GENEVA — When it was founded 141 years ago, Warder Tent made canvas sails for boats gliding over the Finger Lakes.
The company now known as Geneva Awning & Tent Works has since expanded to provide tents for weddings, parties, reunions, corporate events and graduation parties. Tucked away next to a church and behind a home, the business also provides personalized awnings for residential and commercial buildings.
To many, it’s still known as Warder Tent after the Warder family that established the business downtown in 1876 before building its current, two-story building on Lewis Street in 1920. Current owners Tom and Kim Ess took over in 2000, the last time a Warder was involved in the business.
One of the Warders, Frederick, became a state senator.
“I worked a sewing machine for Warder’s Tent in the summers when I was at Geneva High, so I know a bit about the business,” Kim Ess said. “It was my first job.”
Tom Ess worked in sales for Georgia Pacific in Farmington before plunging full-time into the tent and awning business with Kim in 2000.
“The tent industry has changed,” Kim said. “This company used to manufacture a lot of its tents and awnings. Now, our large tents are vinyl and customized with windows and other things. We don’t make them, but set them up, maintain them and take them down. We’ve had to adjust and do things differently to remain competitive.”
The company’s workers can install new awnings, and recover and reinstall old, worn awnings with new fabric and supports.
On the second floor is a hard-bound book with handwritten notes about customers dating back many years. The entries in the book show where each awning is and its size, plus any decorations, including family or business name and house numbers.
“Any retractable awnings we have to buy from a manufacturer and install, but all other awning work we do here,” Kim said. “Tent and awnings are made of woven acrylic vinyl. The old heavy canvas is no more. Tents and awnings under which people eat food have to meet fire codes.”
The company still does a lot of repair work on the older tents and awnings that have been out there for years. The company’s busiest time, as one might suspect, is the spring and summer with outdoor parties, events and weddings.
“The wineries have given us a lot of business,” Kim said. “They host a lot of outdoor events under tents. We also do all of Hobart and William Smith Colleges tents and awnings.”
The company employs as few as five people in the winter months and up to 20 during the busy season.
The vinyl comes in 100-yard-long, 6-foot-wide rolls. Ess said vinyl “doesn’t do well” in temperatures below 40 degrees, with the cold causing it to crack.
The second floor of the business is where the large tables are located to spread out the tent sections. Each table has a specialized Juki sewing machine made in China. Ess said that company bought out the old Singer Sewing Machine Co.
As with many businesses, Geneva Awning & Tent Works’s success is based on performance.
“When we’re hired to put up tents for events, we have to make sure we get it put up a day ahead,” Kim said. “We have to be on our game.”