It’s called Big Sky Country, not Big Water Country. Still, situated near the Missouri River in Helena, Mont., and with three good-sized lakes nearby, there’s enough marine traffic to keep Vonnie Hummert and her CYA Canvas plenty busy.
“We pull customers from Wyoming, the Dakotas, Canada, and we have a lot of out-of-state cabin owners with boats,” said Hummert, whose “bread and butter” business is 18- to 24-footers.
Hummert’s retired career-Navy husband, Michael, owns a siding and window construction company and does housing renovations, a talent that “came in handy” when she decided to move her shop to her home. The current facility is 1,800 square feet and features a 32-by-8-foot table with both a Juki and a long-arm Consew sewing machine.
“With the importance of good lighting in mind, we installed large southern and western windows (with shade screens that serve as displays) and high-ceiling T-8 fixtures,” she says. “The windows also provide beautiful views of the Elkhorn Mountains to the south, the Continental Divide to the west, and Lake Helena to the north. It’s a treat to stop and look out while working up on a boat.”
A roundabout route
A Maine native, Hummert’s family moved to southern California where she grew up. Michael, who grew up on a dairy farm in Illinois, dreamed of the ocean and mountains. He pursued the first dream by becoming a Navy salvage diver.
“When we came to Helena, I was looking for something to do and stumbled upon Trinidad Canvas,” she says. “I put on my interview suit, gathered up some photos of things I had sewn on our own boats, and walked in the door. I naively (or stupidly) told the owner, Nola Synness, that I had always wanted to sew canvas and that I would work for free, sweep the floor, run errands, whatever, if she would teach me the business. After she finished laughing, she asked if I could sew and when could I start. I was giddy as I drove home that day—I was finally going to do canvas and I could ride my horse to work, if I wanted.” An initial plan to learn and then buy the business evolved into an eight-year partnership until Synness retired.
Hummert credits her IFAI membership with keeping her apprised of new industry developments and products in the fabrication world. “I can’t afford to just make tops and experiment on the customer’s dollar,” she said. “IFAI allows me to offer more in the way of fabrics and techniques than I could without having somebody to consult with. Now I have the expertise and confidence to offer assistance to newcomers.”
Besides her marine work, Hummert has also made bear slings, fish ladders, and ranching accessories, among other items. In 2011, she won an IFAI Award of Excellence for a dogsled bag. “That award was a very gratifying recognition of a project that was special to me,” she said. “When the opportunity to design a bag that needed to perform on the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod dog-sled race, I was surprised at the complexity of the task. It helped me improve my skills and the features I incorporate into my everyday products.”
An “empty-nester” with a pair of Missouri fox trotter horses and a yellow lab, Hummert spends her spare time riding and hiking Montana’s mountains.