Originally known as the Ashland Manufacturing Company, Wilson Sporting Goods was created in 1913 in Chicago as a subsidiary of the Swarzchild and Sulzberger meat packing concern. The company moved into the sporting goods trade by manufacturing gut strings for tennis rackets as a means of utilizing animal by-products. The company suffered financial reversals in 1914 and, in a move calculated to capitalize upon the popularity of U.S. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, reorganized as Wilson Sporting Goods Company under the leadership of businessman Thomas E. Wilson. The company prospered and expanded its inventory to include baseball equipment, camping gear, golf clubs, and tennis rackets.
By the end of World War I, the company had established a sales office in San Francisco and built new factories as sports became big business in the 1920s. By the early 1940s Wilson included sportswear in its product line, purchasing the O’Shea Knitting Mills in 1942. The company established subsidiary clothing mills in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Ironton, Ohio. When those plants proved too small to handle the demand, Wilson opened a new factory in Cookeville, Tennessee, to produce professional sports team uniforms.
Located across the street from the Tennessee Central Railroad, the Cookeville plants made uniforms for professional teams in every major professional sport except boxing from 1946 to 1989. Every uniform worn by professional athletes in baseball, tennis, football, basketball, golf, and soccer came from the Cookeville plant. Each professional uniform was custom tailored to the specifications of the individual athletes, several of whom, including Sandy Koufax and Pete Rose, visited the facility to be fitted. The Wilson Company hired former professional athletes as consultants to advise the company on ways to provide a better fitting uniform. The Cookeville plant also branched out into the production of college, high school, and community sports uniforms.
In 1970 PepsiCo bought Wilson and in 1989 sold the plant to AmerGroup Ltd. With the 1989 sale, the Cookeville operation declined. The 1940s building, laden with asbestos, was seen as a financial liability, and the plant moved a portion of its operations to nearby Sparta. Other parts of the Cookeville operation were transferred to Mexico and Indonesia. By 1989 Wilson no longer held a monopoly on the production of professional sportswear and was forced to compete with other sporting goods companies for lucrative professional contracts.