An entrepreneur can learn a lot from a horse. One of nature’s more intuitive creatures, horses have been known to sense danger, keenly judge character, and find their own way home.
It was rough rides through the first two experiences that helped Wayne and Sharon Jahnke successfully navigate the latter. Blue Haven Stables Western Wear, Tack & Gift Shop sits amid 125 acres along County Road Q south of Merrill and just west of US 51.
With easy directions and ample signage, it’s not difficult to f ind, but it wasn’t easy for the Jahnkes to get there.
It took losing everything through two bankruptcies, and giving up on a half-decade of farming for the Jahnkes to settle into a niche that combined many of their talents.
“Wayne’s always been an entrepreneur,” Sharon said. The Jahnkes have the resume — and some scars — to support that.
They owned 36 houses around Merrill at one time, part of what they hoped would be a reliable stream of income to accompany four boutique clothing stores they owned — Merrill, Stevens Point and two in Marshfield. But by the early 1980s, a bad deal on a proposed convention center outside of town — Wayne still calls the prospective partner a con artist — drove the Jahnkes to bankruptcy.
Compounding the Jahnkes’ sour land deal was the discovery that a clothing-store manager was taking liberties with cash and merchandise. One might understand if the couple were to harbor a disdain for humans.
Enter the critters.
After Wayne secured their current parcel, he start- ed simply enough; with a single cow.
“I had too much milk, so I bought a calf,” he said. “Then, I didn’t have enough milk, so I bought another cow. Then I had too much milk again ...”
The dozen cows that resulted were joined by other livestock, but the Jahnkes only made a go of farming for about five years before deciding it wasn’t their destiny. What awaited them was under foot the whole time.
“People heard that we had horses, and they started asking if they could keep a horse here,” said Sharon, a retired barrel racer who has ded- icated much of her adult years to instructing others on proper horsemanship. “So, I started holding some programs.”
Sharing space on their farm was the Jahnkes’ liver-colored Polish Arabian horse named Blue Haven Houdine, a stunningly intelligent horse for whom their eventual Western wear and tack shop would be named. Like so many discoveries, the Jahnkes stum- bled unintentionally into the opportunity.
“People would ask Sharon if she could help them find a saddle,” Wayne said. “So, she’d take them down to a (now-defunct) tack shop in Wausau. One day she joked and asked if she could get a dollar off a saddle because she went in there so much. They looked at her and said, ‘No.’ ”
Easygoing storytellers though they are, the poor customer experience just simmered with Sharon.
“I just thought it was rude to not acknowl
edge me with even a, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’,” she said. “That was all I wanted.”
So, they began stocking a few saddles and “mostly clothing” in a vacated bedroom of their home. It was all of 120 square feet, and they outgrew it quickly in those pre-Internet days.
“That was right when Brooks and Dunn were starting to get big, and Garth Brooks,” Sharon said of the early ’90s country renais- sance that fueled the fledgling business to such an extent that they had to expand into a second
bedroom, then into the garage, and eventually into the current shop that Wayne had to have built.
While the recession wasn’t a killer, Internet sales have taken a toll, said the Jahnkes. Both say their only real recourse is in trying to inspire buzz from positive customer experi- ences.
“Word of mouth is everything,” Wayne said.
And if visitors to Blue Haven aren’t in a hurry, there’s a good chance the Jahnkes, who are the only two employees and are there seven days a week, will have some horse tales. That’s how one might learn that while equines have always been good family friends to the Jahnkes, at least one wasn’t so cooperative when the young Sharon would sneak away to visit Wayne when they were teenagers.
“I wasn’t supposed to be dating him,” she said, “but I’d ride my horse 12 miles to see him, and I penned him up with some other people’s horses I knew. Well, he jumped the fence and found his way all the way back home. And that’s how a horse tattled on me.”