NEW HEBRON — After a seven-year absence, Buddy’s Jeans are making a comeback, thanks to the help of a former housewife.
Last summer, Jane Little, president of Jane Little Inc. of New Hebron, acquired the trademark and patterns for the virtually indestructible denim duds from her lifelong friend, Buddy Steverson, a New Hebron rancher and rodeo cowboy who designed and produced them.
In the early 1990s, Buddy’s Jeans had manufactured the odd sized 14-ounce denim jeans in New Hebron and sold them around the world. Moviegoers might remember the Buddy’s Jeans ads — primarily set in the rugged Australian Outback, which represented a big market for the jeans — that ran with movie trailers during that time.
“Buddy was a working cowboy and was not satisfied with jeans he could buy off the shelf,” said Little. “He could not find a single pair in the stores that would pass his test. Most of the jeans he bought would have twisted leg seams after the first washing. The front pockets would have holes worn in them long before the garments wore out, especially when he had them full of staples, keys or change. At the time he started developing Buddy’s Jeans, no store handled odd sizes, like 27, 29 or 31. This caused Buddy to wear a jean too large and made him realize there were people all over the world with this same problem. He wanted jeans that were tough, durable, comfortable and yet affordable.”
Steverson collaborated with a pattern maker to produce sample jeans, said Little.
“Buddy’d wear them while he was riding a bull or fixing a fence,” she said. “When the seam would bust out, he’d bring it back to the drawing board. In the end, he came up with a jean that is just about indestructible, with triple stitch seams and pockets made out of denim. The inseam has a thread that is just about as heavy as fishing line. The fabric in the cotton/poly blend has just enough polyester to give the cotton strength, so it doesn’t wear out.”
A small line handled the production of Buddy’s Jeans, while the majority of workers at the New Hebron plant manufactured jeans for other designers.
“His biggest customer sold to Wal-Mart, who kept driving the price down to this customer to the extent that he called Buddy one day and said, ‘Buddy, this is all Wal-Mart will give me for this product,’ and Buddy said, ‘Well, you know I can’t make it for that. I’d lose money. And if you take your business away, it will shut me down.’ The man said, ‘I know and I hate it, but I’ve got to go to Mexico.’ Buddy’s dream was to have his plant doing nothing but Buddy’s Jeans, but the product line wasn’t enough to sustain his plant so after 39 years, he had to shut it down,” said Little.
Before Little agreed to produce the jeans, she asked Steverson to help her set up production.
“To get the fabric I wanted, I had to buy an entire looming — which is 30,000 yards — from Swift Denim in Columbus, Georgia,” she said. “It was a huge financial step for me, a person who has been nothing but ‘mama’ for 25 years.”
He introduced her to Charles Holland, plant manager at Magee Apparel in Magee, who agreed to contract the production of Buddy’s Jeans.
“I didn’t know the plant was about to close,” she said. “Then I was in the grocery store one day and somebody told me. I ran home and called Charles, who had just found out himself and was sick about it. He had been the plant manager for about 30 years, and they had close to 100 people employed, but the owner lived in Pennsylvania, was past retirement age and didn’t want to run it anymore.”
Little, Holland, and local businessman Joe Stevens formed Old Glory, an equal partnership, to lease the building and machinery and produce the jeans. They re-opened the plant two days after Christmas, put 40 people back to work and landed additional contracts.
“Then six months into it, Joe decided to do some other things and leave the business, so a month ago, we dissolved the partnership,” she said. “I bought the machinery and signed a six-month lease on the plant as the sole owner of J. B. Little Apparel. Charles Holland continues to run the plant and we have about 10 contracts. We pulled one designer out of Mexico and another out of Guatemala. We feel just great about moving forward.”
Since the reorganization, Little has steadily increased the number of employees that produce 10,000 products a week and distribute them to 32 states. In July, the payroll grew from 23 to 28 employees. The plant has the capacity to produce 20,000 products a week in the 48,000 square foot garment plant in Magee.
“It’s very exciting to see people back at work,” said Little. “They have such a good work ethic and are so honest. They’re the kind of folks that do things right when people are looking and when people are not looking.”
Because New Hebron, a community of about 400 people located about 20 miles from Magee, is economically depressed, Little approached the mayor and aldermen about refurbishing the New Hebron Manufacturing Building, which housed Steverson’s plant. To partly cover refurbishing costs, a $250,000 grant has been requested from the state. If Gov. Ronnie Musgrove approves the grant next month, plant operations should be moved to New Hebron by next spring.
“It continues to be in metamorphosis,” said Little. “I hope for the sake of a town that is so desperate for jobs, we can move the plant here.”
Buddy’s Jeans are made in Mississippi from cotton harvested in Texas and fabric woven in Georgia.
“I wanted to make sure the jeans would continue to be a quality product made in the USA, especially to make more American jobs possible,” she said. “It was very important to us to have a Made In Mississippi product. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce recently sent us a $1,000 check to assist with marketing costs. It really helps folks like me.”
Little hasn’t changed the design, but has added a few touches. She selected no-fade fabric and added a women’s and children’s line of Buddy’s Jeans.
A devout Christian, Little places a New Testament in the back pocket of each pair of jeans. With the help of Wade Davis, a minister that works for her, a plan of salvation is tucked inside each one. The extra production cost is worth it, she said.
“I’ve had friends say to me, ‘Jane, you don’t have to work. What are you doing?’ and I tell them that God had a unique plan to get his word out through me,” she said.
After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi with a music degree, Little was a stay-at-home mom to three daughters and an avid community volunteer. When Steverson approached Little at the local post office about the idea of resurrecting Buddy’s Jeans, Little’s husband, Micky Little, a computer specialist at Georgia-Pacific in Monticello, encouraged her to take the plunge.
With barnyard wood, denim blue paint and rodeo memorabilia, they transformed a warehouse in a building adjacent to Tri-County Grocery in New Hebron into an outlet store. There, Buddy’s Jeans are sold for $29.95 to $39.95 in sizes 26 to 60 in two styles — the Original or slim fit, and the Cowboy cut, with a fuller cut through the buttocks and thighs and a longer rise. Farmers, ranchers and construction workers are regular customers.
“Buddy’s Jeans wearers … it’s like a cult following, a pilgrimage,” she said. “They’ll come in and say ‘Let me lay my hands on the jeans.’”
“Lawrence County is fortunate to have an entrepreneur like Jane Little, who has brought back a wonderful
uct in Buddy’s Jeans,” said Paul McLain, president of Lawrence County Community Development Association in Monticello. “She has created a first-class outlet store in New Hebron that is well worth a visit. Jane is also a generous volunteer who has helped organize the New Hebron Pulpwood Festival and currently serves on the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce board of directors. She giv