If I were ever to take a job far from my current field in a community and state far from where I currently live, it would be at the Bemidji Woolen Mills in Bemidji Minnesota.
Located in northern Minnesota where the record low temperature was 50° below zero (F), Bemidji otherwise is an adorable little community near the headwaters of the Mississippi. In the summer months (when we were there), people on bicycles ride the 17 mile path around beautiful Lake Bemidji, which is filled with kayakers and fishing boats. Tourists pose for goofy pictures with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Children play in city parks exploding in colorful flowers.
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A Family Run Business in Bemidji
This was the community still in development when, in 1920, Ira Batchelder and his son opened a woolen mill in town. Back in those days, every village of any size had a woolen mill, but now, nearly 100 years later, Bemidji’s is one of few woolen mills left in the upper Midwest.
Today, Bill Batchelder is the fourth generation of his family to manage the business. Bill happened to be giving a tour of the sewing center when we arrived. A soft spoken man, Bill’s pride in this business, its heritage and the product was heartwarming. He demonstrated various sewing machines, some more than 100 years old. He all but glowed while talking about the miracle of finding parts and keeping these things running. That’s a task that falls predominantly on his shoulders.
In his soft spoken way, Bill nearly got out of control showing us pictures of products the company has made over the years. He made a coat for Nelson Mandela. Wow! His little family-owned business has also made clothing for Jeff Daniels and Billy Crystal, among others. And remember the fun sweater vests that defined Rick Santorum’s image in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries? 6,000 of them were made right here at the little Bemidji Woolen Mills.
Bill works hard to use as many Made-in-America products as he can. The millions of buttons on the company’s many shirts and jackets are made just down the Mississippi River in Muscatine Iowa.
Their most popular product by far is the signature red-and-black Paul Bunyan Jac Shirt. When I asked him how many they’ve sold over the years, Bill answered “We’re kind of like McDonald’s. After a while you stop counting and just say ‘billions.'”
Help Wanted at the Bemidji Woolen Mills
We toured the facility around noon and noticed that many of the sewing machines were without operators. I assumed that employees were at lunch. But Bill pointed out it’s hard to find good employees to do the job these days. I can think of a lot worse jobs. Indeed, I’ve worked a lot worse jobs in my life.
And that’s why, if I were to take a job doing anything else in the world, I would move to Bemidji Minnesota and work for Bill Batchelder and his proud family business. Even if you don’t want to move to Bemidji, I believe you would surely love a visit, in the summer months.