October brings the change of the seasons. Leaves plunge into the vibrant colors of autumn. First reds, yielding yellows, oranges and then finally obscuring the paths and roads you will devour to prepare for holiday season buffets.
Spirit stores start to pop up in vacant buildings. Yards full of bright orange pumpkins emerge. Some folks begin creating that crazy costume to win the coveted Halloween party prize. Foraging season before Winter’s cold.
October 21st 2001
October to DeFeet has a red, yellow and orange theme, too. On October 21, 2001 at 6:00AM our factory was engulfed in flames. Our MicroSockery fire spread sock ashes far and wide like dead black crumbly leaves. Our trail was covered with soot and our skies were clouded with smoke.
Charred remains of our sock company
Oddly enough, another company in the outdoor industry suffered a devastating fire in 1995. Malden Mills, the makers of Polartec fleece from Massachusetts. Right after our fire, they were featured on 60 Minutes yarning their success story. They explained how they kept all their employees and rebuilt the company. This hit me right in the heart and I used it as inspiration to rebuild DeFeet. I wrote a letter to their CEO Aaron Feuerstein. Eventually Malden succumbed and had to close their doors. I was glad we were well on our way to recovery when that news hit.
Paul Willerton and I in Vancouver, BC Canada on one of many trips visiting retail partners.
Rebuilding DeFeet wasn’t easy. As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Paul Willerton, Greg Demgen, and I hit the road for weeks at a time. We would see as many as seven bike shops per day, telling our story on how we would be back. We traveled in two's, usually. Greg and Paul alternated time away from my madness. I continued the mission to spread the seeds of hope. Montana, Oregon, Washington, Vancouver BC, then down to California in 23 days. Next Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois following the Outdoor show. At one point we rented a purple PT Cruiser as a new low was hit. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee were next up.
I recently read Jack Keoruac’s “On the Road”, and those trips were again fresh in my mind. The road was ours. White knuckled and red eyed, we blasted across the plains and over mountain passes. Glaring straight ahead we talked wildly about all things at the same time. Weaving in and out of topics until our quilt of discovery was warm enough to finally close our eyes and cover ourselves from the chaos.
We were down. Our rows of beautiful Italian hosiery machines that hummed like perfectly tuned Campagnolo drivetrains were reduced to scraps. We went nine months without machinery. Those machines aren’t cheap, each about the price of a nice Alfa Romeo. The companies that produce them have to make them to order. I recall talking to insurance companies, lawyers, and adjusters for at least three years after our fire. Most of that time we were forced to stand our ground for the sake of survival. It eventually took over three years to finally settle with the insurance companies.
Fast forward 15 years. One evening at the Tour de France, Paul and I were sitting with some cycling industry folks having cocktails. Some of them were with Peloton magazine. The fire of 2001 came up in conversation. They were amazed and wanted to do an interview for their industry leading publication. After all those years, Brad Roe and Peloton cared enough to ask the questions no one else had. Here is a link to the story they wrote in Peloton Magazine .
So, each October we test our fire alarms and check our fire extinguishers. We jump at the first sign of smoke or a false alarm. In fact, just last week our on site coffee roaster turned toaster set our alarms off once again. There is even a spooky theory that “Big Al”, my late father, haunts us every October now and keeps us on our toes. He is watching and gives nice reminders every now and then with an odd, unexplained alarm.
June Cooper's tribute to “Big Al”
My mother planted a maple tree in my late father’s memory here on the property that begins its change and busts into brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges. She sometimes comes up and sits by herself with this beautiful maple tree and spends time with her lifetime love. His spirit continues to guide me everyday, and this time of year I reflect and offer my gratitude to all the wonderful people, brave employees, passionate shop owners and dedicated customers that sustain this company. Thank you all. We did survive the fire. The lessons learned are what give us courage when we face the challenges of a global pandemic, a tornado, or a hurricane. We can’t stop these things, but we can choose how we react when they happen.
As yellow became my favorite color by chance 30 years ago, I am especially hopeful this time of year that the colors will bring a calming peace to the world in which we live. That long awaited homecomings will be even more special than ever before.