By Kim McDarison
While waiting in a deer stand during hunting season several years ago, John Rinehart, Milton, said he saw something majestic: a young eagle landed nearby. Taken by the creature’s beauty, he said, he thought to himself that reproductions of the bird he’d found available for purchase were often either very expensive or done in roughly-hone mediums that didn’t quite do, in his opinion, the animal justice. In his mind a fledgling business formed, one in which a technically correct and detailed reproduction could be offered to consumers at an affordable price.
For Rinehart, 76, turning his inspirations into business ideas has been a lifelong pursuit. “You don’t need a completely new idea; you just need to improve on something that is already being done,” he said. When you present the public with a marketable idea, they just need to say three words: “I like it.”
Known internationally in the taxidermy world for his inventive inspirations, Rinehart has followed this advice throughout his life as he’s developed several businesses, often inspiring family members to get involved. Among businesses he’s begun and sold are a taxidermy studio and school, both Janesville-based, an archery target manufacturing firm, also in Janesville, an ice fishing tip-up concept, and most recently, a small eagle manufacturing business which is also based in Janesville. Semi-retired and with a developing interest in American travel, particularly along Route 66, Rinehart said, he’d like to grow the new business into a state of sustainability and then sell it.
In the meantime, he said: “This is a feel-good project; there’s nothing more iconic than the North American bald eagle.”
From humble beginnings
“I love the word ‘basement,’” Rinehart said. Lots of great businesses have started there, with one idea and one hard-working set of hands that sought to bring the idea to fruition, he said, describing his own “rags to riches” success story as starting at the basement level: while in his early 20s, he said, he began attending UW-Whitewater as a commuting pre-engineering student and helped with his family’s, Janesville-based assisted living facility, but things didn’t go as planned, he said, noting that a year later, he’d “flunked out” of school and found himself working as a janitor at Parker Pen.
Describing his beginning as humble, in his mind, he said, his was an “opportunity job.” He worked hard, taking great pride in keeping his section of the facility clean. He earned recognition from his supervisor and was allowed to talk with other workers as he performed his daily tasks. When the company closed down for a few weeks to allow its workers to go on vacation, he chose to follow the advice given by a fellow employee: he suggested that Rinehart travel to northern Wisconsin and do some fishing.
That year, Rinehart said: “I caught a good fish; a trout out of Lake Superior.” The good fortune prompted him to look for a taxidermist, and when he found one, he said, he was so intrigued with the work that he asked the tradesman if he could come back and learn. After a few weeks of training, Rinehart said, the rest is history: today the Rinehart name is synonymous with innovations brought to the industry. John’s son, Dan, continues to grow the profession from a school and manufacturing facility in Edgerton, and a brother and brother-in-law, both trained by John, have also formed successful taxidermy-based businesses.
Said Rinehart: “I trained over 3,000 people at the taxidermy school; some people train and grow into oak trees and some the squirrel eats; I had the first licensed taxidermy school in the world, and I had that plum all to myself for 15 years.” He ultimately sold the taxidermy studio and school to a competitor, he said.
Rinehart described his mother as a family matriarch, whom, he said, taught him the value of hard work and caring for people. In the 1950s, he said, assisted living facilities were much like boarding houses, with people renting rooms and receiving meals as part of the program. His family’s facility started small, and ultimately had about 50 residents, he said. Rinehart’s mother ran the establishment and his father served as cook, and Rinehart arrived for three hours each day and helped prepare, serve and clear the evening meal, he said. After he married, in 1961, he purchased a Victorian home and he and his wife, Marie, ran a small nine-resident facility as well.
Value through efficiency
From his working life, Rinehart said, he learned that efficiency was a necessary component to doing something profitably. “Time is money,” he said. Developing techniques that were efficient within a process while still creating a product customers liked became a formula that served him throughout his life.
As a taxidermist, he developed a process through which a deer manikin’s eyes could be preset, making it possible for a finished mount to be completed in less time, allowing the price to stay affordable and the taxidermist to still make money. With ice fishing tip-ups, he said, he noticed products available on the market didn’t keep the fisherman’s hole from freezing; he created a model that would, and animal-shaped hunting targets required rethinking, he said, when he realized that the foam product from which targets were made often melted from the friction created as an arrow pierced and settled into the form, making it very difficult if not impossible for some, he said, to remove their arrows, without breaking apart the target. He created a new recipe allowing the foam to react differently, thus making it possible to more easily pull arrows free from the apparatus.
“I like starting businesses,” he said, noting that he enjoys the challenge, working with people, and making a profit.
The manufacturing process
With his newly forming eagle concept in mind, Rinehart began setting the wheels in motion about five years ago, he said, when he hired Hayward-based woodcarver, Randy Tull, describing him as a “champion” in his field, to create an eagle that could serve as the model for a mold. “It cost $10,000 for this one,” he said, as he presented the original carving. He then placed a plastic reproduction alongside of the original, and explained the process.
From the wooden carving, he said, he commissioned a Wisconsin-based company to make an aluminum mold, one that could be used in an industrial plastic “blow-molding” injection process, which is also performed by a Wisconsin-based company.
The blow mold is connected to a tube of liquid plastic, heated to some 300 degrees. “The plastic drops into the mold from the top and it (the mold) slams shut, creating a bubble inside,” Rinehart said. Next, 150 pounds of air pressure is applied which instantaneously forces the liquid plastic onto the interior surface of the mold. A secondary tubing system, filled with cold water, is used on the exterior of the mold to cool the plastic inside; the cooling process takes about 80 seconds, Rinehart said.
Using this procedure, a plastic eagle body is made in about 90 seconds, and then sold to Rinehart in lots of 1,000, he said. Back in his small 1,000-square-foot, south side Janesville facility, Rinehart finishes the manufacturing process himself, where he adds paint-receptive primers, followed by the white-colored feathering and orange-colored details for beaks and feet. The finished product weights about 2-1/2 pounds, he said.
“My eagles are made the same way you make a milk jug; it’s just that my milk jugs are shaped like eagles,” Rinehart said. “It’s the blow molding that makes it affordable,” he added.
He also inserts each eagle’s glass eyes, saying: “It’s got to look alive.” He has further developed a mounting system so the decoration can be displayed in tree limbs, and on fence and mailbox posts, among other things.
At a cost of $80,000, he said, making the aluminum mold was a gamble, but he believes the bird will pass the “I like it” test and find a robust market.
As part of his marketing strategy, Rinehart has mounted several birds on various posts and in trees along a stretch of highway frontage on property he owns along County Trunk N between Milton and Newville. “People often stop to take pictures,” he said.
He also markets the birds in a retail capacity at area summer festivals and fairs, including The Rock River Thresheree, and through an online website.
Decoration as deterrent
Created as a piece of outdoor décor, he said, a secondary use emerged as he and his neighbors placed the birds on Lake Koshkonong piers and property water frontage: while eagles are not natural predators of adult Canada geese, he said, they do eat the goslings. He believes, he said, that the decorative eagles deter adult geese from nesting within their presence, thus helping with keeping piers and property free of geese droppings, as would-be parents look for safer ground.
To learn more about the Rinehart manufactured eagle, visit the website: Iloveeagles.com.
To learn more about the habits of Canada geese in Wisconsin, visit the DNR website: http://dnr.wi.gov/eek/critter/bird/goose.htm.
To learn more about eagles in Wisconsin, visit the DNR website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/baldeagle.html.
Editor’s Note: an abridged version of this story can be found on the front page of the March 30th print edition of the Milton Courier.
John Rinehart, founder of Rinehart Sculptures, Inc., describes work done in a small manufacturing plant in Janesville. A wooden carving of a North American bald eagle (at right) served as the model for a blow mold, which, in turn, is used to create plastic reproductions (at left).
As part of a marketing strategy for his fledgling company, Rinehart has mounted several birds on various posts and in trees along a stretch of highway frontage on County Trunk N between Milton and Newville. “People often stop to take pictures,” he said.