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MATT AND ABBY CURTIS . . . stand outside the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, which was founded in 1894 and is Michigan's oldest woolen mill. The Curtis' are the owners and operators of the Mill, located at 570 South Main Street.
Frankenmuth, more diverse than meets the eye
By Mary Anne Ackerman,
Mayor of Frankenmuth
If you were to ask most people about the type of businesses in Frankenmuth, they might respond, "Tourism." The hospitality (tourism) industry is a large part of our local economy. However, our business community is much more diverse than meets the eye.
A robust economy is vital to the success of our City. Our businesses provide jobs and put money back into our community through paychecks and taxes. They support our schools, churches, and civic organizations.
One of the things about Frankenmuth that's different from many communities is the number of locally owned and operated businesses. The owners live here, shop here, attend our churches, support community initiatives, and, most importantly, take great pride in the well-being of our community.
Meet Matt and Abby Curtis, owners and operators of the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill. Established in 1894, the Woolen Mill on South Main is one of our community's oldest businesses and one of the first manufacturers. The Mill originally produced horse blankets, lumberman's mittens and socks, wool comforters, and socks for the army during WWII. By the mid-1930s, the sale of woolen comforters flourished; by the 1940s, the Mill sold more than 5,000 comforters annually. In 1948, a retail store replaced the cider mill at the front of the Woolen Mill, offering residents a place to purchase woolen comforters and clothing. Retail sales growth continued to prosper in the 1980s alongside Frankenmuth's tourism industry.
A new era began at the Mill in 2010 when the business expanded to include a wholesale division that manufactured "natural" bedding. This allowed the company to retain good employees by offering year-round employment. The introduction of online purchasing in 2018 provided a new way to buy woolen products. However, the pandemic in March 2020 created the most unexpected growth in the history of the Mill.
While production at the Woolen Mill halted for two months - online shoppers took to their computers and placed over 300 orders for wool bedding. "'We weren't going to be negative,'" Matt Curtis said. "We've got a product to sell!" Matt and Abby personally sold and shipped the 300 orders from their backstock. Eight weeks later, when the employees returned, there was zero stock in reserve, with an average of 10 orders per day still coming in. In addition, there were wholesale orders for thousands of comforters, toppers, and pillows to fulfill before the end of that year. Despite the doom and gloom of the pandemic, the team embraced their work and, incredibly, shipped every order as promised. The dramatic sales increase continued throughout the pandemic fueling the next chapter in the story of the Woolen Mill.
Matt and Abby soon realized that they were running out of space! When entertaining solutions, the most cost-effective option was to raze the entire building and start over. However, Matt commented, "Destroying the building would have been a disservice to the community."
How so? Inscribed on the original walls are decades of detailed notes documenting production. The Mill contains original equipment, including the first carding machine purchased for $600 in 1894 from the Woolen Mill in Tuscola. Generations of families have found employment at the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, such as 44-year employee John Ehrlinger, working in the same place his grandmother worked for 20 years.
In the end, preserving the building was the only option. Architect Erin Andrus with the firm of WTA Architects in Saginaw designed a $2 million 6,500 square-foot addition that kept the original structure and reflected the rustic look of buildings from the late 1800s. William Bronner and Son Construction, another locally owned business, was hired as the general contractor for the project. The Curtis's noted that President Matt Bronner's grandfather completed a renovation for the Woolen Mill many years ago.
The result? Hidden downtown, in the middle of our tourism center, is one of the nation's largest manufacturers of woolen bedding. The Mill provides good jobs for 22 people, with seven sewists hired in the past 18 months. The staff still uses original equipment purchased in 1894 to manufacture all-natural bedding basics shipped across the country. The wool is processed in the same way as introduced by founders Franz Ranke and George Muller. "We don't use chemicals or additives to process the wool," explained Abby Curtis, "There weren't chemicals in 1894! And, when we added new doors and a loading dock on the second floor of the original building, we documented it on the wall just as mill workers recorded events for 100 plus years."
I'm thankful for people like Matt and Abby Curtis. They are local owners, are invested in the community, and their leadership has provided for the ongoing success of one of our legacy businesses. The Frankenmuth Woolen Mill is a unique piece of our diverse Frankenmuth economy.
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