Piece by piece

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HARRISON — Fred and Betsy Stuart’s road to the White House began here and lasted through two presidencies.

The Stuarts’ children and grandchildren will be able to catch a glimpse of that journey by reading a binder full of notes and photographs that sits on Fred Stuart’s coffee table.

Betsy Stuart founded ELMS puzzles 22 years ago, nurturing the hand-crafted wood puzzle business into a nationally known enterprise that attracted the attention of George and Barbara Bush, and later, George W. and Laura Bush.

As the handwritten notes from the Bush families reveal, the relationship was also a personal one. The Stuarts were invited to the White House several times and spent time at Camp David, where the presidential family and staff members often worked on ELMS puzzles.

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When Betsy Stuart died late one evening in 2007 after coping with ovarian cancer for seven years, Fred Stuart was awakened the next morning by a call from the White House. It was a staff member asking if he would be available to take a call from the president at 4 p.m.  that day.

Recalling that sad day at his home during a recent interview, Stuart picked up a framed photograph of his late wife.

“I remember the last time the two of us went to the White House for a formal dinner,” he said. “There was a long line of people waiting to greet the president. When it was Betsy’s turn to shake the president’s hand, his face lit up, and he said, ‘Oh, sweet Betsy!’”

Fred Stuart still lives in the house his wife designed for the fledgling businesses she started in Baltimore. In the mid 1980s, Betsy had given her husband a scroll saw, hoping he would make the wooden puzzles she enjoyed as a child. He wasn’t interested. She picked up the saw and before long, realized she wanted to start her own little business.

After Fred retired at the age of 62, the couple decided to move themselves and Betsy’s business to Harrison, where they had been summer visitors. Betsy designed a huge contemporary-style house with several finished rooms in the huge, daylight basement. In 1990, they moved in, but it took a couple of years to get the business back up and running because she had to train new “cutters.”

Unlike some wood puzzle manufacturers, ELMS puzzles (named for Betsy’s initials – Elizabeth Lee McShane Stuart) are cut freehand, not by computers. Customers order a puzzle by choosing one of over hundreds of artists’ works from a catalogue, or in most cases, from the website at elmspuzzles.com. They request a size that ranges from 6 by 8 inches with 100 pieces ($190) to 20 by 24, with 1,500 pieces ($3,250).

Artistic director Rose Guay, who has been with the company 17 years, selects the image ordered by the customer from the hundreds stored on her computer, and sends it to a huge printer that can print up to 2 feet wide. The paper image is then glued to a piece of quarter-inch mahogany plywood.

At this point, the skill and creativity of the “cutters” becomes evident as they carefully cut a wiggly puzzle line through the middle, then cut those two in two, then those four into two, and so on until there are the right number of pieces. There are two pieces to every square inch.

When it’s finished, the “nubbies,” or tiny protrusions on each piece, are so closely interlocked that the entire puzzle can be picked up with one hand by just grabbing an edge, and the puzzle stays together.

But that’s just the beginning. The cutters put in specially designed pieces to go along with the theme of the image.

A Middle Eastern image included a piece cut out in the shape of a camel, another in the shape of a red calf, and another in the shape of an artichoke. Cutters also cut out their own “signature pieces” to show who made the puzzle: Rose’s special piece is a rose; Debby, a professional cellist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, cuts out a cello; Cindy, a farrier, cuts out a horse shoe; Chris, a knitter, cuts out a sweater; and Lisa, a dog lover, cuts out a golden retriever. In every puzzle there is also one piece cut out in the shape of an elm tree, the company’s logo.

In addition to using works of art, puzzles can be made from nearly anything, including personal photographs and memorabilia, often in the form of a collage.

Customers can send the collage already made or send a box of “stuff” and let Rose arrange it into a collage by scanning the items into her computer. One prospective groom who did this asked for a specially designed piece – an engagement ring. He kept that piece aside until the couple finished putting the puzzle together, then produced the last piece – and got the ”yes” he was hoping for.

For those who simply want to sample what it’s like to work an ELMS puzzle, the company offers the Puzzlers Club, which gives people a chance to rent one. They can be ordered by size and degree of difficulty — 6 being “very easy,” and 9++ being “I’m going crazy.”

Fred Stuart attributes the success of his company to his wife’s boundless energy and creativity and to his employees who are, in some respects, like family.

“The girls are the talented ones; I give them all the credit,” he says.

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