Despite looming financial and mechanical difficulties, the owners of Brigham City's historic Baron Woolen Mills are making yet another attempt to resurrect the 130-year-old business.
Bob and Marva Sadler announced Friday they have reopened a retail outlet in one of the old brick buildings that stand on the property first developed by Mormon pioneer Lorenzo Snow around 1870. The two also hope to restart limited production of wool products this spring using antique equipment that has stood idle for the past three years.
The announcement is good news to those who have supported the mill and worked to see it preserved as a historic site. But its future remains far from certain.
"I don't try anymore to pretend to know what's going to come of the mill," said city planner Paul Larsen. Developing the site into a local version of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square is a possibility, he said, or if it could again be run as a viable mill, "I would love to see that."
"It's a community here that I think has a strong sense of its history and a strong pride in its history," Larsen said. "The woolen mill is probably one of the most visible reminders of that history."
The Sadlers brought the mill out of bankruptcy in 1993 in a quest to continue authentic operation of what they believe to be the Intermountain West's oldest manufacturing facility.
The site, run by the Baron family from roughly 1876 to 1988, is one of the only operational examples remaining of the Brigham Mercantile and Manufacturing Association cooperative started under the direction of then-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Brigham Young.
Both Sadlers, native Utahns who attended graduate school in the east and pursued corporate careers there before returning to the state, had worked to increase the visibility of the mill and spread its story until financial difficulties and mechanical problems with the circa 1900 equipment shut down operations in 1998.
Since then they have worked with the private Friends of the Mill and city planners to preserve the property, which now sits in a residential area, as a historic site. An expected sale of the property, required by the mill's creditors, fell through last October.
"The biggest difficulty we've always had with the mill is that with 100-year-old equipment it has to rest. You just can't push it as hard as you need to for production," Marva Sadler said. "It became very clear real quickly and kind of haunted us forever that with something that old there simply were no spare parts."
If they succeed in restarting the mill, the Sadlers hope to focus on limited production of specialized products, such as authentic reproductions of Revolutionary and Civil War blankets, she said. The retail operation will include existing stock, wool products made by other companies and "heritage" items in keeping with the mill's historic atmosphere.
The city's Heritage Site ordinance was adopted in June 1999 with the mill in mind, planner Larsen said. But its owners will still have to meet a host of upgrades, code compliances and noise and light restrictions to resurrect production in the now largely residential area, he said.
Future sale of the site remains a possibility. But while running the mill as an authentic operation has been tough, it is a dream her husband remains passionate about, Marva Sadler said.
"It was difficult. We had anticipated it being difficult. It was probably more difficult than we had anticipated," she said. "However, we certainly got tremendous support. There was just an outpouring of emotional support from those who wanted to see us succeed."
The Baron Woolen Mills store, located at 56 N. 500 East in Brigham City, is open by appointment by calling 1-435-540-5350. Items also may be purchased on the Internet at www.baronscommonwealth.bigstep.com