The Mills were built in the 1870s at a time in Utah’s history when the leaders of the Church were trying hard to keep Utah’s economy closed. Between 1847 and 1869, Utah had been a tightly-knit Mormon community where almost everything that was grown or made by Mormons -- fruit, wool, furniture -- was sold to other Mormons. Church members believed that this economic restriction would help keep them spiritually strong and safe from the dangers of wild capitalism. However, in 1869 the transcontinental railroad was built through Utah, upsetting the balance by making cheap worldly merchandise easy for the Saints to buy. In response, Brigham Young decided to build his own wool factory in Provo.
The Mills opened for business in 1873, and for their first thirty years they were a success. Between 1880 and 1900 sheep herding became very popular in Utah, and shepherds from Utah Valley and beyond made lots of money selling their wool to the Mills, where it was turned into coats and blankets and sold to other Utahans. However, the depression of the 1890s slowed down business, and the Mills closed in 1904. In a risky business decision, Jesse Knight, Provo’s famous philanthropist, bought the factory in 1910 and renamed it the Knight Woolen Mills, but it continued to suffer financial trouble, perhaps because the Church by now had reversed its economic policies and members were buying cheaper clothes from bigger companies, perhaps because of a fire in 1918 that destroyed a lot of wool and machinery. The Great Depression was too much for it, and it closed for good in 1932. Its sixty years of existence across a period of great change in Utah history tell a complicated story of faith, money, and wool.