While my research didn’t pinpoint one specific event that resulted in the Rockford Woolen Mill closing, there were several changes that combined most likely lead to the demise of the mill. The changes that stuck out were: changes in leadership including Jefferson Benner’s retirement, saturation of product in the market, and increased competition.
Changes in leadership: From 1875 – 1888 there were modest changes occurred in ownership and superintendents (foreman). In 1893 Jefferson Benner was now 61 and was expressing his desire to be less involved in the mill. (Benner it should be noted was a very important pioneer in Rockford and Minnesota history. In 1861 he was attending college at Hamline University and he enlisted in the U.S. Army Battalion Cavalry. He served 4 ½ years in the army and then returned to Minnesota. In 1867 arrived in Rockford after selling wholesale products in Minneapolis after the war. In Rockford he opened a mercantile store when he retained ownership of until his death in 1900.) In March 1894 papers announced that Florian Benner was now manager of the mill. Business continued to be strong right up until 1897. Interesting that there were many rumors from 1895-1898 that the mill was either moving or closing for one reason or another…In 1898 George Florida still owned the property which the mill leased from him. The waterwheel broke in January of that year and Florida held the lease until the wheel was repaired. This leads me to believe that the mill must have spent most of its earnings on improvements and not had significant cash reserves. Leading up to Florian Benner becoming manager, the mill lost a lot of other superintendents to competitive mills in the area. Many of these people had unique skills in manufacturing of woolen products. I wonder of the loss of these creative leaders was not able to be replaced?
Saturation of Product: As mentioned earlier the mill very aggressive in its distribution of their products. All the adjacent communities had retail outlets for the mills products. The mill also had three teams of salespeople going door to door selling products. A possible sign of trouble was Buffalo was one of the later communities to have an outlet store which was run by P. C. Jensen. In 1889 one of the mill’s salesperson J. S. Gurney worked a short sale with the William Dedrick store in Buffalo. An ad appeared in the Buffalo Journal announcing the great sale. The sale flopped and ended early with dismal sales most likely because the area was already saturated with Rockford Woolen Mills products. I don’t image the tactic was well received by Jensen’s store which had been a loyal distributor. They winter of 1899-1900 was late and mild which caused excess inventory to build and Florian Benner had a January clearance sale at “severally reduced prices”. He again ran a “liquidation sale” in November of 1900.
Increased competition: Railroads were quickly spreading across Minnesota in the late 1800’s allowing for manufacturers to reach markets beyond their wildest dreams just 20 years earlier. Roads were becoming more accessible and industries were popping up in more communities. Rockford lost managers to other mills that were starting up. Even Florian Benner was offered to manage a larger mill which would have required him to move. He declined saying how much he and his family enjoyed Rockford.
The end ~ 1906: April 25th, 1926 the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune published an artical titled: “Haunted Relic of Pioneer Woolen Plant Stands in Ruins at Rockford”. Ms. Jessie Florida is quoted in the piece sharing many of the early challenges that the mill and the dams faced. The writer Edward Sammis summarizes the article with this statement; “Some 20 years ago competition from other mills became too severe the mill was shut down and the machinery sold. In that 20 years the dam has been worn until only a remnant remains above the water line…And those who have ventured near at night when the moon rides high say that the whisper of the wind as it whines through the creaking timbers, and the scuttle of rats over the decaying floor boards, gaunt and grey with age, sounds like the ghostly echo of the click and whirr of looms and shuttles” Seems like a very simplistic explanation to the sudden ending of a once prosperous business. Resources for this series of posts include: August 19th, 1981 Crow River New which republished the Minneapolis Tribune story, “Rockford the Way it was” by Mouraine Baker Hubler, and the “History of Wright County Minnesota 1915” by Franklyn Curtis-Wedge