In a world of electronic gadgets that give directions, coordinates and altitude, most backcountry users still throw a compass in their pack. Extreme cold or heat, rain or snow — it still works.
“No batteries needed,” said Steve Johnson, production manager for Brunton Outdoor Group’s compasses. “It is simple and it’s very reliable.”
It’s also, if it is a Brunton, now made in Wyoming.
In January, Brunton Outdoor Group moved its base plate compass manufacturing from China. A few years ago the company, then under new ownership, took the base plate compass production to China in an effort to cut costs, said Dani Schafer, marketing manager.
When leadership in the company changed again, the new leaders decided to move once more. The company found ways to cut material costs enough to make it cost effective to bring production back to Riverton. It also was important to return the jobs lost back to Fremont County, Shafer said.
They are now the only base plate compass manufacturer in the United States, Schafer said.
“It’s rare to say ‘Made in the USA’ and ‘Made in Wyoming,’” she said.
Brunton started making transits, a beefy compass with a rugged construction that includes an inclinometer and is often used by geologists and the military, in the late 1800s.
David Brunton, a Colorado miner, created the Pocket Transit, a precision compass that took the place of heavy surveying equipment in 1894, the company said. It measured within a half degree of accuracy and could take a bearing and measure inclination. According to company history, fellow miners asked for devices of their own, so Brunton — along with William Ainsworth, a watch manufacturer from Denver, Colo. — started producing the transits.
Transit production began in Riverton in the 1970s after investors from the area bought the company.
The company still builds transits in Riverton. They have changed little in design, with only slight modifications, such as new materials to make them lighter, Johnson said. They come in six different styles. The company also makes seven models of base plate compasses.
The products are designed by a staff of outdoor enthusiasts, Schafer said. They spend their free time in the Wyoming outdoors and are constantly tweaking current designs and coming up with new ones to meet their recreation demands, she said.
The most basic compasses gives direction. The next level includes a magnifying glass. The most high tech includes a mirror, level and case.
All of these are now built in Riverton. The return of base plate compass manufacturing to Riverton created 50 new jobs in Fremont County, Shafer said.
Those employees sit, assembly-line style, at stations, printing numbers on the plates, putting the pieces together and fitting the finished compasses into plastic packaging, ready to go out to thousands of retailers worldwide, ranging from big name companies like REI to small family-owned shops.
In three days they’ve built 2,000 compasses, Johnson said Wednesday. By the end of April they hope to finish another 25,000.
There’s such high demand at the moment that production workers have been working overtime to fill the big orders, Johnson said. The company expects demand to stay high and even grow, Schafer said.
“Doesn’t everyone have one already?” Patty Brogdon said, while fitting pieces of the plastic compasses together. Brogdon has worked for Brunton for 20 years. In a day she’ll put together the pieces for up to 700 compasses. Yet she still finds it impressive to see a finished one and think about people buying and using it.
“Our compasses are everywhere,” said Edi Muggelberg, who has worked for Brunton for 11 years. She already had a job with the company when it announced it was bringing back its compass production to Riverton, she said. But as a Riverton resident, she said Brunton’s move gave the community more than just 50 jobs.
“It gave us hope,” she said. “It gave us something to be proud of.”
It also is helping other Riverton businesses. Legacy Molding Corp., located in Riverton since 2000, makes the flat plates for the compasses as well as some of the moving parts and cases for the high-end versions, said company President Rob Wright.
He hopes the return of Brunton is just the start of more manufacturing coming back to the United States, he said.
Legacy Molding already did some work producing plastic parts for Brunton, but with the return of the base plate compass production, work has increased up to five times, Wright said.
“If that becomes sustained,” he said, “we will be hiring.”