BEMIDJI -- It’s a short list, an exclusive list.
On Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, Bemidji Woolen Mills became the latest company to join it.
That date marked the 100th anniversary of the iconic downtown Bemidji company that Ira Preston Batchelder started in a modest wood-framed building along the rail corridor.
Now headed up by his great grandson, Bill Batchelder, the Woolen Mills has survived the Great Depression, wars, a changing retail landscape and online competition to reach its 100th birthday.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment, considering the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 21.4% of new businesses fail in the first year, and 48.9% are out of business in five years.
Bemidji Woolen Mills has done it by manufacturing and selling quality clothing, footwear, blankets and a variety of local items. While some of the sales have been done online in recent years, the downtown location continues to be a destination for locals and visitors alike.
“People say you have to continually evolve and change,” Bill Batchelder said. “In the last 10 years I’ve said the more we stay the same -- tradition, heritage, legacy -- there’s things that were popular 30 years ago that are equally or more popular today. So it’s kind of counter to what you learn when you study business.”
How it all started
Ira Preston Batchelder came to Bemidji in 1912 and opened a general store in the building that now houses the Wild Hare Bistro. In 1920, he purchased a woolen mill located near Alexandria, Minn., and moved the business to Bemidji. The first location was along the Soo Line Railroad next to what is now Bemidji Paper Sales.
The company’s main products were wool socks, yarn and quilt batting.
In 1929, the Woolen Mills was moved to its current location on the corner of Third Street and Irvine Avenue. The building was originally built to house the J.P. Pogue Livery Stable, and later a veterinary clinic and the city’s first Chevrolet garage were added. There are still horse stanchions in the basement.
When the Depression hit and the building became available in 1929, Bemidji Woolen Mills made the move. It used the south portion of the location for manufacturing and retail sales, and rented what is now the retail showroom to the Dennison Chevrolet dealership. The Woolen Mills also had a retail store in a street level portion of the Elks Lodge downtown for a time.
In 1968, the Chevrolet dealership, then owned by Roger Dibble, moved across Third Street to what is now Ink Spot Press & Office Stuff, and Bemidji Woolen Mills took over the entire building.
Ira Preston Batchelder died in 1938, and his son, Ira Hubert had to take over the business at the age of 35. Ira H. was active in the company until his death in 1992 at the age of 89. His sons, Ira J. and Ron, were next in line to run the business. They were followed by Ira J.’s sons, Bill and Bob, although Bob is no longer active in the company.
Ira J., 92, lives in Bemidji. Ron died in 2018.
“I was fortunate when I came to work here in 1972 to work with my grandfather (Ira H.) for 20 years side by side,” Bill said. “I mean that’s a whole career in itself. So I came in and learned from my grandfather, along with my uncle Ron and my father Ira John. I got to know all of the personalities.”
There are many milestones and colorful stories surrounding the family. The medical bill for the birth of one of Ira H. Batchelder’s children was paid for with blankets.
Ira J. Batchelder recorded the coldest day on record in Bemidji in 1950 while working at the Bemidji Airport. He was tasked with recording weather conditions and needed the U.S. Navy base commander to validate his 50 below zero temperature reading.
Ron Batchelder was a Bemidji High School basketball star and led the team to the state tournament in 1948, although he wasn’t able to play at state because of league roster rules.
All of the spouses, almost every fourth-generation family member, and a few fifth-generation family members worked at the business at one time or another.
A downtown fixture
As the landscape began changing and many downtown businesses started relocating to the Paul Bunyan Drive strip, the Woolen Mills had a decision to make.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to be left behind in the dust,’” Bill Batchelder said. “But I kept looking at all the shiny new businesses and the expense that it would be to move out there. Some of them did fabulous, and some are no longer here. But I always felt because of the historic nature of our business that it lent itself to the historic part of town.”
His grandfather coined the marketing line: “Bemidji Woolen Mills, located four blocks west of the famous statues of Paul and Babe.”
The Batchelders purchased five acres of land near the airport in case they ever decided to make the move to the strip.
“I drive by it and yeah, there’s 15,000 cars that drive by there every day, and everybody from Duluth to Grand Forks going back and forth,” Bill said. “But every time I put a pencil to it, the taxes and the cost of the building, I get very nervous about leaving downtown. We’re extremely happy and proud to be where we’re located.”
He says the community is just the right size for the business.
“If we were smaller there wouldn’t be enough activity,” Bill said. “If we were larger, it would be difficult. We lock up at 5:30, I still have time to get a little shipping done. I have to be at the Post Office at 6, you can go to the back door. I can get over to UPS by 6:30. I can get over to Speedy Delivery by 7. And First National Bank, it’s incredible, the drive-through is open until 6 o’clock at night. They understand there’s a core number of businesses that need that. That’s part of the success.”
A powerful brand
Bill credits his grandfather with setting the business up for success as a destination store with a solid brand.
“There were many factory stores and mill stores all over the United States,” Bill said. “You would go into a factory store, and they would sell only their brand name. My grandfather said we were going to surround our own products with like-minded, high-quality products that can never be replicated. Like a Hudson Bay blanket. That’s the gold standard of blankets. A Dale of Norway sweater. Pendleton Native American blankets.
"When you put Bemidji Woolen Mills right up there with these other what I call American heritage brands, it just makes the mix that much better. We have people coming in with older Bemidji Woolen Mills garments and they want a new label sewn into it because they’ve worn this coat so long.”
It’s a destination
Over the years, the Woolen Mills has become more than just a retail store. Its walls are decorated with historical memorabilia about the company and the community.
Iconic red-and-black plaid jackets and other garments have been worn by a number of notable people. In 1974, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson gifted the jackets to the other 15 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.
During the 2012 election campaign, Bemidji Woolen Mills vests were named as TIME Magazine’s No. 15 Most Memorable Item, as presidential candidate Rick Santorum had purchased 6,500 vests for his team. The Texas A&M marching band gives their third-year drill members a Bemidji Woolen Mills sweater. Others who have been spotted wearing sweaters, vests or jackets that came from the Bemidji Woolen Mills are South African President Nelson Mandela, comedian Billy Crystal and actor John Goodman.
Mary Lou Miller, a Woolen Mills employee for nearly 20 years, said it was more than just a job.
“It was the best place I ever worked,” Miller said. “We looked forward to all of the out-of-town and out-of-state people who came. They knew us by name and we knew them by name. It was just a big happy family.”
“I tell people to go to the Woolen Mills,” says Betty Hagen of Bagley, who worked as a seamstress for many years. It’s a different type of atmosphere when you walk into the Woolen Mills. I’m always sending people over there.”
And they’ve been going there for 100 years.