Established in 1865, Faribault Woolen Mill is Minnesota’s oldest manufacturer, and has been celebrated for its classic wool throws and blankets. Over the years, it’s endured five fires—one of which destroyed the facility—the Great Depression, two world wars. and the rise in overseas manufacturing. One thing it almost didn’t survive was the recession; the factory closed in 2009, only two be revived by new ownership in 2011. Today, the brand is carried at everywhere from small, stylish boutiques, including Martin Patrick 3, Gray Gardens Home, and Wilson & Willy’s in the Twin Cities, to major retailers such as Nordstrom, J. Crew, West Elm and CB2. (Not to mention its exclusive collection for Target in 2014.) Last year, it celebrated 150 years of business. One thing’s for sure: Faribault Woolen Mill is a survivor.
It’s surprising that the company’s dramatic story hadn’t been told until recently, with the release of a new book that chronicles the mill’s many peaks and valleys. Published by the History Press and already nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Faribault Woolen Mill: Loomed in the Land of Lakes was written by writer Lisa M. Bolt Simons, a Faribault resident and published non-fiction author.
Tonight, Magers & Quinn Booksellers hosts a reading and discussion of the book featuring Bolt and Faribault Woolen Mill CFO Paul Mooty. A weaving demonstration by the Weavers Guild of MN precedes the event, which also includes a raffle. The talk is free and open to the public. (7 p.m. Thu., Jan. 28, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, magersandquinn.com)
I spoke with Simons over the phone about how the project came about, the research that went into the book, and the more fascinating aspects of the company’s history.
Where did you get the idea to write a book about the Faribault Woolen Mill?
It was kind of a secret writing project of mine for a while, because I’m a freelance writing anyway, and I live in Faribault. I’m a hockey mom, so I drove by the mill a lot because it’s on the way to the hockey rink. A friend had sent me an email about writing a book about the history of the Tilt-A-Whirl, which was invented in Faribault. But the History Press board didn’t think it was going to sell. The editor came back and said, “What about the Faribault Woolen Mill?”
Have you always had an interest in history?
I think it’s starting to develop more and more, being a nonfiction writer. I’ve published 21 children’s books that are non-fiction. On a personal level, I lost my dad when I was three-and-a-half when he was in the Air Force. The older I get and especially now that have kids, history is more important to me.
What was the process of researching the book like?
It’s a lot of work. There were a few different places where I found info, Rice County Historical Society, a bank vault in the [Faribault Woolen Mill factory] store, archives at Minnesota State University in Mankato, and online. Because of the immense amount of information there was—paperwork, photographs, a lot of newspaper articles—it was very intense. Some of the best sources of information were people themselves, interviewing veteran employees, the new and former owners, and touring the mill. That first-hand experience was some of the richest sources for me.
What do you think is the most fascinating aspect of Faribault Woolen Mill?
Resilience. They had five fires, and the third one destroyed the company, so they had to move. Then they shut down in 2009. The Mootys bought it in 2011 and they have brought it back to life.
Where do you think that resilience came from?
I think a lot of it has to do with the loyalty in terms of veteran employees who not only believe the company was like family. The employees always talked a lot about family, and the employees and leadership were always so close and loyal. Plus, it’s also literally a family business. You go from [Faribault Woolen Mill founder] Carl Klemer, and then his sons got involved, and then his grandsons and great grandsons.
What about the customers?
Definitely. You have people who have kept the blankets over generations. One of the blankets I talk about in the book was sent back to the company in 1967. It was 30 years old. He enclosed with it a handwritten note saying he wanted them to have it.
You’ve written children’s educational books and are working on a YA novel—does that work relate at all to writing the Faribault Woolen Mill book?
I love research. So as overwhelming as it was to do for this kind of book, which is something I hadn’t done before, it related. For the YA book I’m working on, I won a grant to do research in a refugee camp. I love to find information, I love to find mistakes. There is a mistake on one of the tombstones of the Klemers, for example. That’s what I love about research—you get to explore and learn new information and things that are so powerful. As much as you hear about fiction, it’s not real. I love that nonfiction is real.
Buy the book, Faribault Woolen Mill: Loomed in the Land of Lakes, at magersandquinn.com. See below for more photos from the book: