He’s been called the Picasso of fiber arts, and he’s walked up and down the floors of Frankenmuth Woolen Mill for over 40 years. At a time when corporate titles and salaries tend to lure business administration majors away from home and community, we count our lucky stars every day that John Ehrlinger chooses to live right here in town, where he can walk to our mill each morning.
“I grew up 7 miles outside of Frankenmuth,” says John, who shies away from the title of Resident Picasso and instead refers to himself as “Production Manager.” His grandmother worked inside our walls hand-tying comforters until she was 82. When John turned 16, he started looking for work, and she told him the mill was hiring.
"I was in awe of the machinery,” John recalls of the first time he crossed our threshold as a boy. “Just seeing it, watching it run.” What started out as a simple teenage job cleaning up at the end of the day turned into a life-long vocation. John went away to college to earn his degree, but returned home during every break and between semesters to help out.
He has helped us build stores, carted our products to trade shows, and even worked with our remodeling projects. He’s also the person our sheep farmers seek out when they come to see us. He oversees the journey of their fleeces from raw wool to finished roving, developing color blends, assuring the perfect effect is achieved with every lot. “It’s a special job,” he admits, because he works with our shepherds from generation to generation, watching their children grow up while he continues to draw the best from their fleeces. He’s also the person who keeps the machines running, making friends with all the old mill equipment. “With the age of some of these machines, if they were vehicles, they’d have 4 million miles,” he quips. “You can’t buy parts for them anymore. You have to fabricate your own parts.” He does that, too.
We don’t have fancy titles that we can offer John. We don’t have corporate salaries or corporate ladders. Like everyone around here, he does a little bit of everything that needs doing. But if you listen to the soul behind his words, you’ll find the secret that keeps him here at Frankenmuth Woolen Mill. Family. He talks about the old carding machines like they are his aunts and uncles; keeps track of our farm families like they were his own; cherishes living in a small town where his own sisters live just a few minutes’ drive away; and sticks by our side through thick and thin. When he walks in every morning, his smile reminds us that our mill isn’t just a place to crank out product. He won’t call himself Picasso, but he is a true artist, because he makes us see our lives and our work, whether we’re washing wool, tying comforters, raising sheep or repairing machinery, as beautiful. What we do here is a way of life, for generation after generation, and he makes us proud to call this place home.