Behind the walls of Fox River Mills, thousands of pounds of yarn are turned into thousands of pairs of socks each and every day.
The family-owned Osage manufacturer, which employs upwards of 200 workers, has been a staple of the community for more than 40 years and has grown and expanded both its facilities and product lines consistently over the decades, selling high quality socks as well as handwear to national and international markets, including the United States Military.
As a result of that success and the positive example Fox River provides, company owners John and Becky Lessard last Friday morning were presented with the "Renew Rural Iowa Award," which is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and WHO Radio in Des Moines.
Renew Rural Iowa (RRI) is a Farm Bureau initiative supporting new and existing businesses through education, mentoring and other resources.
"For rural communities like Osage to have successful non-agriculture businesses such as Fox River is instrumental in the success of the state and the nation," said Sandy Ehrig, who serves as the Economic Development Administrator for Renew Rural Iowa. "You are an example of what is great about our rural Iowa communities."
Brenda Dryer, Mitchell County Ecomonic Development Director, who nominated Fox River for the special honor, also announced that a special interview with the Lessards concerning the longtime Osage company will air on WHO Radio (1040 AM) on Friday, March 29 at 11:30 a.m.
Others present at the award presentation and facility tour last Friday included LouAnn Murphy, representing the Osage Chamber of Commerce; Leland Meitner of Mitchell County Farm Bureau; Dennis Fannin, general manager of Osage Municipal Utilities; Steve Bass, president of the Osage Rotary Club and superintendent of Osage schools; Osage Public Works Director Jerry H. Dunlay; and Kevin Kolbet and Royce Tack of the Osage Development Corporation.
According to John and Becky Lessard, who teamed up to present a history of the company for Renew Rural Iowa officials as well as WHO Radio, Fox River's ties to Osage started with the purchase of the Marr Knitting Mill in Osage in 1966. Three years later, the mill burned down. By 1971, a new mill was completed and the company permanently relocated its headquarters from Appleton, Wis. to Osage.
Fox River continued to grow by acquiring Rockford Textiles of McMinnville, Tennessee in 1985, and Portage Mills of Portage, Wisconsin, in 1988. Zwicker Knitting, Zwicker International and Nelson Knitting (manufacturer of the Original Rockford Red Heel, affectionately known as the "monkey sock") were acquired in 1992.
The company completed its state-of-the art addition in 1995 bringing the total square footage of Fox River Mills to more than 250,000 square feet.
The growth of Fox River Mills can be significantly credited to the efforts of the Lessard family. In 1940, Joseph Lessard went to work for Fox River in Wisconsin as knitting superintendent. He worked his way up through the ranks, eventually following the company to Osage and buying it in 1975.
The Lessard family still owns and operates Fox River Mills. Today, Joseph's sons John and Jeff, manage the operation of the company.
Over the years, the Lessards were able to implement unique ideas and products, such as making patented "Wick Dry" moisture managed socks, the first women's specific fitting sock, and even socks certified by NASA that went to the moon.
In the 2000s, Fox River pioneered the first women's specific fit sock. A portion of the profits from every pair of Fox River Women's socks goes to support Breast Cancer Research, Awareness and Prevention.
Fox River also gives tens of thousands of dollars back to non-profit organizations in the community each year that come from its annual Sock Sale, which brings thousands of people to Osage each October.
In 2005 and 2006, the Lessards and Fox River focused on their commitment on the environment with several mill improvements and the development of the company's own organic shrink treatment.
Fox River was also one of the first sock manufacturers to use "Ingeo," a sustainable fiber made from corn, that was the core of the "Good Earth Collection."
"Today, we're focused on what the consumer is looking for next and continuing to provide American consumers with a great product, for a great price, made right here in the United States of America," said John. "We still have a strong commitment to the environment and recycle more than 450,000 pounds per year and re-use water three times during the manufacturing process before it leaves the building."
According to the Lessard family, a lot goes into the manufacturing of socks that most people don't even think about. There are generally six steps to making socks - knitting, seaming, wet finishing, board-pairing, packaging and shipping.
Over 400 knitting machines are used on the knitting room floor at Fox River Mills.