Inside 1 of America's biggest wool warehouses: "Along the Way"

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To many, this neck of the woods is considered cattle country...and to a large degree, that's true.

But in a small town known as the geographic center of the nation; a bit of a surprise, one of the largest wool warehouses in America, in a place where sheep play second fiddle.

We take a look inside a place, many have never even heard of, "Along the Way", in the Northern Hills.

A long metal warehouse hugs the train tracks, a loading area reads "Wool", and even in it's quiet hometown, this economic engine runs more like a whisper. Larry Prager has worked here for nearly 4 decades.

Larry Prager, CEO of Center of the Nation Wool says, "The invisible business in Belle Fourche because people drive by and they know we're here, but they really have no idea what goes on here, they just know it's the wool warehouse."

Center of the Nation Wool is a bit like a Pandora's Box, with numbers that are darn near startling to hear.

Larry Prager, CEO of Center of the Nation Wool, Inc. says, "United States produces about 25 million pounds of wool a year. And through our doors we'll market between 4 and a half and 5 million pounds. So we're handling roughly 20 percent of the wool produced in the United States is local to this region."

That is a whole lot of wool. And this warehouse operates with just 6 employees. You won't see any sheep here, they're sheared at the producers ranches. What you will see is stack after stack of white nylon wrapped bales, each filled with the wool of 40-50 animals.

Larry Prager says, "Typically our bales weigh 400 maybe 500 pounds"

Too heavy to carry, they're carted around by forklifts. These bales come in from about 1500 wool operations from several surrounding states. Prager says, each sheep produces about 10 pounds of wool, earning roughly $2 a pound, or $20 bucks per animal for the rancher.

Larry Prager says, "1 sheep could make a wool suit or a wool blanket."

Center of the Nation's role is to be a middleman between the ranchers who sell the wool, and the textile industry that buys it.
So how key is wool from these parts? Just listen to this.

Larry Prager says (Clip 1 at 5:53): "In all of my time in the wool business, the single biggest user of wools from this region is the US military," Prager says.

Wool that goes toward U.S. military dress uniforms, typically made with a 50-50 blend of wool and polyester.

Larry Prager says, " So we supply a little over half of all the wool consumed by the U.S. military and the armed forces."

Prager started working here in 1978. Before that, he used to shear sheep. This guy knows his wool. This is high quality wool from the prairies of Wyoming, worth he says $3 per pound.

Prager says, "These crimps are the natural curviture of the wool fiber, gives it a lot of strength, elasticity, compression resistance, and the closer those are together, the finer and higher valued this wool's gonna be."

Steve: This on the other hand, low quality wool, he says would go for about a buck 25 a pound. This business has gone through different names and ownership, but it is a survivor.

"No more than 30 percent of sheep numbers are available today that were say compared to 1950. And we have fewer people in rural America, we have fewer cattle people, fewer farmers," Prager says.

Still in this 25 thousand square foot warehouse, Prager believes the future is bright.

Larry Prager says, "Wool is a great fiber, it's a natural fiber, never been duplicated with synthetics, it's wearability, durability, fire resistance."

Expecting to ship about 4.6 million pounds of wool this year; not bad for a place few have ever heard of.

Center of the Nation also includes a smaller companion warehouse in Billings.

Guess what the second biggest use of their wool is? Machine washable wool socks. And no surprise, Prager says he wears them everyday.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call us or e-mail me at stevel@blackhillsfox.com to let me know.