By Shaylee Ragar BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE
BOZEMAN — It all began with a sheep named Buster.
He doesn’t look any different than your average sheep, but his personality sets him apart, according to LaVonne Stucky, owner of The Wool Mill outside of Belgrade.
When Buster was a lamb, he lost his mother and needed to be bottle fed. He grew to be friendly, and once even followed a mailman down the road, Stucky said.
Stucky and her husband, Chris, host guests on their farm through Airbnb and Buster became popular among visitors. Stucky describes him as outgoing and fond of being around people. She made his likeness the logo for The Wool Mill.
Stucky decided to save Buster’s last three fleeces and was trying to think of a use for them.
“I thought, ‘I have to spread some of Buster’s joy,”’ Stucky said.
Inspiration struck last winter and she came up with Buster’s Hat Project. Since New Year’s Day, Stucky has been giving away free skeins of yarn spun from Buster’s wool to knitters all over the country. In return, the knitters are making hats for Stucky to sell.
All of the proceeds will go to the Human Resource Development Council’s Warming Center, which provides overnight shelter to the area’s homeless. So far, she’s raised about $1,000.
Stucky has given out all 160 skeins of yarn she set aside for the project. She’s been posting photos of the returned hats–about 70 with more on the way–to Facebook and collecting payment through PayPal.
She also plans to sell the hats at her Winter Farmers’ Market booth on Saturday. The hats are made in a variety of sizes and designs.
Stucky has sent yarn to people in 32 states and to Nova Scotia, Canada, paying more than $600 in postage out of her own pocket. Almost all of the knitters are strangers to Stucky, having heard about the project through Facebook. She’s been receiving thank you notes with the hats from people grateful to participate.
Some of the knitters have been sending more than one hat to sell or including acrylic hats to be dropped off directly at the Warming Center for people to wear. The acrylic material is easier to care for than the wool.
Stucky said she was not expecting the project to take off in the way it has.
“It’s crazy to know one little sheep can bring all of these people together,” Stucky said.
Stucky said she thought of the Warming Center a year ago in February when Montana was experiencing one of its longest cold snaps on record. She was lambing and spent most of one night outside trying to keep newborn lambs warm and dry. It was -40 degrees, she said.
Despite Stucky’s best efforts, three of the lambs died that night.
“I got to thinking, if you don’t have a home, what do you do in that circumstance,” Stucky said.
The Warming Center, a seasonal shelter, is seeing an increase in demand and has been struggling to meet it. HRDC established an overflow location two seasons ago to increase capacity while it builds a permanent year-round shelter over the next few years, but that’s put a strain on its operating budget.
The nonprofit needs to fill about a $100,000 hole or may have to suspend its service early this year instead of at the end of March when it typically closes.
Stucky will continue to sell the hats until they’re gone on The Wool Mill Facebook page and at the Farmer’s Market in an effort to help with that. She said she’s in awe of the response the project has gotten.
“It’s just amazing to me. It’s humbling, really,” Stucky said.