More than 40 years ago, when her family was still living in Cocoa Beach, Florida, Cheri Russell paid roughly $300 for the restoration of a wicker couch and chair she purchased at a garage sale.
“I found somebody in Orlando,” Russell said. “Oh, he did the most wretched job. It was horrible.”
Russell took to finding someone else—someone she could learn the restoration process from herself. Little did she know the hunt would lead her to her own business she hopes to run the rest of her life.
Days after Russell received her unimpressive restorations, she encountered a woman inside an antique shop who told her there was man in the area with a knack for wicker—but that he wouldn’t give her the time of day. Determined, Russell found out the man’s name—Craig Stroupe—and contact information, anyway, and gave him a call.
Sure enough, Mr. Stroupe was a tough man to crack, Russell said.
“I kept talking to him. He said to call back in three weeks. Then, he said to call back in two weeks,” she said.
Finally, during the next phone call, Stroupe told Russell to come to his house the following Monday. She drove an hour and a half from Cocoa Beach to Winter Park. Once she was there, however, he told her he couldn’t work with her and to come back Friday.
“I cried all the way home,” Russell said. “I was so upset with him. I said, ‘I’m not going back.’”
But she did. Once she pulled into Stroupe’s drive, Russell knew he couldn’t say no again.
“He stood there with his hands on his hips and he goes, ‘Okay, I guess you passed the test,’” Russell explained. “He said, ‘I don’t have time to waste teaching somebody and have them just flake out on me.’”
Russell said Stroupe had previously worked with young men, who had disappointed him by not showing up for work.
“He said, ‘Besides, women, girls—all you do is get pregnant,’” she said.
Russell proved him wrong. For the next 14 months, she worked with Stroupe diligently, from his wicker pieces’ frames up, paying him through the repairs she did for him and his clients.
Before too long, Russell and her husband Mike, along with their children, returned to their home in Missouri.
“My mom had died, and I got our farm, and Mike’s dad was not doing good,” Russell said.
A little more time passed, and Russell and her little family moved to Washington state, where her own wicker business soon took off.
“People were coming from all over Washington letting us fix their family pieces,” Russell said, and it wasn’t long before big name publications—like Women’s Day—noticed. On Aug. 11, 1981, the magazine published an article on Wicker Fixer, Russell’s business, as well as several other female-operated home businesses.
“It was just when women were starting businesses at home,” Russell explained.
The day the magazine was to be pulled off the shelf, Russell’s family pulled back into Ozark, this time for good.
“We came home with wicker in our stuff from Washington,” Russell said. “The back was loaded. We brought it home and then we eventually shipped it back to them.”
The amount of unpacking that had to be done didn’t keep her from buying a copy of the magazine, though.
“If it hadn’t been for Women’s Day giving that shout-out to women—that’s what I think really helped us,” Russell told the Headliner. “So, I’m very thankful for that—and Craig for giving women a chance.”
Wicker Fixer’s nationwide exposure would additionally lead to even more coverage, including that by the Springfield News-Leader and the Kansas City Star, all while Cheri and Mike worked through more and more projects. Today, the pair estimates they’ve completed roughly 21,000.
Props for Paul
Since the beginning of her business in 1976, Russell has loved working on family pieces.
“When we get pieces in, and it’s their childhood buggy or their mother’s or grandmother’s childhood buggy, it’s like giving them a piece of their family history back,” Russell said. “It’s awesome.”
As she works, she likes to imagine her projects’ previous lives—and what sorts of scenes they must have been a part of.
“I can envision the women pushing a wicker carriage down a boardwalk, or I can envision them sitting and talking in the park in their old dresses with their parasails and babies, and rocking them, and the nannies are talking about whatever, sipping their tea and all this kind of stuff,” Russell said, smiling. “I get transformed. Something takes over.”
Wicker Fixer’s projects come from all over. Pieces from as far as California and Canada have found their way inside the Russell family’s farm home. In addition, some of the family’s personal projects have even wound up in a movie.
“A girlfriend had asked me, ‘What is your dream?’ And I said, ‘I would love to have some wicker in a movie.’ I thought that’d be cool. We were just talking about stuff like that,” Russell said. “A week or so later, the phone rings and someone goes, ‘I’m calling for Paul Newman. We’re doing a movie, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,’ and we were wanting to know if you have some wicker.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, and I’m JoAnn Woodward.’”
Russell laughed. She said she thought her friend was playing a prank.
“And this lady goes, ‘No, really, it’s real.’”
So, Cheri and Mike drove a few pieces of Wicker furniture to Kansas City, where the film was shot.
“We got to tour the house and get pictures and stuff, and the deal was that we were going to get to meet Paul,” Russell said, though, unfortunately, she came down with pneumonia. “I couldn’t talk because I was coughing so bad. It was horrible.”
Russell didn’t get to meet Paul Newman, but she eventually saw the movie, which debuted November 1990.
The restoration process for Wicker can be a days-long feat, Russell said.
Sometimes, the pieces arrive so dirty, they have to be cleaned before anything else can happen.
“You have to be very careful in how you clean it. I try to hose it off. You wash it and use like, a mild soap,” Russell said. “You have to know the material of the wicker, too—is it rattan, is it wood wicker, is it sea grass? You have to be careful with what you’re doing.”
Often, the wicker must be conditioned, too. Stroupe shared his personal formula with the Russell family that they’ve used and improved throughout the years. It makes the Wicker more pliable, Russell said.
“Then, you do your repair,” she added. “You have to get your materials and order your cane and you have to figure out what type of finish you’re going to put on it and all that kind of stuff.”
“It can get expensive, too,” Mike interjected.
Wicker Fixer, in fact, has a minimum wage charge of $145, though projects can reach costs of thousands of dollars. The Russell family has ways of showing customers their money’s worth it, though.
“We usually try to do before and after pictures, so we can show them,” Cheri’s daughter, Arianna, said.
And when customers do get their pieces back, a mini celebration ensues. Cheri celebrates with them.
“She gets lots of hugs, too,” Mike said, smiling.
Of course, not everyone’s happy, but Russell tries to walk away from projects satisfied she did everything she could.
“It’s been restored to the best of our ability and we brought it back to as best as original as we could,” Russell said.
On the Farm
The Russell family’s home is more than a place for wicker restoration. Their farm is made up of dozens and dozens of acres of land, a handful of natural springs, and even a few Bigfoot sightings, Mike teased.
“We had a guy working for us, and he was downhill by one of the springs that we’ve got,” Russell explained. Something threw a small rock at the worker’s legs, she said, and after looking up, he got out of there as fast as he could. The man later described what he saw as a big, hairy man.
“It was behind a big tree, but it stuck out on both sides,” Mike said, enthusiastically. “That’s apparently how big it was.”
Mike was also there when their property’s barn burned down roughly nine years ago.
“For years, we would find pieces on the back field of stuff, and pages of things that had burnt and blown around,” Mike said.
It took fire departments across seven counties to put it out, Russell added.
“I had stored all of my family stuff, all of our original wicker, but the only thing we lost of our customers’ was a big, long porch swing,” Russell said.
Other than a devastating fire, however, and the occasional sasquatch sighting, the family enjoys their farm for its serenity.
“I can see the stars at night. It’s peaceful,” Russell said. “When you go down to the spring and hear that babbling brook, it’s just great.”
She said the property has its flaws—like her home’s crooked floors that send her office chair rolling every time she stands up—but she wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.
“I always say if I won the lottery or whatever, what I’d do is put in flowerbeds and gardens and I’d open it up,” Russell said. “I’d put old fashioned log cabins where people could stay, so that people could literally go back to the 1800s.”
For now, their homestead remains a place for solely their children and Russell’s business, which she plans to run as long as she can. She can’t think of two things she enjoys more than her property and wicker restoration.
“It’s been something I’ve been able to do—stay at home, take care of the kids, work at night and still be a mom,” she said. “You’re really blessed if you can find one thing in life that you can do that you love, but if you can find two things—I mean, my God, how lucky can you be?”
Entrepreneurship runs in the Russell family. Cheri and Mike’s youngest, Arianna, is currently working toward the launch of her own business, Help Connect.
“We’re a for-profit business connecting the community with other nonprofit resources,” Russell said in a Headliner News article published in August. “What we offer is the only single database website to be able to get help if you need it [and] find volunteer opportunities.”
Furthermore, Help Connect joins people in need with area nonprofits based on the resources each offers. Nonprofits pay a subscription to be part of the website, or other businesses can act as adopters of a nonprofit and sponsor their payments.
Help Connect was originally set to launch Oct. 4, Russell’s birthday, but it’s taken longer than she expected.
“Building a custom-coded website with 130-plus pages, and doing the layout, is extremely time-consuming,” Russell recently said. “We have over a dozen nonprofits on board, but there is no set launch date.”
The good news is many nonprofits are still interested. Convey of Hope and Harmony House have since signed on, as well as a dozen others.
“People just need to say tuned,” Arianna said.