Steamboat Springs Routt County Woolens LLC made a memorable first appearance at this year's National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, winning a vendors' Best in Show prize.
The company took home the award for having the best vendor booth in the stadium arena. The prize-winning booth was the biggest marketing effort the local wool company has made on the Front Range, and the recognition was a surprising honor, Routt County Woolens partner Nancy Mucklow said.
It reflects how, in recent years, the local company has expanded both its product line and its market.
Routt County Woolens began in 1997 as a test project sponsored by the Routt County Agricultural Extension office. The wool-growers cooperative, based in Steamboat Springs, buys wool grown in Northwest Colorado for a premium price and makes products to sell locally, creating a strong local market for wool.
The original idea was to manufacture special holiday wool blankets, made exclusively from Northwest Colorado wool.
The blankets were made in one specific, distinctive color pattern every year and sold in a handful of retail stores in Steamboat, marketed as a value-added area product.
The company's line has expanded greatly since then, and the award-winning stock show booth showcased that fact. Today, the Woolens line includes pillows, throw blankets, custom-made vests and baby blankets and vests.
The number of retail outlets in which the products are sold has grown as well.
"We have more products in stores than ever before," Mucklow said.
The products are sold in seven retail stores in Steamboat today -- more than ever before. The blankets are also sold in the Colorado State Alumni magazine and online at Coloradowool.net.
It's a lot to say for a company that started as a county-sponsored test project.
"We wouldn't have gotten into it if we didn't think it would work," Woolens partner Jim Ficke said.
However, he said, there are still many challenges to face. Expanding business beyond county lines to present the product to other parts of the state is a big one.
Taking part in the National Western Stock Show was an initial step in that process, but the Woolens group isn't planning a full-bore, Front Range marketing blitz just yet.
"We are something that is accepted locally, but we are unknown elsewhere," Ficke said. "We are not going to go hog-wild about trying to go outside of the county."
However, the booth at the stock show proved to be a unique opportunity. If the Woolens group decides to continue participating in the future, the company should start seeing return visitors and increase Front Range awareness of its presence.
As the company expands, it continues to serve its original purpose: By offering a price for wool that's above market value, the co-op tries to give local sheep ranchers an incentive to sell locally and, for some, to stay in the business in Northwest Colorado.
Routt County Woolens buys between 6,000 and 20,000 pounds of wool a year, all from Northwest Colorado ranchers. The wool is shipped to Minnesota, where it is made into the company's distinctive products.
When the business started in 1997, Routt County Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow and area woolgrowers wanted to create a specialized market for local wool, in response to the impact Steamboat's resort economy has had on the viability of the agricultural industry in Routt County.
The company has blossomed from there.
"Routt County Woolens is basically still growing," Nancy Mucklow said.