National Clothesline
The last frontier
As J.T. and Katie Hampton can attest as third generation owners of Fireweed Cleaners in Anchorage, being a
drycleaner in the last frontier is a little bit different than in the contiguous United States.
For starters, residential pickup and delivery routes can be darn near impossible in the winter, which is a big
reason why the company doesn’t offer the service right now.
“I have been super gung-
ho about starting routes,”
J.T. explained, “but after
careful consideration and
strategic planning, I’m not
sure residential routes are
very realistic. They are a
logistical nightmare.”
During the winter months,
the average temperature is
frequently below freezing
and the total snowfall for
the year can exceed 100
The city shuts down so
much during December, January and February that for the past two years the Hamptons have actually built their
own skating rink in their yard.
“We froze our backyard so we could skate on it because Katie and I both play hockey,” J.T. laughed. “It’s a lot
of work especially when it snows 12 to 18 inches and you have to go clean it off after a long day of work.”
It isn’t just the weather that can complicate life for a plant owner; having key equipment parts delivered can
take longer and cost much more.
“We have to evaluate the cost of it and how we’re going to get it up here… what’s the most cost-effective,” J.T.
noted. “I really needed a part a couple of weeks ago and I think the part was $100 and shipping was $148. It was
just ridiculous.”
“You kind of have to plan and keep certain parts in stock and keep your machines running right,” he added.
Shipping new parts in might not even be the hardest thing; even a solvent as common as perc can be hard to
“It’s becoming more and more taxing and difficult to get it,” J.T. explained. “Distributors kept dropping off the
map which pushed them further and further away from our distribution hub, which is in Washington.”
Then, there’s proper disposal. The Hamptons estimate that the cost to meet regulations to ship used perc for
both locations out of the state cost them thousands a year, which is a large reason why they made the switch to
K4 in 2016. So far they have replaced two Vic perc machines for new K4 ones and plan to do the same with the
third when it is no longer viable.
“K4 is really easy to get here. It’s really easy to dispose of. The local landfill hazardous waste will take it,” J.T.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Hamptons only live about two miles away from Chris White, the technical sales
director for Kreussler for the western United States and Canada.
“He’s been a great resource and super helpful with questions and getting to know the solvent and how it’s
used, interacting with the machine, etc.” J.T. added. “It worked out well. It was really surprising that he was
based out of Anchorage.”
Long ago — over 50 years, in fact — Katie’s grandparents were more interested in the advantages Anchorage
had to offer when contemplating opening a store there. Gerald and Helen Earp liked that there was little
competition at the time, so the couple moved from Monmouth, IL, and soon started Fireweed.
Just in case you are a history fan and wondering about their last name… yes, there is a connection to the
famous old west lawman with the same surname who was born in Monmouth.
“Wyatt Earp’s father and my dad’s great-great grandfather were brothers,” Katie indicated.
While Gerald found sales work for Alaska Oil, Helen did anything that was needed — counter work, pressing,
cleaning — to help make Fireweed a success.
“My grandmother was just a very smart lady, and driven and very kind,” Katie recalled. “She pretty much
manned the whole thing. I remember my dad telling me stories of how she would go and work Sundays and
maybe vacuum up the lobby to make it look nice. She would catch him sleeping under the counter because he
was not doing his work.”
Randy Earp may have slept at the shop from time to time, but he never intended to take over the family
business someday. However, after working for a plumbing company he realized he wanted to be his own boss.
“He had worked there enough to know what he needed to do and what changes needed to be made to make it
more for the times,” Katie noted.
So, in the early to mid-1990s, Helen was ready to retire and Randy began the process of updating and
modernizing the business.
As a result, young Katie spent enough time at the shop to know that she also didn’t want to pursue a career
there one day.
“I remember if we had to stay home sick from school, we had a TV in the office upstairs at work and we would
bring blankets and push chairs together and make a nest and that’s where we stayed while mom worked. I
remember waiting on customers before I could even see over the counter,” she laughed. “Growing up, I always
said, ‘I am NEVER going to work here’ because I was here so often.”
After high school, Katie left home to attend Colorado State University where she met J.T. who had known he
wanted to be an entrepreneur for a long time.
“Ever since I was about ten, I always had my own business, starting with mowing lawns. I had that until I was
16, I think,” he recalled. “I got a job at a golf course. That was pretty cool. When I was in college, I started
another lawn mowing company.”
At CSU, J.T. studied Business Administration and took part in the early days of a new program at the college
that emphasized entrepreneurship. The couple never really talked about their plans for after graduation.
“It was like an unspoken conversation that we had that after we graduated we were moving to Alaska and
taking over the cleaners,” Katie said.
The plan was to slowly learn the business from Randy and ease into succession. Then, something horrible
happened that changed everything.
“We got married in August of 2010 and we had just really started to work at the cleaners,” J.T. noted. “A
month later to the day, Randy was in Arizona and had purchased a new motorcycle and was driving it home and
got into a really bad accident that put him in the hospital for a month. For the first week, I don’t think we could
even talk to him.”
There was no time for training wheels. With nobody else to run or oversee the business, the only other option
was to step up.
“From September 4th until right before Thanksgiving, we had to learn how to run the show very quickly,” J.T.
said. “We were up here trying to figure it out and keep things running. We were really very green. We did not
know very much about the operational back side at all, but we figured it out.”
It hasn’t been an ideal training situation, but J.T. enjoys that the drycleaning industry is anything but boring.
“I come home and complain, I’ll be honest, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else right now knowing this
opportunity is available to me because every day is different and that really fits my personality well,” he said. “I
go to work and I could be doing production. I could be helping with customers. I could do drycleaning or spotting
or working on a piece of equipment or brainstorming a new idea.”
Though Anchorage has a population close to 300,000, the Hamptons see it more as a small town, especially
when it comes to word-of-mouth.
“Word gets around pretty quickly about what’s going on and who’s good at this or that, etc.” J.T. explained.
“So, one thing we’ve always done is take care of people.”
The 50-year-old family business has earned a few honors over the years for such efforts, including a Gold Pan
Award in 2008 for entrepreneurial excellence and a strong commitment to community service, and more recently
they won the 2018 Family Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration’s Alaska Division.
A large reason for their recognition is the company’s Coats for Kids program, which is over 15 years old. It
collects a thousand warm garments a year for those who really need them.
In some aspects, they face the same problems and issues as any cleaners in the lower 48 states. In fact, a vast
majority of Fireweed’s work is for professional attire from the city’s many oil executives. Like many other cleaners
though, they have had to tighten belts of late.
“Things have gotten a little tighter because a lot of our state relies on the oil industry,” J.T. noted. “There have
been changes in the oil industry lately such as companies exiting exploration or development, etc. For instance,
one of BP’s main offices is right down the road from us, so if those executives aren’t there, they’re not going to
get their clothes cleaned.”
Still, the Hamptons feel confident about Fireweed’s future and hope to keep finding new ways to be more
convenient to customers. In the meantime, they’ll just keep dealing with some of the crazier quirks that comes
with being a cleaners in Anchorage, like bizarre crimes that defy explanation: this winter, J.T. got a call at 2 a.m.
that Fireweed’s alarm went off. Somebody tried to break in through a laminate window. They failed, but he had to
board up the hole to avoid everything freezing inside. Then, a month later, they tried again.
“This time they got all the way in,” he said. “They didn’t steal anything but a handful of candy that we had on
our counter. They left a trail of candy and broken glass out the window.”