My sister carried a dark secret into the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. A few months before our weekend excursion to the Burlington area, my brother-in-law had thrown out my 8-year-old niece’s Vermont bear, a baby gift from a friend. The back seam had split, cause for expulsion from the Republic of Stuffed Animals.
But the teddy bear factory is no place for regret. Kate felt no remorse for her former friend as she raced into the Bear Shop and into the arms of a six-foot-tall teddy as squishy as a bean bag. Her eyes bugged out as she surveyed the land — teddy bears everywhere. They hung from the ceiling and covered multitiered tables. They sat on shelves and sprawled on the floor like guests after a Thanksgiving feast. Kate was speechless, but still could move her limbs, so we set off to replace the bear that no longer had a standing reservation at her tea party.
Vermont prides itself on its homegrown industry: Ben and Jerry’s, Cabot Creamery, Magic Hat Brewing Company, Bernie Sanders. Vermont Teddy Bear Company fits the profile of local businesses that, despite national success, continue to radiate a down-to-earth charm. The country’s largest teddy-bear manufacturer, which produces 100,000 bears a year, operates out of a facility in Shelburne, not far from its original site, a pushcart on Church Street in Burlington.
Driving south from the college town, we spotted our first bear from the road, an oversized teddy built out of hay bales. (The state banned billboards in the late 1960s, but mammoth-sized mammals are still permitted.) From the parking lot, we followed paw prints to the main building, a long structure with barn-red accents and a silo as colorful as a lollipop tree. Furless faces appeared in wooden cutouts of bride and groom bears.
The company leads tours from four to 11 times a day, depending on the season.
During the week, guests can watch the bear-building process from a few feet away. On weekends, the excursion is similar but quieter: The sewing machines are silent. We arrived early for our 1 p.m. slot and decided to reverse the customary flow of tour to gift shop to car. Our clan of six dispersed. Kate and I started in the main retail space, a career counselor’s office come to life. We looked at bears dressed in scrubs, train engineer overalls, painter’s smocks and superhero capes. We studied bispecies bears — bear-moose, bear-frog, bear-Holstein cow — and wished namaste to yogi bears (the enlightened kind, not Boo Boo’s pal). The 2016 presidential candidates were also represented — pantsuit and pearls for her, comb-over and wad of cash for him. Bernie had sold out.
We ended up choosing three Little Hero bears that were not part of the classic line. And though they did not have the signature movable parts, they did have heart: With each purchase, the company donates a bear to a first responder.
For kids who demand more creative control, VTBC offers Make a Friend for Life (stuff and sew, with help from a Bear Crew member) and Make a BFF (choose individual parts and snap into place). At a worktable, an employee was helping a young girl close up her pink-legged bear. She cut the “umbearical” cord and called out the time of birth, which the new momma bear noted on a birth certificate. The document also has space for the cub’s name, and I asked the staffer which ones are most popular. She told me Teddy, Moose and Monty; Robin Metzger, the store manager, later shared one of her favorites, Vermontica. After a quick consultation, Kate decided on Maple, and my nephew chose Cheddar. There were no bites for Ben and Jerry or Bernie and Sanders.
A few minutes before tour time, Barb, our guide, began to herd our pack into the factory. She hopped onto a podium and started from the beginning. In 1980, Vermont resident John Sortino was dismayed to discover that all of his children’s stuffed animals were made abroad, including the most American of toys. (See Teddy Roosevelt, 1902 hunting trip.) He stitched together a bear called Bearcho, an ursine ode to Groucho Marx. Barb held up the silly bear show-and-tell-style. He later added movable body parts and named the bear Buddy. Barb demonstrated the 360-degree head turn and swinging-arm move.
During his first year, Sortino sold 200 bears from the outdoor market. He opened a factory in 1985, followed a decade later by the facility we were standing inside. (The founder no longer owns the company.) The bears are assembled in Vermont and most of the materials come from America. (Some of the fur originates overseas, but the company plans to shift to a U.S. manufacturer for all fur.) To verify the provenance, each eye contains the phrase “Born in Vermont.” The tush tags also proclaim the birthplace, month and year.
To show off the different fur colors, Barb tossed some bears to the younger members of the crowd. But don’t get attached, kiddies. She collected the animals — despite the wishful thinking of Kate’s mom — before leading us to the Cutting Station. Holding what looked like a faux animal pelt, she explained how the bear is made up of 20 parts and 14 layers of fur. She told us that, to minimize waste, they make small “button bears” for visitors with the scraps. She circulated a few baskets and told us to — your wish is coming true, Sister Bear — pick out a bear. As instructed, I pushed the tour button fastened to my jacket through the slot in the mini-bear’s face, creating a cyclops bear.
Once the crowd settled down, we took a few steps to the left and entered the Sewing Station, where the parts are stitched inside-out to hide the seams. A few inches over, we crossed into the Stuffing Station. Here, a machine shoots the recycled bottle filling into the bear at 100 mph. At the Outfit Station, we learned that the company can customize outfits. Barb pointed to one example, a bride bear wearing a replica of the actual wedding gown worn by a customer.
My sister’s dark secret started to wiggle free at our final stop, the Bear Hospital. Surrounded by ailing and injured bears, Barb shared the company’s lifetime guarantee policy. They will repair or replace any bear, at any time, as long as the tush tag is identifiable. Barb trotted out a selection of tragic cases. Burned when used as pot holder. Chewed up by a dog. Melted in the dryer. Run over by a lawn mower.
While my sister mumbled, “If I had only known” to herself, I approached Barb and described the sad tale of Kate’s bear. She advised us to call the company on Monday. They can look up the ordering information, she said, and ship off a new bear. My sister’s mood lightened as the weight of her guilt lifted.
But Kate couldn’t wait.
On the way out, she repeated the story to an employee at the front counter, who appeared equally distressed by the bear’s unnecessary demise. She leaned into Kate and told her to go pick out a new friend. Kate knew exactly where to go to find a bear with a happier ending.
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Vermont Teddy Bear Company
6655 Shelburne Rd., Shelburne
Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 17 through May 26. Tours offered at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Admission costs $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and is free for kids age 12 and younger.