Questions & Answers with community faces
Allie (Jones) Gray (32) grew up in Fife Lake on her family’s beef farm with her parents and two younger brothers. Her paternal grandparents lived just a few miles away and were all about gardening—they had a massive vegetable and flower garden every year. Watching and helping her grandmother to harvest flowers was always a special event in her young life. She remembers that they would take the flower bouquets to the farmers’ market on Thursdays and that many people came to the market specifically for her grandmother’s flowers. During the winters, Gray’s parents would make wreaths for a local business that would give them out as gifts to their clients; this was a way that her family could make some extra cash for the holiday season.
When she reached middle school, Gray’s family relocated to Traverse City, where she graduated from West High School in 2007. She went on to earn an Associate’s degree in applied science from Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in 2009, while nannying for a family in Leelanau County. She then moved to Grand Rapids and attended Grace Bible College, a small private school, with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, she decided that was not the best route for her, and so she moved back to Traverse City in 2011 and continued working as a nanny for the same family.
Growing up, Gray thought that she would not ever be interested in farming, and she once told her parents: “I will never marry a farmer or live on a farm again!”
Well, so much for that. She first met her future husband, Shawn Gray (35)—a third-generation fruit farmer who grew up in Benzonia and graduated from Benzie Central High School in 2004—through mutual friends before she graduated from high school; when she moved back to Northern Michigan, they reconnected.
Allie and Shawn were married two years later, in 2013, and they now have three children: Mairenn (7), Emmett (4), and Callahan (2). Right before they married, Shawn had made the decision to work full time for his parents, Jack and Sharon Gray, on the family farm. So after their wedding, the young couple moved down to Benzie and established their life. They bought a gut-and-remodel house on Ballard Road, and they quickly realized how well they could work together and how many things they wanted to do with their five-acre plot.
Throughout the years, Allie Gray worked at Munson Medical Center as a nursing assistant for three years and then as an administrative assistant for Coldwell Banker Schmidt in Benzonia. After their youngest child was born during the summer of 2019, however, she decided that going back to work would be extremely hard with our area’s lack of affordable childcare, and so she elected to stay home for the foreseeable future. This worked out well with the beginning of the pandemic and teaching the oldest child when schools were shut down—it also helped to foster a new business that she could run from home.
Early in the pandemic, Gray did what a lot of people did—she ordered some seeds. Way too many seeds. And she planted every single one of them, out of excitement. Not realizing how many flowers this would actually produce, Gray decided that she had better start selling some of the extras. Thus, Red Shack Flowers began in the summer of 2020.
That following winter, she returned to her roots even further; she continued the wreath-making tradition from her grandmother and her parents. She now makes and sells wreaths locally and even ships them all over the country, from Arizona to Whidbey Island in Washington state.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Gray as she was stocking her farmstand with holiday wreaths.
The Betsie Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Allie Gray: Each day starts with getting my older two kids off to school and spending time with my two-year-old son. He is a very busy little guy, so not much gets done for work when he is home. We like to go into the woods and cut pine boughs, if the weather is decent, and in the summer, he plays in the garden while I cut or weed. He loves to use his own little tools to help. Typically, I wait for my husband, Shawn, to get home before I start my work. We have dinner together as a family, and then I head out to my greenhouse—where I do all my work in the winter—or to the garden in the summer. I take my laptop to check my orders and make sure I have the correct bows and all of the information, I put on a crime podcast, and I get to work. Some nights, I am out working until 11 or so. When I have a full day to work on wreaths on my own, I cut boughs fresh from around my husband’s family farm. It takes me a few hours to get enough of what I need. The pinecones are collected by friends and family throughout the year. That helps me so much! When I get to my greenhouse, I make bundles of boughs and hand tie them to the wreath frames. I make all the bows by hand for each customer. The finished wreaths are then decorated with whatever I feel goes with the flow of the bow, and I try to take the customer’s vibe into consideration. During the spring, I start all of my seeds on shelves built in my basement with tons of growing lights and heaters. It can be a little crazy! Shawn has a degree in orchard management from Michigan State University and is very knowledgeable about soils, watering, and fertilizers. He has taught me a lot. In the summer, once the plants are in the ground, the weeding begins. We did not use any weed blocker the last two years but plan to this coming growing season. Our kids are really good at helping in the garden, and they are learning constantly about plant names and how to soak in nature by running through the garden in their bare feet. During harvest time, I cut flowers during the day while the kids play outside, and then I arrange bouquets on my back porch after they go to bed. Even if it rains, I just stand under my umbrella and keep going. Our chickens like to join me while I am arranging and always try to get right in my space. It can be really funny. I haul all of my bouquets to the end of the driveway to the Red Shack, take pictures of what I have, and post them on social media. Typically, the bouquets are all sold by noon. It is so cool seeing my customers post pictures of their flowers online, and it makes me so happy.
Current: How has your work life changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan in March 2020?
Gray: Well, my business started, in part, because of the pandemic, which gave me time to focus on creating a plan for myself with my gardening and my wreaths. Even though I have been a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years, the pandemic has allowed me time to work on order forms, building a Facebook/Instagram presence, and in my garden with my kids and my husband at home. I was able to spend more time with my grandma and learn from her, as well. She and her sister have been gardening, flower arranging, and making wreaths for most of their lives. One disadvantage has been that I am unable to get a lot of my supplies on time—for instance, it took me much longer to get my wreath orders out than I had planned this year, because of shipping delays of the wire frames. I have a few specific places I order from, because they come in bulk and are a great deal, but this year, they would take weeks to ship after I would purchase them or they would refund me and say they didn’t have them in stock any longer. A lot of people have picked up crafting during the pandemic, and I have noticed that the craft stores sell out of products so much faster—I think it is really awesome that people are crafting, but I will just have to adjust and order much earlier next year.
Current: Where does the name “Red Shack” come from?
Gray: Our little stand at the end of the driveway was painted red already when it was gifted to us from a family friend who no longer used it. It’s a little crooked and was well loved by the previous owner, so it looked like a little shack. We fixed it up and repainted it barn red. We just started calling it “the red shack,” and it stuck.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next? Have you had any collaborations?
Gray: There are so many ways my work has changed over the years, and I am enjoying the evolution of that. I have been helping to make wreaths since I was little, and I do them a lot differently than we did when I was a kid. My parents and my grandma always made them nice and uniform, with a specific set of pines that they used. I tend to wing it and clip all different types of pines to use. Mine are much wilder than they used to be. I like the fullness and unique flair each one has. I hand tie each wreath, instead of using a wreath clamp, because I like how each one is unique. It never once crossed my mind to grow flowers in any sort of large scale, but it just sort of happened. I went a little crazy last spring and ordered so many seeds, and I started all of them. Thankfully, I have an understanding husband and five aces. He was able to till up a nice garden for me when the ground was ready. I went from there. Over the last few years, I have learned so much about how to set up my garden, what flowers do well here, and the equipment I need to make it all happen. I originally only planned to sell what I can grow myself out of my flower stand, but in the future, I might like to have a “u-cut” flower patch, because I love to see what others do with their imaginations. As of now, I wouldn’t want to do flowers for events, because I don’t deal well with the expectations of what others view as “acceptable” when it comes to flower arrangements—I would rather grow and arrange flowers that make me happy. If they sell, then that is great, too! So for now, it is wreaths in the winter and bouquets in the summer. The bouquets can be picked up at the Shack while supplies last; the wreaths are pre-orders that I ship or deliver. They can also be picked up at the Red Shack now that pre-orders are finished. Just recently, I collaborated with my friends over at St. Ambrose Cellars to host a wreath-making workshop for their employees. We had a great time, and we even had one of my chickens, Scarlett, stow away in a bag of pine boughs. It was quite hilarious that I had to carry my chicken around during a wreath-making class, but that is just something that would happen to me. I am going to do a second class for the employees this month, as well. Maybe next year we will open it to the public. I talked to a few other places that might be interested in having me host workshops next year, too. I also love the idea of collaboration with any other growers, farmers, and artists. It is so wonderful and encouraging to see others’ work!
Current: What is your favorite thing that you sell at the farmstand? What are the top three sellers?
Gray: I would say that my favorite thing is wreath-making. I have done it my whole life, and I just can’t get over how happy people are when they get them. It makes me feel good to bring holiday joy to wreath customers. I put so much work and heart into them. My flowers are, of course, special to me, as well, but I am just learning. Growing from seed makes me feel such a connection to the flowers I sell. The top three sellers would be my wreaths, the flower bouquets with lots of hearty zinnias, and flower bouquets with whimsical wild grasses mixed in. During the week, I sell about 10 to 12 bouquets a day, depending on what I have out there and the amount of time I can spend arranging ahead of time. As for the wreaths, last year, I hand tied 70 wreaths; this year, it is closer to 100. I am thankful for all of the wonderful support from the community, my friends and family that have taken the time to help, and for my husband, who is endlessly supportive.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Gray: When I am not working, well, I tend to never stop working, it seems, because I really enjoy it. Other than wreaths and flowers, I love to spend time with my husband and our kids. We do so much together at our house. We love to cook, bake, and we like working on projects together. We really love to preserve food together: pitting cherries and vacuum sealing them; canning the most amazing dill pickles; making jam; and cooking up spaghetti sauce to can. We love to play cards, have bonfires, swim, fish, kayak, and hang out with our friends. My parents live on Fife Lake, and we love spending time with them boating and swimming. We like to go for rides out on my husband’s family farm to pick apples and cherries and just look for deer and other wildlife. I am not super involved in much outside of the home, since we have three little kids and that is wild! I am passionate about leukemia awareness—my dad was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia that he got from tainted water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he was a Marine Corps Captain. One of the other reasons I don’t work outside of the home is to be there for him and Mom when they need me—my mom is his full-time caretaker, since he has many health issues after the fact.
Current: How have you seen Northern Michigan change since you grew up here? Benzie County’s changes since you moved here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Gray: Northern Michigan has gotten so busy since I was a kid. The amount of tourism has increased. There are so many awesome new businesses, restaurants, and breweries that have popped up since I was growing up, and they are all shaping the community. I grew up right in the heart of Traverse City, and I have only been in Benzie County for 10 years. Still, the county has changed since I have lived here, and I am always blown away by the yearly increase of people in the summer. I enjoy reconnecting with other couples and young families that had moved away from the county and now are returning to their roots here—I have seen that a lot with our friends. In the future, I would love to see more family-friendly options. It would be really great to have a civic center-type of place that offers swimming lessons, a workout area, and possible childcare center, so parents could actually work out or swim. It would also be great if there were more affordable childcare options in our area. I have struggled, and I know so many families struggle with it, and it is so hard to see and deal with.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Gray: The biggest challenge, as I mentioned before, is lack of childcare. Affordable housing is not attainable, either. That is such a struggle for so many. For us, it meant buying a gut-job, because that’s what we could afford. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the skills, time, or ability for that, though. In the summer, it can be really frustrating to go anywhere to eat or shop, because it gets so busy, but I know our county is so beautiful, and it is great to see people enjoying it. There are so many rewards of living and working here. I love our community and the supportive people I have come to know. Seeing my flower bouquets at Bella’s Café in Frankfort this past summer was so fun, and I am glad someone brought them in there. Driving past a house and seeing a wreath I made is just such a great feeling. Being able to teach my kids about all the amazing things in our area and the uniqueness of the land that allows for growing certain crops is really fun.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area? What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Gray: Benzie County needs more options for young families. There are things that I would love to have my kids do, but I can’t be driving to Traverse City several days a week for something like gymnastics or karate lessons. It would be great to have a place in the county that could offer extracurricular activities for kids that are easily accessible to rural families. Northern Michigan has always had an amazing amount of talented people and artists, but for that to continue, affordable housing would be key. The cost of living in Northern Michigan—especially Traverse City—is so high, and there isn’t the appropriate housing, and there is a large pay gap for similar jobs that pay more in other areas compared to here. Working toward solutions for these problems is very important in attracting young people and families to the area. Continuing to display and promote talented people that are here in Northern Michigan makes it an even more appealing place for others, and using articles like this Q&A series is a great way to do that.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Gray: We love the farmers’ market in Elberta on Thursdays—I love taking my kids in the summer, and they always save up their change to buy a treat on their own. Winterfest in Beulah is always a great time in February! Watching fireworks from the frozen lake is so much fun. Any day on the lake is also the best recreation of all! We don’t go out to eat much these days, since it can be tough and expensive with kids, but any of the local restaurants are always good when we do. I would love to try to get out more and try some of the newer places that I haven’t gone to yet. During the week, I like to stop at Bella’s Café in Frankfort for a vanilla latte after school drop-off in the morning. I love seeing the group of older gentlemen sitting at the table, drinking coffee, and chatting. It makes my day.
Current: What does your perfect December day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Gray: Our perfect December day would be playing games inside, making our special homemade popcorn, then going snowmobiling or having a snowy bonfire, and, of course, watching Christmas movies. Our perfect days always end with a good meal and some snuggle time with the kids.
Visit “Red Shack Flowers and Produce” on Facebook or @red_shack_flowers on Instagram to learn more, see examples, and check out the order form. Wreaths can be pre-ordered and shipped, delivered, or picked up at 3374 Ballard Road, Benzonia. Custom orders are available within reason. Send a message on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Featured Photo Caption: Allie Gray hand ties all of her homemade wreaths, which are from cuttings around her husband’s family farm. Photo courtesy of Red Shack Flowers.