Pete Woodworth, former owner of the Winona Knitting Mills, walked into Wanek Hall at the Winona County Historical Society on Wednesday sporting a green cable knit cardigan he made at the Winona Knitting Mills 58 years ago. This was the first sweater Woodworth ever made when he was 12 years old.
“I wore it to work one day and someone told me it was so beautifully made, that I should hang on to it.” Woodworth said, “I didn’t know they meant until I was 70.”
Woodworth began working for the Winona Knitting Mills at the age of 6-years-old where he started packing sweaters into plastic bags to prepare them for shipping. He worked there ever since, only taking a break to join the Navy for five years. Now, at 69-years-old, Woodworth said how grateful he is to be able to still have the Winona Knitting Mills in his family and work in the building.
Woodworth’s grandfather, Walker Woodworth, bought the building in 1943 with his partner, Harry J. Stone. They owned two other locations at the time and were looking for a third location. Jack Temple, the owner of a textile company in Winona, suggested they invest in a building in Winona. The empty building on East Second Street was originally built for a wool mill that never opened.
The mayor of Winona welcomed Walker Woodworth and told him he wouldn’t require Woodworth to pay property taxes for the first year and would only have to pay taxes in 10 percent increments for 10 years as long as they had 200 people working at the mills by the end of 10 years.
To everyone’s surprise, the Winona Knitting Mills had more than 200 employees by the first year.
Pete Woodworth said when the Winona Knitting Mills opened, there were lines of people waiting work at the mills. He said mostly women were employed to run the sewing machines, and noted they enjoyed working there together and most of them were friends.
Proof of the friendships made can still be seen in the break room of the Winona Knitting Mills building. Enlarged photos of women with their arms around each other, laughing and eating ice cream at company picnics can be found hanging on the walls of the original break room. Woodworth said the break room has been left untouched to remind current tenants of the bonds that were created in the building.
At the lecture, to Woodworth’s pleasure, were many employees of the Winona Knitting Mills. The whole audience laughed when Woodworth hauled a huge movie poster up on stage and told the tale of the time he and his wife Joyce were able to attend the New York movie premiere of “The Big Lebowski.” Woodworth said he was proud of the fact that Jeff Bridges chose the Winona-made sweater from a warehouse full of costumes and made the sweater famous.
Woodworth told the audience about how he and his wife went bowling with the cast of the movie and his wife was only able to enter the movie screening because she was wearing the infamous sweater.
In the audience, Howard Rockwell and his wife listened to the history of the old building he used to work in. Rockwell said he loved working at the Winona Knitting Mills and said he got along well with Woodworth and his family.
Rockwell worked at the Winona Knitting Mills in the laundry department from 1955 to 1995. He was in charge of washing all the material before it was sent to the machines.
Rockwell said after 40 years of working at the Winona Knitting Mills, his favorite memory was when they moved the laundry facility from the first floor to the third floor. Rockwell said he was happy to move up to the third floor because he was able to see the river and bluffs from the window’s view.
Rockwell talked with old friends and coworkers he hadn’t seen since he retired in 1995. Woodworth recognized some of his old employees and thanked them for coming to the lecture. After the lecture there were some questions about what went wrong for the Winona Knitting Mills. For some, the closing was unexpected, especially for the employees.
Even though Rockwell had retired in 1995, he was saddened to hear the news of the mills shutting down.
“I was surprised and thankful that I retired at the right time. I was really surprised; they hired a lot of people. I saw a lot of people come and go.” Rockwell said.
Some of the audience members wanted to know what happened to the Winona Knitting Mills and Woodworth explained that they merged with the Hampshire Group Limited, a women’s apparel company.
The Winona Knitting Mills closed a few years after The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced. Woodworth explained said he was advised to sell the company after making visits to Washington D.C. and hearing about the trade agreement.
Woodworth said the hardest moment of his career was when he had to tell his employees the Winona Knitting Mills was closing its doors for good, leaving 180 employees unemployed.
He talked about how he was the type of employer who wanted the best for his employees.
“I’ll try to help you become who you want to be. That’s what kind of company we were. We had a big sign on the office door that said ‘always open’. Those values came from my father and it came from his father.” Woodworth said.
Woodworth’s children now own the building that once was the Winona Knitting Mills. The building is now WKM Properties, a commercial space with 225,000 square feet of leasable space and 10,000 square feet of available space.