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Pa. success story comes to an end

June 15, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - A company that started as two women's retirement project and grew into a $2 million hand-sewn collectibles business will close its doors on June 30, sending the last 17 workers home a final time.

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At one time, Overly-Raker Inc. employed more than 50 people and sold its dolls and stuffed animals to "mom-and-pop" gift shops around the nation.

Helen I. Overly, 67, and Freda Raker, 72, started the business in the basement of their home on Overly-Raker Road in 1972. Within a year, they had hired two part-time employees to help get orders out. Then they moved to Raker's mother's house because her basement was bigger, and added more workers.

In 1973, they bought the former Harrisburg Dairy, a 3,300-square-foot building on U.S. 522 north of McConnellsburg. By the time they sold the business in 1995, additions had expanded the building to 26,000 square feet, Overly said.

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The new owners changed the focus from manufacturing to a wholesale import operation, dropping the collectibles that made the business a success for the women, said Leon Hurst, vice president and plant manager. The operation will be shifted to US JHI plants in Wisconsin, he said.

"It's a different operation now from when Helen and Freda owned it," Hurst said. "Most of their customers were mom-and-pop gift shop owners who knew them by their names. Their customers wanted that personal contact."

US JHI is mostly an import operation whose customers want products that carry their own company label, he said. US JHI has the products custom-made overseas and imports them.

Hurst said he came to work for Overly-Raker 20 years ago. He stayed on with the new owners and will continue working for them after the plant closes, he said.

Overly said she handled marketing and administration and was the company spokeswoman. Raker used her artistic talent to turn ideas into profits. She designed the dolls, animals and other whimsical creatures that Overly-Raker sold.

Overly-Raker's collectibles sold for as little as $5 and for as much as $300.

"People bought them to decorate their homes and make them part of their lives," Overly said. "They're in living rooms all over the country. They'll become more valuable now that the company is out of business."

The women weren't looking for a buyer when US JHI came up with an offer.

"We figured something might happen and we would need to sell and wouldn't have a buyer," Overly said.

"When I look back on it, I never thought about making such a big success out of it," Raker said. "I just wanted a place to be able to create things."

Only the business was sold, Overly said. She and Raker still own the building.

"We're hoping some light-manufacturing company will buy it and provide jobs for people," Overly said. "We had a lot of talented workers."

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