FARIBAULT, Minn. — Doug Remmey started working at the Faribault Woolen Mill straight out of high school in 1978. His mom had worked there for 25 years, and he'd often heard the place that made half of America's blankets was a great employer: good people and good wages, a blue-collar job that could afford him a comfortable middle-class life.
For decades, that's exactly what his job was. Remmey worked in various roles until settling in at the weaving department. By the 1990s, though, the company was failing. Built-to-last textiles couldn't compete with cheaper foreign products. Employees left. Morale flagged. "The end was inevitable," he said. The mill shuttered in 2009.
Today, more than a decade into the rebirth of Minnesota's oldest manufacturer, Remmey finds himself not just back in his old job in the weaving department but at the beginning of a new chapter in the company's 157-year history.
The woolen mill that opened in the final year of the Civil War is moving into a post-pandemic future with gusto. The company has grown so much the past couple of years that the mill is investing millions in new equipment, launching new products and reaching unexpected new customers.
"The future's never looked brighter for the mill," said Remmey, whose family has lived in this southern Minnesota town for seven generations. "It's such a throwaway society today, but the fact we make a product my grandkids could well be using makes me really proud. ... The stuff we're making now is some of the most beautiful things we've ever made."
Hip-hop and Hamm's
In this volatile American economy that has lurched forward and backward the past couple years, Faribault Woolen Mill finds itself at a critical juncture.
The company, which reopened in 2011, set a post-reopening sales record in 2020 and again in 2021, with sales up 70% in two years. Those records have been driven by e-commerce and four retail stores: in Faribault, Edina, Excelsior and Chicago's Michigan Avenue. The company increased wages — starting wages are now $16 an hour — and employment has nearly doubled in two years, to almost 100 employees.
In early 2020, the mill merged with CircleRock, an American-made men's clothing company. Paul Grangaard, who led the turnaround of Allen Edmonds, an upscale shoe company in Wisconsin, became CEO and chairman. In two years the mill shifted its focus from long-run contract manufacturing — think large orders of woolen blankets for the U.S. military — to consumer-branded products. Grangaard's number two, Ross Widmoyer, took over as president and CEO in January.
The strategy couldn't have come at a better time, Widmoyer said: "This mega-trend since COVID began, the focus on indoor nesting and outdoor living, has really benefited our brand."
It's all part of a plan to turn this heritage Americana brand, which emblazons its logo with "Since 1865," into something more future-looking.
The mill recently partnered with Supreme, a New York-based clothing brand big in skateboarding and hip-hop culture, for Supreme-branded blankets. (The company's vice chairman saw one of the Supreme blankets selling for $1,000 on the secondary market.) The mill has Peanuts-branded blankets and a blanket with the Hamm's bear. Its best-selling blanket of 2021 was a map of Lake Minnetonka, which led to a line of map blankets: Boston and the Twin Cities, Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes, Paris and London and more.
This recent success has ushered in a multimillion-dollar reinvestment inside the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill will soon install a new million-dollar dryer from Italy and add a new fleet of modern looms and a new napper, which softens wool blankets at the end of the process.
Joyce Raesner, the vice president of production who used to be the director of Woolrich Woolen Mill in Pennsylvania, sees the investment in infrastructure as essential to find more efficiencies and aim toward growth. The company's future will see its core business of blankets and throws expand to apparel, bags, shawls, wraps and scarves.
"These products can take on a life of their own," she said. "They become mementos, something passed down from one generation to the next, this emotional attachment. People come in and say, 'Oh, my grandma had a blanket like that, I remember being wrapped up in it as a child, I want one!'"
The mill operated continuously from 1865 to 2009. For longtime employees, and for the Rice County town whose name was synonymous with the brand, the closure wasn't surprising. But it was still devastating. Then in 2010, Faribault experienced a 500-year flood, which left the 1892 building a mess: boilers shot, roofs full of holes, dye residue staining everything.
That's what Paul Mooty, a longtime Twin Cities lawyer and businessman, saw when the building's caretaker gave Mooty a tour in 2011. "He wiped away the mess for me and told the story of the mill," Mooty said.
Mooty bought the old business and set about rejuvenating the brand and the building. The first thing he did was rehire dozens of longtime mill employees. In recent years, employment has continued to grow, which helps Faribault's economy and boosts its identity.
Rafael Medina was raised in town and has worked plenty of jobs: as a tattoo artist, at a hog farm, in construction. COVID-19 was difficult. He was furloughed from his job at another Faribault manufacturer and eventually laid off. He was hired at the mill a year ago to be a blanket washer and has risen to supervise the department.
"Lots of people lost faith that the company would even come back," Medina said. "But people are seeing this quality product. A lot of things are done with computers now, but we're still working with our hands, with this raw material, and turning it into something that can last."
Doug Remmey is 61 and has worked at the mill well over half his life. He plans to retire soon — visit Europe and the Holy Land, road trips down Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway — but not quite yet. He wants to be sure there's a smooth transition with the new looms this year. Even after he retires, he'll still be available to help.
"That's my life there," he said. "I don't want to leave them hanging."