, the outpouring of support was overwhelming. And humbling.
“I was really hurt and disappointed about the insurance, but then I found myself in a completely different place. I can’t recommend the process, but if I have to suffer a tragedy, better to do it here. There are a surprising number of good people out there. I am so glad I am here and in awe of my little community. I got about 10,000 little checks. It was completely unexpected. This experience has been better than that. Until you experience a real tragedy, you don’t know who your friends really are.”
That’s Schmiedicke’s inspiration for giving back to Appaloosa Fest. “I’ve been in a position where I could help but this has been very humbling, I couldn’t say no to help, and it’s all so gratifying that it came back to us.”
The permanent stage represents much more than a place to play music. It’s a commitment to the community, says Scythian’s Danylo Fedoryka. “It’s a statement that we’re here in this place doing this thing, and we’re going to be here long into the future.”
Originally plans for a permanent stage, due to budget and time constraints, called for something covered in plywood, which Schmiedicke deemed too boring. “They didn’t dare hope for anything else. Now they will have something that harkens back to the stages they are used to playing on.”
Schmiedicke adds, “I am doing this because of this community and Dan and Alex (Fedoryka) have been struggling as well to get this festival off the ground. So to me this thing is going to be a celebration. This is something I can give back. It’s a gift I would like to give back to the people who have been so generous to me.”
The stage will resemble the Watson Stage in scope and style with a barn peak in the center made from rustic wood — in essence, it will look like an old, rustic barn with a side missing.
Lindsay Dorrier III, vice president of retail operations for Bold Rock Hard Cider, says his company loves the quality of Strong Oaks furniture and gets frequent compliments on it in their tasting room. “We were devastated to hear the mill burned down because these are strong, solid people,” he explained.
Dorrier said the same goes for Appaloosa. “We really enjoy the festival and our partnership with Dan and Scythian. They feel strongly about Bold Rock and local products. All those factors aligned to help us support the barn-stage raising. We wanted to be part of it.”
Bold Rock Hard Cider, which was founded in Nellysford, Virginia, in 2012 is now the largest craft cider brand in the nation. The company is donating about $3,500 worth of recycled barn wood to the project.
“As you continue to grow, you don’t want to leave the community behind that has helped you so substantially,” Dorrier added. “While Front Royal is a little ways a way, we really wanted to be part of the community event and wanted to help give back to the community.”
Because this will be a community event, those who participate in the barn-stage raising will feel like they own it.
“There are people wanting to help but not knowing how, and there is the desire to be together doing something fun but important,” Schmiedicke adds. “We’ll all be a part of something that is just a little bit bigger than all of us.”