By Cindy Hadish/ Homegrown Iowan
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A Czech business in the same family for more than 100 years is marking its new location in Cedar Rapids with an open house on Friday, Oct. 27.
Czech Feather & Down is back on 16th Avenue SW, but quite a distance from the 16th Avenue in Czech Village, where, for years, it neighbored other businesses that traced their origins to Czech immigrants.
The open house is set from 4-6 p.m. this Friday at its new site at 5907 16th Ave. SW, and will include a surprise retirement celebration for past owner, Cookie Vanous. The business specializes in handcrafted feather and down pillows and comforters, and also cleans pillows, whether or not they originated at Czech Feather & Down.
Pillows await cleaning at Czech Feather & Down in its new location in Cedar Rapids. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
“I remember being inside the factory,” Vanous said of the pillow-making business operated by her aunt, Vera Vanous, then called Griffith Feather & Mattress, Co., located along Ellis Boulevard NW.
Established in 1885, the business didn’t make the move to Czech Village until 1991, where it was located in a former shoe store. The name changed to Czech Feather & Down when it moved to another location within Czech Village.
At that point, Cookie Vanous was the owner, but it was her daughter, Dawn Schorg, who initially purchased the business from Vera Vanous.
Schorg had been working at Square D as it downsized its workforce, and was interested in the family’s roots in the pillow industry.
“I always loved my pillow,” she said of the gift given by her great-aunt when she was born. “As a young kid on the farm, when people think about what they’d save if their house was on fire, well, I’d save my pillow.”
By that time, Vera Vanous had sold the factory and did most of the work out of her home.
Friends gather to strip feathers in this photo, likely from the 1950s. (photo/courtesy Cookie Vanous)
When Schorg was laid off from Square D, she began buying the business. For a time, she and her husband, Rob, operated the company, along with her mother, but when Schorg got called back to work at Square D, Cookie Vanous took the reins.
She moved the business to a more spacious building in Czech Village, where it remained until the fateful 2008 flood that inundated the historic business district.
In the meantime, her grandchildren, Brittany and Trevor Schorg, spent their childhoods “down on the Avenue” at her shop, just as Vanous had learned in her youth how to count change and other business skills from her uncle, Charles Kopecek, a co-owner of Polehna’s Meat Market in Czech Village.
The entire family came together to move all of the Czech Feather & Down inventory out of the shop just before Czech Village was inundated with unprecedented floodwaters from the Cedar River in June 2008.
Vanous quickly found a new location in the historic downtown business district of Mount Vernon, where Czech Feather & Down found a new popularity among the parents of college students and others.
A medium-weight, queen-sized down pillow is consistently their top seller, but custom orders, such as a handcrafted extra-long body pillow and heart-shaped breast cancer patient pillows “are what sets us apart,” Schorg said.
Online and in-person sales are about split in their business orders, with a good percentage of business also coming from their cleaning operation.
Each pillow is cleaned individually in a specialized sterilizing tumbling machine and typically encased in a new soft cotton ticking casing, with more feathers and down added to “fluff it up,” Schorg said.
A large open safety pin, corn and cigarette butts are among items found in pillows brought in for cleaning at Czech Feather & Down. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
A shadow box in the new shop showcases a large safety pin, bottle cap, cigarette butts, corn and a stand-in for a gold wedding band – the original was returned to its owner – found in pillows that have been cleaned, with corn and cigarette butts among the most common items discovered, though they are unsure why corn makes a frequent appearance.
In the past, older generations would host feather-stripping gatherings, a social tradition in which women would remove the hard quills from duck, chicken and goose feathers, with the remaining down used in pillows, but the tedious task has gone by the wayside.
The down and feathers are now sourced from Europe and Canada, and the 100-percent cotton ticking, previously from a longtime company in New York that has since closed, is sourced wherever they can find it.
The new Cedar Rapids site of Czech Feather & Down is shown in October 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Czech Feather & Down moved to the owners’ homes when the Mount Vernon shop was being renovated, and then to a spot in Hiawatha. Their new Cedar Rapids site had a soft opening in September, preceding this week’s grand opening and open house. The company still has a presence in a framing shop in Mount Vernon and in the Amana Colonies.
Brittany Schorg is now on-board as the next generation of pillow makers, also utilizing her media skills in the business. She secured a partnership for Czech Feather & Down with the nationally syndicated Bob & Sheri radio show that has helped attract a wider customer base, and has other ideas in the works, particularly reaching out to younger customers, who are searching for eco-friendly products.
“We’ve always been fortunate to have good customers,” Dawn Schorg said.
“They come in and they know what they want and they want quality,” her mother added. “If you get one person, the generations follow.”