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Bemidji, Minnesota: Four generations keep people warm | news > Minnesota

During a September trip to North Dakota, we planned a two-night stopover in Bemidji, Minnesota, a community of 16,000 hardy souls that lives 218 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

Bemidji is a charming university town on the southwestern shore of the great lake for which it is named. What a delightful spot for a couple of southerners in early fall. Winters with an average nighttime temperature of minus 2 degrees in January would be a completely different matter. We’re talking about a serious cold here.

With the bitter cold of northern Minnesota’s winters, you can be assured that the closets and basements of Bemidji homes are crammed with winter clothing. Luckily, when fall arrives and the foliage begins to show its colors, city dwellers can walk a short distance and stock up on clothes. Four blocks from the towering statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox is Bemidji Woolen Mills, a business where the same family has been making and selling cold-weather gear for over a century.

During our visit to the mill and its retail store we met with family member and current owner Bill Batchelder who proudly shared a brief history of the company. Ira Preston Batchelder, Bill’s great-grandfather, owned a general store in Bemidji when he and his son Ira Hubert bought a wool mill in another town in 1920 and promptly moved it to their hometown.

With a tangible source of wool from sheep raised in the area, father and son began using a wool carding machine and picker to pull and comb the wool to make quilts, and later added a yarn spinning machine to make wool yarn and socks. They specialized in woolen blankets and later on high-quality outdoor woolen clothing for lumberjacks in the area.

Bill Batchelder joined the family business in 1972 under the direction of his grandfather, father and uncle. The grandfather continued to work until his death in 1992, three years later Bill and his brother Bob took over the business. Bill noted that almost every member of the family has worked in the business for four generations. In its heyday, the mill employed 40 full-time and several part-time workers. He currently has 16 employees, not all of whom work full-time.

Bemidji Woolen Mills continues to make wool quilting in the same way as it did in the 1920s. Bill noted that the company’s mittens sell by the thousands, but the best-selling item remains its jac shirts (heavy shirts often used as jackets) in Lumberjack, or Buffalo Plaid, which come in sizes 2 through 52 are.

Walking into the building’s sewing area, the CEO demonstrated his skills operating two of the company’s machines, one that makes and sews buttonholes and another that sews buttons on shirts and jackets. Here we met Natalya Trett who was in the process of sewing a blue and black jac shirt. Originally from Ukraine, Natalya has been with the plant for over 20 years. She is now proud to work alongside her two sons who recently emigrated from Ukraine.

We had assumed that the Bemidji store only sold the company’s products, but Bill’s grandfather decided long ago that it would be good for the business to sell other high-quality goods alongside its own products. As we browsed the retail space, we should have realized that no company of this size could produce so many different items. Other manufacturers’ products include Pendleton blankets, Dale of Norway sweaters and Red Wing boots. Minnesota’s famous wild rice and local crafts are also available. Mary Morton, Bill’s aunt, works at the shop and is one of the local craftswomen of rosemaling, a decorative Norwegian folk art painting. Her paintings and puzzles with her paintings are sold in the store.

Bill said the same families have shopped at the store year after year, with the sixth generation of summer visitors now arriving. We were approached by a shopper who said with a smile, “Bemidji Woolen Mills is the only place you can buy clothes that will keep you warm.” The customer, Janet Thompson, wearing gloves and a hat must have overheard our conversion to have. She said her first memory of the store was when she was five years old, visiting with her mother. Despite living elsewhere, Janet continues to care for Bemidji Woolen Mills. Bill said he often hears similar stories.

As the old saying goes, “The first generation starts a business, the second generation grows the business and the third generation ruins the business.” It is refreshing to see the fourth generation successfully running Bemidji Woolen Mills for the fifth generation to come.

Kay and David Scott are authors of the Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). They live in Valdosta, Georgia. Visit her at blog.valdosta.edu/dlscott

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