Unique products make the state proud
Ask anyone about Kentucky’s biggest exports today, and the answer will likely include bourbon, horses and coal. Of course, these flagship industries have helped to shape culture and economics across the commonwealth—but think a little harder and you can come up with some other products, too: oak barrels, ginseng, sorghum, wine. So celebrated are Kentucky’s unique and abundant products, the Kentucky Proud logo can be found throughout farmers markets, shops and grocery stores everywhere.
Look even closer, and you might be surprised to find that Kentucky is providing the country—and in some cases, the world—with a lot more than it’s known for. From the weird to the whimsical, small business owners, artisans and craftsmen across the state have found niche industries that you may have overlooked. Here are a few.
This Murray-based company began when founder Mike Cowen attended one of his son’s baseball games and saw that there was no scoreboard. Frustrated by that, he decided to find a solution to making scoreboards accessible to athletics programs. Cowen started the company from his California home and shortly after moved the family to Murray. They’d seen the town featured in a Best of America list and, after visiting, chose to make it their new home—where Sportable Scoreboards, which operates as Varsity Scoreboards, served by West Kentucky RECC, has grown.
About 50 employees produce around 6,000 scoreboards annually and send them to venues everywhere, focusing on the youth sports market.
“We believe that every young player should have the full experience of playing sports; we believe those moments matter.” says Janson James, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. When recent hurricanes damaged client scoreboards across the Southern coasts, the company jumped into action to help restore facilities for youth to get back on the field.
To that end, Varsity Scoreboards works with schools, leagues and clubs of all sizes to plan and fundraise for new scoreboards at every price point.
Monster Rings and Cages
What began as a hobby more than 20 years ago has turned into a flourishing business for Mike Samples, founder of Monster Rings and Cages. Samples began putting together wrestling rings during the 17 years he worked as a professional wrestler. He traveled a circuit, in exhibitions from Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee to Evansville, Indiana; eventually, he would end up flying to Japan each month for matches. Between those trips, he was building wrestling rings. Word spread, and wrestlers from the region and even other countries put in orders.
After a significant injury and long recovery, Samples began to consider stepping out of the ring to build them full time. Around that same time, sporting goods company Everlast reached out and asked if he would begin building their rings, as they would no longer be doing it in-house.
Now, the Lawrenceburg-based company ships three to five rings a week, as well as mixed martial arts cages, racks for punching bags and other gym equipment. Samples can easily spot Monster rings on television in scenes from Madison Square Garden and from films like Creed and American Gangster. When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao met for their highly anticipated 2015 fight, it was in a Monster ring, Samples says.
Monster Rings and Cages employs a team of around 20, many joining soon after graduating high school and staying on for a decade or more. Samples says that after running the company for a while, he realized the key to having a great team was to recognize when he had great employees, let them do more in the company and invest in them.
Check out the boxing ring produced by Monster Rings and Cages of Lawrenceburg in this Showtime video, Inside Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, starting at about 1:05.
Burnett’s Farm Toys
What began as a childhood hobby of collecting toy tractors bloomed into a business for Christopher Burnett. In 1984, Burnett began building the toys himself while staying with a family friend as his father was in a hospital recovering from an injury. Two years later, he attended his first toy convention.
Burnett, a Shelby Energy Cooperative consumer-member, jokes that he left real farming—his father leased a farm—for toy farming. Twenty-four years later, Burnett’s side gig had grown enough to take center stage and he left his job teaching elementary school special education to make his love of farm toys a full-time business.
The business, which has operated at toy shows and through online retail since 2010, opened a storefront in Campellsburg in October 2020, after outgrowing Burnett’s home. The move has enabled the company to introduce the community to the business, which had rarely advertised in town. The custom building includes a showroom, warehouse and workshop to support the growing operation.
Burnett travels to as many as 30 conventions a year, as far away as Dallas. They range from toy shows to farm equipment shows, to semitruck conventions—pieces that are represented in miniature in his shop. At Louisville’s National Farm Machinery Show, for example, he looked at the John Deere booth only to see a custom fertilizer tender truck he’d made for a client on display as part of a scale replica lineup of the company’s new product offerings.
Burnett’s favorite part of operating the business is sharing a love of toys and scale equipment with others who appreciate them, too—whether it’s working with collectors, making custom models of machines on the family farm or helping FFA students create scale models for their own projects.
“Not to get nostalgic on you,” Burnett says with a laugh, “(but) it’s preserving that heritage of playing with toy tractors when we were kids. And now it’s seeing that … the next generation keeps that hobby and interest up of playing with toy tractors.”
Custom and retail farm toys can be purchased at the store or at www.burnettfarmtoys.com.