By Ginna Parsons
MICHIGAN CITY – Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!
And alligators, elephants and giraffes. Say what?
Throw in rabbits, bulldogs, gnomes, tiki heads, gargoyles, owls and armadillos – not to mention fountains, birdbaths and urns – and you’ve got Mid-South Ornamental Concrete.
The family-owned business, operated by Kurt and Emily Sanders, is spread over almost 10 acres on Highway 72 in Michigan City, where Benton County meets the Tennessee line.
“We are the largest ornamental concrete manufacturing business within 400 or 500 miles,” Kurt said. “And we’re not just a manufacturer – we’ve got our stuff on the lot, too. I wouldn’t know how to say how many pieces we have here. Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Inventory is a nightmare. It takes us a month to do it.”
The Sanderses bought the business in 2011 from Eddie and Vicki Carpenter, who started it in 1985.
“Kurt was a builder and as the economy got bad, he was looking for something else to do,” Emily said. “The Carpenters were ready to retire and move to the beach. It’s a good business for us to have because we have a special needs child and he has a lot of doctor appointments, so this is flexible.”
Cade, 7, has DiGeorge syndrome, a chromosomal disorder similar to Down syndrome. The couple also has an older son, Walker, who will be 10 on Saturday.
“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff we have is made here, on site,” Emily said. “We go to mold auctions and shows twice a year and pick up new pieces. We have thousands of molds stored in containers. There are probably molds back there that have never been poured.”
The business has 10 longtime and loyal employees, some who have been there anywhere from 12 to 30 years, Kurt said. There is a mold maker and men who pour and pull concrete, and painters who paint and stain pieces and delivery people and salespeople, Emily said.
“You would be surprised at the people who don’t know we make our own stuff here, even if they’ve shopped here for years,” Kurt said.
The concrete is made from gravel, sand and cement and poured into molds made of rubber and fiberglass. Once it’s set, it’s pulled from the mold and left to thoroughly dry. Then it’s either sold in its natural state, or stained, which drives up the price by 30 percent, or painted, which costs 75 percent more than natural.
“The smallest concrete piece we have is probably a ladybug that’s about 2 inches in diameter,” Emily said. “The largest is a statue of Mary, which is about 8 feet tall. You won’t believe what people will put in their yards. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.”
By far, the most popular items are fountains, birdbaths and garden urns, Emily said. They sell to nurseries and garden centers in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, and they’ll also deliver pieces to customers’ homes and install them.
“We’ve delivered to people’s houses in Memphis, Tupelo, Corinth, New Albany, Ripley and Columbus,” she said. “And we ship. We shipped a fountain to New Jersey last summer.”
Fountains range from ornate three-tiered pieces that are 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide that sell for $2,600 to a more modern 3-foot pillar fountain that’s $300.
“Everything we have, somebody is going to buy,” Kurt said.
The busiest time of year for the business is spring – specifically March to July – and the single busiest month is May. Fall is popular with people coming in to buy collegiate items.
“We have four sizes of rebels, eight different bulldogs and seven elephant statues,” Emily said. “When you go out there, you have to be here for a while to see everything.”
A walk through the grounds reveals all the concrete mentioned before plus angels, pet markers and gravestones, house numbers, stepping stones, snails, frogs, cats, raccoons, geckos, owls, turtles, benches, military statues, Japanese lanterns, dragons, eagles, wolves, fleur-de-lis, lighthouses, dolphins, seals, Jesus on the cross, chimps, sphinxes, Venus de Milo, elves, trolls, caterpillars, palm trees and even a miniature Statue of Liberty.
There’s also a large selection of aluminum lamp posts, mailboxes, benches and tables, and a wrought-iron section with arbors, planters, benches and gazebos.
“People come through and say they’ve never seen so much stuff,” Emily said. “They can’t believe the inventory we have. We don’t have a road runner, but we’ve had people ask for those. And somebody asked the other day if we had a SpongeBob, which we don’t, but we could because you never know what we’re going to find at an auction.”
The large painted pieces that face the highway – a giant rabbit, a giraffe, a chicken, a catfish, a camel and an elephant – are not concrete, but fiberglass.
“We don’t make those anymore, but we can order them,” Emily said.
Those pieces really draw attention.
“People will call and ask for directions and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, are you the place with that big chicken in front or that big elephant?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yep, that’s us,’” Kurt said.
When the couple goes to auctions to buy molds – which can run anywhere from hundreds of dollars to thousands – they have to get rid of others they have.
“If I buy molds for 20 new pieces, I need to discontinue 20 pieces,” Kurt said. “I don’t have room to grow anymore. But our pet peeve is running out of something. We try to have enough for everybody. We pride ourselves on that.”