When Paul Mooty saw the condition of the shuttered Faribault Woolen Mill Co. in Faribault, Minn., in 2010, the only thing that kept him from making a hasty exit was that the friend who drove him there wasn’t ready to leave.
“The basement was flooded with ink, and the place was messy, dirty and stinky,” said Mooty, an Edina lawyer who was looking for an investment at the time. “All I could think was, ‘Wow, I wasted a day here.’ ”
It was only during closer inspection that Mooty discovered hints of the devotion to a place that didn’t want to die.
In a small room undamaged by neglect, they found scores of passenger blankets made for railroads and airlines from before the 1970s. Boxes labeled Mesaba, Republic, Eastern, Northwest, Northeast, Evergreen and Altair were filled with blankets in pristine condition.
“That’s when Chuck and I looked at each other and thought, ‘Maybe this could work.’ ” Mooty said.
Dennis Melchert, a 42-year employee of the mill who brought potential suitors through after its abrupt closing in 2009, had rigged a system of funnels and drain lines from the ceiling to divert water from a leaky roof.
Melchert not only minimized water damage but also came in periodically to chase away vandals and pigeons and turn equipment on to prevent seals and bearings from seizing up.
“I saw a lot of suitors come and go touring the building,” he said. “Each one was an opportunity. The place never deserved to close in the first place.”
Mooty left feeling the same way. He and his cousin, Chuck Mooty, purchased the mill and the iconic brand in 2011. They’ve invested millions in updated machinery and repairs to heating, cooling and plumbing systems. Within a year, thanks to a large order from J.C. Penney, the mill was making a profit. Sales neared $10 million last year.
With millions of blankets sold since the company began at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the mill on Saturday will celebrate its 150th anniversary. It’s one of only a few full-process woolen mills in the country that still make textiles from raw wool — washing it, carding it, dyeing it, spinning it into yarn and weaving it to a finished product.
“It’s more than manufacturing,” Mooty said. “It’s a craft.”
The Mootys and their partners made a significant investment in upgrading the plant and took other steps to modernize, such as writing instruction manuals for the machines. In the past, the company relied on experienced employees such as Mary Boudreau, 89, a weaver who’s worked at the mill for 61 years and gladly returned when the Mootys restarted it.
“They called me back,” she said. “I know the machines and I know what’s wrong when they act up.”
Boudreau credits Mooty for bringing back jobs, quality products and pride in the mill.
“I just love Paul. He evidently has money, but he doesn’t act like he’s any better than we are,” she said. “That’s the way the Klemers were too.”
Tom Klemer, the great- great-grandson of founder Carl Klemer, continued to own shares in the company until 2009. He was conflicted but relieved when the Mootys stepped in to purchase the company — just days before some of the machinery was to be shipped to Pakistan if a buyer didn’t close the deal.
“If the machinery had been shipped out, the building would have become a white elephant,” Klemer said. The 170,000-square-foot, three-story building would have been difficult to adapt for other uses. “It was like Humpty Dumpty and nobody would have put him back together again,” he said.
Klemer, now a financial adviser in Faribault, said that he and the entire Faribault community are delighted to see the lights on in the mill again. “We felt like the employees and the community were a part of our family and we were a part of theirs,” he said.
The motive was never to fix it up and unload it, Mooty said. “It’s because it’s a good thing to do. I like small business. We’re a 150-year-old start-up,” he said.
Elizabeth Hudson, vice president of business development, believes adding new styles, colors and weaves will help the company expand its audience. “We’ve had a North Woods, Adirondack, regional environment. Now we’re going into urban spaces, too,” she said. The company broadened its line with accent pillows and accessories, in addition to throws woven with vintage street maps of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London and Paris.
With department stores rarely stocking wool blankets anymore, the company had to shift online and to hundreds of small, specialty retailers around the country, including Ampersand in Edina. Owner Barbara Armajani brought the line into her Galleria store after the mill reopened in 2011. She likes the updated color palettes, throw selection and superb quality.
“The Faribault name has never died with the core customer in Minnesota,” she said. “Throws are the bulk of our business. You can put throws anywhere in the house.”
Faribault’s throws now outsell standard blankets. “They’re a less expensive way to update a room,” said Hudson. “But we will never forget that we started as a blanket company. They will always be at the core.”
The mill also responded to customer demand by adding wider widths and longer lengths to its scarf line. They moved from a standard 10-inch width to 12- and 16-inch widths as well as a finer grade of merino wool with a softer hand.
In total, the company is adding 112 new items in various styles, colors and sizes.
The changes were necessary to stay relevant and on trend in the eyes of their retailers, said Bruce Bildsten, chief marketing officer. In addition to local retailers, the company has had partnerships with Crate & Barrel, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Rag & Bone, Ralph Lauren and Target. This fall, its new partners will include J. Crew and Restoration Hardware.
Next month, the company will introduce Gray label, its finest pure wool product to date. It’s a collection of upscale scarves ($160 each) made from premium merino wool in herringbone and twill solids and stripes, sold in a handsome gift box. It’s for the customer who wants a softer hand and better feel. “There’s a revolution going on in wool. It’s getting finer and finer,” Bildsten said.
As company officials consider the future after Saturday’s anniversary, finding qualified workers to operate the machines is their biggest concern. “We have equipment that isn’t computerized and an older workforce,” CEO Terry Mackenthun said.
Many employees have worked for the mill for longer than 30 years.
“We have to have people who want to learn a craft,” Mooty said.