Woolen Mills - 2018
The Bemidji Woolen Mills is a business that has been a pillar of the Bemidji community for four generations. This company has been able to endure years of economic uncertainty while standing the test of time. The IDEA Competition is proud to name the Batchelder family this year’s Hall of Fame inductees. Their resilience, deeply rooted values, and commitment to providing high quality services is truly an inspiration for business owners and entrepreneurs throughout Northwest Minnesota.
Back in 1912, Ira Preston Batchelder opened a general store on 6th Street and Minnesota Ave (which is now the Wild Hare Bistro). In 1920, a woolen mill located north of Alexandria, Minnesota was up for sale and Ira Preston purchased the business. He moved the business up to Bemidji where they opened the first location along the Soo Line Railroad. At that time, their main product offering was wool socks, yarn, and quilt batting. In 1929, the woolen mill was moved to its current location on the corner of Irvine Ave and 3rd Street downtown Bemidji.
The Batchelder family history is full of interesting milestones and colorful stories. The medical bill for the birth of one of Ira Hubert Batchelder’s (second generation owner) children was paid for with blankets. Ira John Batchelder (third generation owner) recorded the coldest day on record in Bemidji in 1950. While working at the Bemidji Airport, he was tasked with recording the weather conditions and needed the US Navy general on duty to validate his 50 below temperature reading. The next day his photo was featured on the front page of The Northland Times. Ron Batchelder (third generation owner) was a Bemidji High School men’s basketball star and led the team to their first ever state tournament in 1948, although he wasn’t able to play in the tournament due to league roster rules. All of the spouses, almost every fourth generation family member, and a few fifth generation family members worked at the Mill at one time or another.
The Bemidji Woolen Mills and its iconic red and black plaid jackets have been worn by a number of notable leaders. In 1974, Governor Wendall Anderson gifted the jackets to the other fifteen governors who attended the Midwest Governors’ Conference. In 1987, Minnesota’s longest-serving governor Rudy Perpich also purchased the jackets for himself and members of the press who attended a press conference in Bemidji. A photo of Perpich and the event can be found on display at Ruttger’s Resort. During the 2012 elections, Bemidji Woolen Mills vests were named as TIME Magazine’s #15 Most Memorable Item of the campaign, as candidate Rick Santorum had purchased 6,500 vests for his team and were prominently worn throughout the election. The Texas A & M marching band gives their third year drill members a Bemidji Woolen Mills sweater, which has been a long-standing tradition for the university. The list goes on…people such as Nelson Mandela, Peter Kelly, Billy Crystal, and John Goodman have all been spotted wearing sweaters, vests, or jackets that came from the Bemidji Woolen Mills.
Fast forward to 2018. Bill and Bob Batchelder, current owners of the woolen mills, say they’ve adapted to today’s technological advances while still remaining true to the company’s values. “We’ve been able to reach audiences all over the world thanks to our website and social media presence, but our priority is to maintain a strong local presence and customer base. Bemidji will always be our home, and we are committed to this community.” If you were to walk into the Woolen Mills store today, you’d find books from local authors, art created by local artists, and an array of local wild rice and soups for sale intertwined with the Woolen Mills’ signature products. The Batchelders pride themselves on providing high quality, American made products to their customers. The company used to have a sales mix that was 80% wholesale and 20% retail, but with how the market and economy has changed over the years, they now sell 80% retail and 20% wholesale. They’ve brought in well-known brands such as Pendleton, Smart Wool, Stormy Kromer, and Woolrich. The goal is to create a business that is strong, viable, and healthy for the next owner, which they hope will be a family member.
The Batchelders have created a legacy that is a testament to the vitality of our region. We are uniquely positioned to support local businesses and create a thriving economy. It is with great honor that we induct the Batchelder family into the IDEA Hall of Fame.