Land of 10,000 Stories: New life for Faribault Woolen Mills

9:32 AM, Jun 29, 2011   |    comments
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FARIBAULT, Minn. -- Few of us will make it to retirement still believing in Santa or confident that email from Nigeria really just won us a million dollars. But a group of retirees in Faribault recently learned something almost that good.

They are former workers at Faribault Woolen Mills. At a meeting earlier this month they met the men who are bringing hope to what seemed like a hopeless situation at the iconic Minnesota manufacturer of wool blankets.

"Everything's setting pretty much the way it was at the exact date of last production," explains Dennis Melchert, who lost his job when the plant shut down two years ago. He walks though a factory that stopped in mid-shift - raw wool on the floor and half-finished blankets still on the looms. "It's kind of the last wheel turned, you know, and then silence," said Melchert.

Often cited as the oldest manufacturing company in Minnesota, Faribault Woolen Mills was founded in 1865, while Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States. "It's kind of that magical thing that you'd hope would never disappear," said Melchert.

Back when the plant was humming more than 150 workers made wool blankets by the hundreds of thousands, warming cruise ship passengers and Army cadets at West Point and supplying a healthy retail market.

Faribault Woolen Mills was the nation's largest manufacturer of wool blankets, until the weight of foreign competition and a series of missteps by several owners left the old plant gasping for capital, unable to dig itself out of debt. Its looms were weeks from being shipped to a company in Pakistan.

Then the seemingly impossible happened: an ice cream man arrived at the funeral. Chuck Mooty, the former President and CEO of International Dairy Queen, was searching for a meaningful new challenge. The woolen mill fit the bill.

"There was a calling in some way," he says. "This is where we should be right now."

Mooty partnered with his cousin Paul Mooty. On Thursday they will close on the deal that will restart the looms. Chuck Mooty says production could begin as soon as August, with roughly 50 workers called back. He hopes to expand employment to triple that number within a few years.

Dennis Melchert is already back, helping prepare for the plants start-up. "It means I'll be able to work with something I really love and never really gave up."

The Mootys believe an Americana woolen mill, freed of old debts and properly marketed, can be economically viable. "Selfishly for us, we view this as a family involvement and financial investment that hopefully will create opportunities for future generations within our family," said Chuck Mooty.

For good or bad, the cousins have stitched themselves to a legacy. "I hope they make a go of it," said Mary Bourdreau, who worked 50 years at the mill before retiring. "I'll be there to help them anytime they want my help."






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