One of Frankenmuth’s most historic buildings is under new ownership for just the fourth time in 127 years — and largely as a result of increased demand for the “healthy bedding” made by Frankenmuth Woolen Mill.
Abby and Matt Curtis recently bought the building at 570 S. Main St., home to Frankenmuth Woolen Mill — a business they have owned and operated for the last decade.
The couple had been renting the building from McClellan Properties, the company that Abby’s parents (Carol McClellan and the late Gary McClellan) had when they bought the mill in 1977.
The $500,000 purchase of the building by Abby and Matt Curtis represents the culmination of five years of significant growth for the company that has found a niche in the “healthy bedding” market — and has no plans of slowing down.
“We saw an opportunity to make a mark in the healthy bedding segment of wool bedding and we ran with it,” Abby Curtis said. “We have increased our sales over 400 percent in the past five years and now make our signature bedding year-round in this historic mill.”
Frankenmuth Woolen Mill has been identified as the “third oldest enterprise” in the city by the Frankenmuth Historical Association. It was started by Franz Ranke and George Grueber.
The original machinery was purchased in 1894 from the Tuscola Woolen Mill for $600.
In its infancy, the business had success taking advantage of locally harvested wool to make blankets, socks, yarn, mittens, and more.
Ben Felgner and William Abraham joined Ranke as owners of the mill in 1910.
In 1914, the company did about $16,500 in sales.
World War I brought Frankenmuth Woolen Mill an influx of business.
The company was awarded a contract to produce 66,000 pairs of socks for doughboys fighting in Europe. Three years later, revenue was at $41,000, and by 1918, it was at $94,000 — an amount equal to about $1.5 million today.
The business would remain connected to future generations of Felgners and Abrahams until Carol and Gary McClellan bought it in 1977.
Over the years, the mill operations were scaled back as the retail side of business continued to thrive in what had become a bustling downtown Frankenmuth setting.
Abby Curtis had worked at the business on and off growing up, until she returned on a full-time basis after college in 1995.
Like her parents, she had an entrepreneurial spirit.
In 2006, Abby Curtis bought the business operations of Frankenmuth Woolen Mill.
At the time, about 90 percent of business came from the retail operations that featured items produced by other manufacturers. Though the milling equipment was still in place, Matt Curtis said, it was used mostly to process special orders.
That changed in 2010, when Frankenmuth Woolen Mill was contacted by a wholesaler on the hunt for small wool mills that could supply the kind of “healthy bedding” more and more consumers were buying.
Matt Curtis said the wholesaler offered Frankenmuth Woolen Mill a deal worth $500,000 to produce a large quantity of bedding.
Curtis said it was a deal he and Abby weren’t about to lose, so they said “yes.” He admits that it was “a nightmare” to fill their first big order as they quickly ramped up operations.
Matt Curtis — who had worked for 20 years at his brother’s business, Pat Curtis Chevrolet Cadillac in Caro — left his job in Caro and began working at the mill full-time.
“That first big order took us about six months to fulfill,” Matt Curtis said. “But that really got us going.”
Today, business for Frankenmuth Woolen Mill is split 50/50 between its retail and wholesale divisions.
The company has more than 30 employees (some also work at the couple’s other businesses, Abby’s of Frankenmuth, 576 S. Main St., and Jaami’s Ice Cream and Treats, 592 Cass St.). Many of the workers, such as Vassar’s Joan Dove, sewing room supervisor, live in southern Tuscola County.
“We feel so lucky to have such dedicated employees that continue to help us grow our business,” said Abby Curtis.
Revenue for Frankenmuth Woolen Mill averages about $750,000 annually. Matt Curtis said he expects a 20 percent increase in 2017 as the company adds a new large wholesale customer every month or two.
The retail business features a combination of items made elsewhere and those produced at the mill.
The wholesale business is centered on wool-based products made on-site, such as comforters, mattress pads, pillows, dryer balls, and mattresses, which are sold across the country.
The mill — now operating five days a week — uses almost the same method of production it started with so long ago.
It starts with large, eight-pound bags of wool purchased from various sources (there isn’t enough local supply anymore, Curtis said). The mill processes an average of 2,000 pounds of raw wool monthly.
The wool is washed using 180-degree water and biodegradable soap in large, iron bathtubs.
A large extractor — the same one that’s been used since the early 1900s — is used to get most of the water out of the wool. However, the wool is air-dried for up to five days.
Once dry, the wool is teased open and fed through a large carding machine that combs and aligns the fibers to create thin, sheer layers of wool that pile up to create batting, better known as the warm, comfy, “fluffy stuff” inside bedding.
The batting is then cut as needed (twin, full, or queen size comforters, for example) and taken to the tying and sewing room on the top floor of the mill where batting is tied and sewn by the mill’s professional sewers.
It’s a relatively lengthy process that raises one big question: How is Frankenmuth Woolen Mill successfully competing with other companies that produce way more product, and can do it faster?
It’s all about the quality of the finished product, they say.
“We don’t use any chemicals in the processing,” said Matt Curtis.
Other manufacturers might clean wool using an acid bath that basically “melts everything away,” Abby Curtis said.
“We use hot water,” she said.
Abby Curtis said others use the chemicals because it’s faster.
“We have eight pounds of wool that will sit in a tub for an hour,” she said. “You acid wash it (like others), you just have to dip it and go.”
That’s a problem, she said, because those chemicals produce off-gases.
“Who wants to breathe that when sleeping?” she said.
Frankenmuth Woolen Mill avoids chemical-use other ways, too.
During the carding process, a pipe pushes steam into the room to eliminate static. Others might use oil, which Abby Curtis said compromises the quality of the finished product.
Others also might have to use chemicals to make fibers flame retardant, whereas wool is naturally resistant to fire.
“That means with no chemicals added, it still passes the government testing for fire safety requirements,” Matt Curtis said.
In addition to expanding its wholesale operations to meet demand, the Curtises plan to eventually give people access to its operations based in the 17,000-square-foot Frankenmuth headquarters.
Already, the couple provides free tours to groups of 10 or more.
“Definitely one of the goals is to continue making more of the mill accessible for people to come in and get a tour and get a feel for what we do,” Matt Curtis said.
He said anyone interested should call the mill at least two weeks in advance for scheduling.
The phone number is 989-652-6555.
Frankenmuth Woolen Mill’s website is at http://www.wool-bedding.com/.
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Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org