Tiny Helmsburg in rustic Brown County is a rural hamlet that is so small outsiders might not even realize they’ve passed through it.
So it’s no surprise that one of Indiana’s best-kept secrets is headquartered there, in an old school building that, appropriately, masks its identity.
For Bare Feet has been knitting socks for 21 years and has amassed an impressive array of clients. It’s a league-licensed producer of socks, headbands and wristbands for the four major sports leagues: Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League and National Hockey League.
Moreover, For Bare Feet makes the socks NBA players actually wear on the court. And if that’s not impressive enough, the company recently received permission to market NASCAR drivers on its footwear.
“Their story gives me goose bumps,” said Jane Ellis, acting director of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re very fortunate to have a business like that in our community.”
To be sure, the creation of For Bare Feet is a heart-wrenching but touching tale of a mother’s love for her son.
Company President Sharon Rivenbark, 70, was a single mom in the mid-1980s teaching fifth grade in Brown County when her teen-age son, Tim, began having headaches. Doctors diagnosed him with tuberous sclerosis, a rare disease that causes benign tumors to grow in the brain.
Physicians cautioned Rivenbark that the growths would render Tim mentally incompetent and that he should be institutionalized. Instead, she started the company to give her son a place of importance.
Armed with a $1,200 loan from her parents, Rivenbark quit teaching, bought an antique knitting machine, and set up shop in Nashville. That was in 1984.
“It took a gentleman from North Carolina to show us how to run it,” she recalled. “It was like being a detective. It took us months to figure out.”
Rivenbark ultimately began renting the old high school in Helmsburg to house the equipment and make the socks while keeping the Nashville storefront. In the meantime, the husband of her eldest daughter graduated from Indiana University with a degree in computer technology and came on board to operate the machines.
Tim was able to cope with his illness long enough to enroll at IU in 1986. He died in the early weeks of 1987 at the age of 21.
The next six months were quite a blur, she said, but the company managed to survive. The mother of four daughters received plenty of support from her family. Today, two daughters, one vice president of operations and the other vice president of sales, and her four sons-in-law are part of For Bare Feet.
The company has about 150 employees and occupies 90,000 square feet in five buildings on the former school grounds. Rivenbark declined to divulge sales figures.
Besides the major sports leagues, she has licenses with dozens of universities to use their logos on the socks. IU, in particular, helped launch Rivenbark’s business.
A buyer at the IU bookstore recommended she get a license to make socks with the IU logo on it. That led a shop in Bloomington to request socks with Greek symbols on it, enabling Rivenbark to enter the sorority market.
The apparel prompted numerous shop owners from other cities traveling through Nashville to request that she sell the socks to them on a wholesale basis for resale in their stores. Kiosks at area Simon-owned malls followed.
In 1985, Rivenbark left teaching to become a full-time business owner. The company continued to find growth in a relatively narrow and new business niche-gift and novelty socks. Today, the company produces thousands of sock designs. It also makes wristbands and headbands.
Besides its Nashville digs, the company has five locations, all in tourist areas: two in Eureka Springs, Ark.; one in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; one in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; and one in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Although her parents initially thought she had lost her mind, Rivenbark knew she had made the right decision.
“As long as I have For Bare Feet,” she said, “we’ll never lose my son, Tim.”