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Arkansas-made outdoor gear has worldwide reputation: Mountainsmith receives a welcome backpack at Cotter.

As you read this, an expedition is trudging its way to the top of Mount Everest - and chances are they're carrying some of their gear in backpacks made in the hamlet of Cotter along the White River.

White River Industries Inc. sews up about 700 packs a day for Mountainsmith Inc., half the output of the company based in Golden, Colo., and known worldwide for top-quality backpacks, daypacks, fanny packs and expedition sleds.

"Our packs have a reputation of being among the top three brands in the world [the other two being Dana and Osprey] in terms of leading-edge, high-tech designs," Peitz says.

Frank Barton, owner of the Take A Hike outdoor specialty shop in Little Rock, calls that "a fair assessment. And although they're not inexpensive, Mountainsmith is a bit less pricey than the other two."

Mountainsmith products range in price from $6.5 for a Tour fanny pack to $425 for the huge Elite internal-frame backpack.

"No, they're not cheap," Peitz admits. "But cheap equipment is not worth its price. If a man is three or four days out on a trail and his shoulder strap breaks, it can be a life-or-death situation: You can't carry it and you can't leave it because everything you need to survive is in it."

It all makes Mountainsmith the gear of choice for hard-core mountaineers, mountain rescue units and ski patrols around the world. In fact, those are the folks who field test the products before they go into mass production.

The Cotter operation specializes in the high-volume items, Peitz says: the Lumbar hip packs, Frostfire backpacks and Bugaboo daypacks. Other Mountainsmith factories are in Golden and Grand Junction, Colo.

"We sell tons and tons of the Lumbar packs," Barton says. "They're relatively inexpensive and a good entry product for Mountainsmith because once a customer who's used to that kind of quality buys a full-sized backpack, he'll look for Mountainsmith again."

In Arkansas, Mountainsmith packs are sold at Take A Hike and Ozark Mountain Supply Co. in Little Rock and The Pack Rat in Fayetteville.

"We've been a Mountainsmith dealer for years," Barton says. "It used to be difficult to get their products until they opened the Cotter operation."

And a successful operation it is. Peitz says the company recorded 62 percent growth in 1994 - but he won't say from what to what.

Dominating Cotter

Peitz started White River Industries Inc. in 1970 at the site of a former textile plant. (Owned once by a Mr. Gay, it was at one time known as - no lie - Gay Apparel.) Now the company employs about 200 and takes up most of downtown Cotter.

"I can't say enough about what Peter and his company have meant to the city of Cotter," says Mayor Bill Jennings. "They're at the forefront of everything we're doing to revitalize this town."

Cotter, now with a population of about 900, was almost a ghost town after the Missouri-Pacific Railroad pulled out in the 1940s and '50s.

"At one time we had two banks, hotels, an Oklahoma Tire & Supply and lots of small shops," Jennings says. "But when the railroad went, all the businesses went by the wayside."

The old storefronts have been refurbished, but inside people are busy sewing backpacks. Offices are in a former church, Baxter County's oldest, built in 1905.

"You drive downtown and you wouldn't know this is a company town," Jennings says.

"We are in the boonies," Peitz says. "It's a delightful place to live. I have to travel all over - to the Rockies, Europe and Asia - but Cotter is always a wonderful place to come home to."

The executive team in Cotter includes Chief Executive Officer Ron Gillert, formerly chief financial officer of Twin City Bank, and Darrell McCracken, a Cotter native who Peitz says has been around the world but came home to be executive vice president and general manager.

"The labor market is very tight," Peitz says, "but over the years we've been able to maintain a very good work force. We do a lot of in-house training because our quality requirements are very demanding. At Cotter we have excellent manufacturing engineers."

Besides packs for Mountainsmith, White River makes:

* Equestrian products such as horse blankets and packs.

* Pile jackets for Columbia Sportswear.

* Clothing under the Avenues label that's specially designed for the wheelchair-bound. "It's designed to look good when you're sitting down," Peitz says.
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Title Annotation:Mountainsmith Inc.'s factory in Arkansas
Author:Treadway, Tyler
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 8, 1995
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