In this age of the easily mass-produced, the handmade original takes form through inspiration, ingenuity and perseverance. Making that happen often takes a healthy combination of purpose, timing and luck. Dan McCready discovered this during a road trip through the American heartland and founded This Land, an online shop that endeavors to re-capture the quintessential American spirit of innovation. In doing so, it both promotes those artists who have found their own creative spark as well as fosters bursts of inspiration. I spoke with McCready, via email, about his venture, its vision and the lessons he carried from his time in the Marine Corps.
How did This Land get started?
A little over a year ago, I was driving through the country on the way to a wedding in Kentucky. The landscape was beautiful, but as I looked off the highway, every shop I was saw was a chain store. The mom-and-pop shops that used to be there were gone. As I thought about it, I couldn’t bring to mind a single item I owned that was made here in the United States that was worthy of passing on to my kids. I was inspired to find out what was still being made here in America.
With this new inspiration, the first thing I did was book a trip to Colorado. I had only one appointment scheduled, but my intuition was that more would unfold. Once there, I met with Tanya Fleisher and Roy Katz, a married couple who have a small leatherworking shop in Denver. I was amazed from the moment I stepped into their shop; here were folks who poured hard work, integrity, and passion into what they did. These values that they lived and worked by reminded me of my time in the military, where I started my career.
I continued traveling around the country —to Washington State, to New York, to the Appalachian Mountains—meeting with artists. Everywhere I went, I found more amazing stories of American craftsmanship. Fast forward a year, that spark of an idea has turned into a small startup representing dozens of artists, dozens of stories that, to me, represent the best of our country.
Let’s talk about the craftsmen. What was your process in finding these artists? What are their stories?
We find most of our artists by traveling to their workshops and visiting with them or by word of mouth. It’s such a collaborative community; one artist will introduce us to another, then that artist to another, and so on.
Our artists’ stories are inspiring. Take Tanya and Roy for example. They’re young, creative, and driven to do something that matters. When I entered their shop, it all just hit me: the turn-of-the-century brick building where they set up shop, the smell of leather hide stretched out on the table. Their work and workspace embodies an attitude of getting back to our roots, getting back to what made this country great.
Our artists range from blacksmiths to ceramicists, from metalworkers to woodworkers. Nathan Blank, one of our blacksmiths, built his workshop himself in the Appalachian Mountains. He spent some time in the area, loved it so much he set up shop there, and started his new life’s work. He’s immensely talented. He makes a set of hand-forged skewers for us with spectacular handcrafted twists, crafted in a way no machine (and few blacksmiths) could replicate. He doesn’t do it for the money—he does it because he’s driven to follow his passion and make things by hand.
This Land has a journal that captures stories of your craftsmen as well as your vision of the “American spirit.” Why was it important to you to include this in This Land?
This Land is a specially curated shop that carries amazing handcrafted products, but our mission includes so much more than that. In the bigger picture, I want This Land to be a voice that adds to the dialogue about American heritage and the spirit of this country. Our artists make work that helps connect people in the 21st century to a set of values and traditions they may be missing.
We use our journal to explore this through a number of themes. This includes studio visits with our artists, of course, and our experiences with their work. But also our thoughts on American pioneers, independence, family, war and tradition. Some posts are personal reflections. Recently, our COO Mel McCaslin, a pilot in the Navy Reserves, wrote about her hero Amelia Earhart for the anniversary of Earhart’s transatlantic flight. In this way, we hope to start conversations that matter, to inspire further thinking, and to invite our audience to celebrate the traditions and values that make our country great.
What experiences did you draw on from your time in the Marine Corps?
I’m deeply grateful to the Marine Corps for teaching me a lot of things that I bring into my business. The most important of which is values. The military taught me the importance of acting with integrity and being real and that’s what we’re all about at This Land, too. We want to do justice to our artists’ stories and tell them authentically. We let integrity and authenticity guide us in all the little things we do. We don’t use “salesy” words. We let the artists’ stories do their work.
Another thing I learned in the military is the importance of mission. As a Marine, you work together as a team, to accomplish something greater than yourself. Our mission at This Land is about connecting people with the American spirit, and that’s what motivates us every day. That’s why I left the corporate world to go after things I loved and I hope that’s what might set This Land apart, helping us grow for the long term.
What’s next for This Land?
We’ve been very internally focused at This Land so far—growing our family of artists, figuring out how we write about them, how we photograph them, how we tell their stories. We’re now hitting the point where we’re ready to get out there and introduce ourselves to the world. Slow and steady, we’re getting the word out, so stay tuned.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.