A single catastrophic encounter diverted the entire path of Christine Gillund’s life. And, eventually, hundreds of other lives.
In 1994, while working with some treated wood chips in her yard, Christine had an adverse reaction to a pesticide, which resulted in her developing multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).
“Christine became seriously ill after inhaling strong fumes rising from a bag of decorative wood chips that she had opened to use in the Gillund’s yard. This poisoning resulted in severe and lasting health problems for Christine, which left her unable to use commercial products containing perfumes, solvents, pesticides and a bevy of other synthetic chemical ingredients. This poisoning also caused Christine to be unable to leave the family farm,” the company website says, sharing Christine’s story.
For the next three years, Christine described herself as being in a fog.
“She was in a fog. She doesn’t remember a lot of those first three years after the poisoning,” says a family member, Amy Shaw. When Christine discovered that perfumes, man-made ingredients and pesticides were triggering her ailments, her life changed.
For the next 19 years, Christine was kept mostly homebound by MCS and was often very ill.
But the excruciating illness eventually led her to begin helping others.
“They had to start from scratch, throw almost everything out of their house, from food to what they were putting on their body and she was looking for soaps and lotions that she could safely use,” Shaw describes.
During that time, Christine formulated a line of all-natural skin care products, Dakota Free Products, to help other people with chemical sensitivities or severe allergies. She and her husband, Gerald, founded In the Potter’s Hand Inc. in 2000, and the business now ships products all over the world.
Christine, who died from cancer in 2018, launched the company with her mother’s soap recipe, tweaking it for her own needs. Then, she formulated a lotion.
“That was the start of Dakota Free,” Shaw says.
Christine and Gerald built the business from the kitchen of their family farmhouse, located near Wildrose and served by Burke-Divide Electric Cooperative, continually outgrowing and expanding space. It now occupies a separate building on the farm, where bars of soap are still meticulously poured by hand.
In 2012, Shaw, who is Gerald’s second cousin, joined the business as a bookkeeper, then a full-time office manager in 2017. Christine and Gerald’s son-in-law, Nick Jacobs, joined in 2016 and is now the shop manager.
Shaw and Jacobs now operate the day-to-day business, with Gerald continuing to make the soap.
Dakota Free Products now operates under the umbrella of Healthy Cricket, and the business has grown to include four lines:
• Dakota Free Products is the original line of perfume-free, dye-free products, which are also free of any man-made ingredients for those with chemical allergies.
• The Gluten-Free Savonnerie line is for those with plant-based allergies, and is free of corn, soy, coconut or other plant-based products.
• Millennial Essentials is a high-end gluten-free luxury line that uses essential oils and natural ingredients.
• Prairie Blends is a utilitarian line of products, described as a simple yet functional line of products that is based on the company’s Dakota Free Baby Balm. The products include a leather conditioner, a wood conditioner and a moisturizer for pet’s paws. They are all fragrance-free and dye-free.
Now with 64 products, the company still continues Christine’s legacy, Shaw says.
“Now, it’s taking what she started and building it even bigger,” she says. “It’s been a journey, trying to keep up her legacy. It was her baby and it will continue to be that, but also to make it our own.”
Following Christine’s death, Gerald wanted the company to continue, because he’d seen how the products help people, Shaw shares.
“To stop production, it could be detrimental for many of our customers,” she says.
She points to one customer who had only washed with water until finding Dakota Free Products.
“So, our soap is the only thing she can use,” Shaw says. “To be that life-changing, it’s kind of an honor to be able to help people.”
Longtime customers often share their thoughts, including one in particular who shares her sentiments often, Shaw says.
“Every time she orders, in her comments, it’s ‘Thank you for making these products. It’s the only thing I can use,’” Shaw says.
Most of the products shared on the Healthy Cricket website are made right on the Wildrose farm to this day.
“We are still on the original farm, hoping to expand and relocate into Crosby, but the soap will still be made out here until Gerald stops making our soap,” Shaw says. The facility is divided into rooms to avoid cross-contamination of products, and small batches are made. Shampoos, lotions and conditioners are made in 10-gallon batches, and 96 bars of soap are created by Gerald at one time. The soap is heated on a kitchen stove, poured into molds, then dried for 30 days before being packaged and sold.
Despite its rural, handmade feel, the company is ready to burst into larger markets.
“Both Nick and I see so much potential in the products that Christine has designed. We want to get these products into the hands of people who need them and to try to navigate that in the world of Amazon and Google. We’re not a multimillion-dollar company that can throw millions of dollars into advertising,” Shaw says.
The company sells in retail outlets in Bismarck, Crosby, Tioga and Garrison and through its website. And, yes, its products are also available through Amazon.
One helpful avenue has been the company’s membership in Pride of Dakota, Shaw says.
“That has been one of the things that Christine and Gerald have always gone to,” she says of the Pride of Dakota vendor shows.
“That has been a huge help as well,” she says. “As a North Dakota-made product, having that Pride of Dakota stamp on your product is important. It’s made locally. It has opened a few different avenues for us, as far as funding and programs available throughout the Department of Commerce and Department of Ag programs.”
As the company continues without Christine, everyone involved still feels her presence, often asking, “What would Christine do in this situation?”
“We’re both really blessed to carry on her legacy,” Shaw says.
To learn more or to order products, visit http://healthycricket.com/.
Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.