How Beth Fuller turned a bandana into an outdoor rec business

Mar 21, 2024 | Recreation

We would like to think that Beth Fuller returned to Wisconsin simply to be one of River Alliance’s most enthusiastic volunteers. Truthfully, it was Wisconsin’s water, the beauty of the Northwoods, and delightful change of seasons that brought her home from California.

From ice skating on Lake Winnebago as a kid, to a fateful trip down the Stanislaus River, Beth’s life became more and more entwined with water as she navigated 25 years in the outdoor recreation gear industry.

Fox Valley childhood

Beth grew up in Neenah and Menasha where paper was the beating heart of the Fox Valley.

“We were all a kind of a big community whose livelihood came from that industry,” she remembers. “From founders of large companies like Kimberly-Clark to people who worked for smaller companies like Banta Publishing.”

The paper industry anchored the community, but she remembers how the influence of those businesses echoed throughout everyone’s lives. The strong industry supported local needs like having good schools.

“I remember having great teachers for Western Civilization, to chemistry, to our Thespian advisor. Many who received state and national awards. We could attract and pay really good teachers. It was quite the opportunity.”

Lake Winnebago afforded a lot of opportunity to engage in water related activities while she was growing up, from sailing to canoeing, kayaking, and swimming. Though she most loved to ice skate on Lake Winnebago in the winter, recreation on the local water had its limits.

“We had parks along the lake and you could swim in the lake, but not the river,” she said. “It was pretty polluted. I remember seeing white foam on the river. It was pollution from the paper mills. The management might not have thought about it affecting the environment at the time. But I look back and have visions of that foam. It was pretty gross.”

The Fox River has always been important to the Neenah and Menasha community traditions. After significant efforts to clean up and dredge the Fox River, there is now an abundance of recreational opportunities on the Fox.

Beth remembers attending the Venetian Festival on the 4th of July where local students were dubbed queens with their courts, and big sailboats were lit up and paraded before the fireworks. The Neenah-Menasha CommunityFest and Parade of Lights continues today.

“The whole community would come out for that,” she remembers. “Returning there and seeing the river in the condition it’s in now, you can see waterfront parks, walking paths, and boat clubs. It’s gorgeous. People are coming back to the river.”

How a bandana became a business 

Except for a Girl Scout trip, Beth had never really gone camping. It wasn’t until the 80s when she literally dove in.

Beth and her husband raft down a river“I went on my first raft trip with my husband, Dale, and some people from his law firm. We did the Stanislaus River, which no longer exists because it has been dammed. But we did this river and the four of us dumped out of the boat, I swam two rapids, and we camped at night. Shortly after that, we got involved with the river protection group, Friends of the River, mainly to try to stop the dam.”

Excited to do more river trips, she and her husband bought their own rafts and explored other places. The American River became a favorite destination which sparked a creative project.

“We had the idea of making bandanas with a map of the river on them,” Beth said. “I had no art skills, but I worked with a screen printer and their art department. Using USGS information, we made and sold the bandanas. Then we made t-shirts. They caught the eye of major retailers.”

Bandanas show a map of riversAs she worked to sell bandanas and t-shirts, she came into contact with people who wrote river guide books. The small publishers asked her to help get books into the shops that sold her products.

“That’s how we became a book distributor. Eventually we would get to know manufacturers and start to rep their products. We’d rep gear, dry bags, dry boxes, wet suits, and sandals to paddlesports stores and the small places along the rivers that would sell our books and bandanas. We distributed products mostly in western states, and it just kept growing for 25 years.”

The outdoor recreation gear industry may have appeared to be male-dominated, but Beth says she didn’t think about it much at the time.

“I’m more conscious today about women in these roles, but I was raised to be whatever I wanted to be,” she said. “What I saw were paddlesports stores that were typically owned by a couple where the lead owner was recognized as the man, but truthfully the shop was run by a really smart woman.”

“In 1989 an organization called Western River Guides elected a woman president. I asked a gentleman I knew what he thought about that and he said it’s about time since women have been running this industry for so long. He was right. Canoe magazine was owned by a woman. Mad River Canoe was owned by a woman. I heard about lots of success stories of women who cracked the glass ceiling in that business.”

Beth Fuller With Ron DayneReturning to Wisconsin

Beth went to college at the University of Wisconsin–Madison before she moved to California. Through the years, she says she always had a nagging feeling that she wanted to come back to Wisconsin. After her husband died, that feeling got stronger. Finally her friends told her to make the move.

“What drew me back were the seasons and the snow that feeds our rivers,” she said. “I’m a big Badger fan and I love the UW athletics. But I also love fish fries, cheese, supper clubs, and all those Wisconsin traditions. I really wanted to get back to the beautiful Northwoods with their abundant lakes, streams and outdoor life.”

In 2018, she attended a film screening at Fontana Sports that was hosted by River Alliance of Wisconsin. She knew then that she wanted to get involved with the statewide group that was so passionate about restoring and protecting Wisconsin’s water.

Beth Fuller At Football Game“That’s the other thing that brought me back to Wisconsin. The people here are passionate about their state. They have a love for Wisconsin and I do too.”

 

 

 

 

 


Community Shares of Wisconsin recognition for Beth Fuller’s River Alliance volunteerism

In March, Beth was recognized as a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero. She was featured on the Community Shares of Wisconsin website and newsletter, Isthmus’ website and newsletter, 105.5 Radio announcements, and Madison Commons online news. She will also be recognized at the Community Shares Change-Maker Awards Celebration this fall.

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director

 

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