The last wool company in N.B. prepares 100th anniversary
Fires, floods and a changing industry haven't slowed down the company or its fourth generation of owners
New Brunswick's only wool business is celebrating its 100th anniversary next month at a mill location that is even older.
Briggs and Little Woolen Mills Ltd., located in York Mills, was founded in 1916 and has survived fires, floods and a changing industry.
Co-owner John Little has worked at his family's company for nearly 50 years.
Little says he has no idea exactly why his company has remained in the wool business while dozens of others have disappeared.
"If I could answer that I could probably win the lottery," laughed John Little.
Little says the company has shipped product all over the world including several Asian markets.
"We've sent ours to Australia as well, which you wouldn't think of because they have so many sheep and industry already," said Little. "But our product is much different."
"We watched for two weeks, and never saw those sweaters," said Little. "We thought, 'where are they?' And then after two weeks there they were. That was special."
Briggs and Little Woolen Mills currently has about two dozen employees. Little says staying relatively small has benefited the company and allowed them to ride out the ups and downs over the decades.
Little says the types of customers and their demands have shifted a lot during the last few years and the advent of online sales has challenged the company, but he thinks yarn will still be in demand for at least another hundred years.
"So far they haven't found another fiber that will give a human comfort under as many diverse conditions as wool will," said Little. "It can be wet and it will still keep you warm. It can actually be frozen on the outside and still keep you warm. So it has properties that haven't been able to be duplicated."
Little says the company is used to changes throughout its hundred-year history.
"In 1945 we introduced colours," said Little. "Paddy Green, Scarlet Red and Royal Blue. Now we have 300 to 400 choices of product."
The company is now under the ownership of a fourth generation of Littles. John Little's son Michael became an owner of the company a year and a half ago.
Michael Little may have reason to worry in a historical sense. Every generation of owner has watched the mill burn to the ground as the result of devastating fires, the latest of which took place in 1994.
"But they always built it back," said Michael Little. "But our employees, and our workers here, they're incredible. And we'll more than likely carry on past my generation."
Despite dedicating much of their adult lives to handling wool and producing yarn, John and Michael Little say neither of them has ever actually had to shear a sheep.
"Not yet anyway," said John Little.