A couple of hundred miles south of its source in Northern Minnesota, the Mississippi River, after passing through Minneapolis and St. Paul, flows past an achingly charming town called Red Wing. Nestled below towering limestone bluffs patrolled by bald eagles, Red Wing sits like an oversized model railroad set. Its downtown Main Street is lined with neatly maintained brick buildings that house shops and pubs, hair salons and accountants’ offices. The St. James Hotel, the centerpiece of Red Wing looks much the same as it did when it was built in the 1875 when lumber and wheat were being shipped downriver to St. Louis and beyond from the mills in the Twin Cities. Red Wing has managed to maintain its strong heritage as a quintessential Midwest American town thanks in large part to the benevolence and influence of the town’s most famous business, the Red Wing Shoe Company.
Photos by Gishani for Gear Patrol
Red Wing shoes and boots are known well beyond the Midwest and indeed the United States. Their reputation for durability and no-nonsense classic styling has made them favorites with riveters, hunters and baristas alike and popular from downtown Tokyo to the woods of Canada. Surely, the growing interest in all things heritage, handmade and Americana hasn’t hurt Red Wing’s popularity. But this isn’t a company that bows to whims and trends and they’ll keep cranking out their sturdy shoes long after fads have faded and as long as there are people who care about quality. After all, they’ve been doing things much the same way they have since 1905 and aren’t about to change that.
Good shoes come from good leather. On the outskirts of Red Wing sits the Trout Brook Tannery of the S.B. Foot Company, founded in 1908 by Silas B. Foot, a man whose name presumably destined him to be in the shoe business. The old building has been expanded, modernized and mechanized over the past century but descending into its bowels reveals its history, with the old ceiling beams and brick walls bearing witness to millions of cowhides tanned, dyed, stretched and dried there.
Red Wing shoes are emblematic of Minnesota, of the Midwest, and of America. This is not fine European footwear, built to impress, but rugged, unpretentious boots overbuilt to withstand railroad yards, muddy fields and factory floors.
The distinctive blue chromed hides arrive from slaughterhouses in Iowa and Chicago, many with the ranch brands still visible, stacked up on pallets, awaiting tanning. They’re trimmed, then shaved and soaked in huge rotating wooden vats that look like oversized wine casks. The hides emerge from the vats in a sopping mess and must be hand sorted and stacked for further processing. They’re then dyed, stretched and oiled in stages to that endow the leather with color and preservative waterproofing before the moisture is slowly extracted from them. It is a mix of the old-fashioned and the modern, done by men in aprons and rubber boots but using million dollar machines, as if the industrial revolution timeline were folded in on itself.
In the 1980s, the S.B. Foot Company fell on hard times. In a move both benevolent and forward-thinking, the Red Wing Shoe Company, stepped in and bought the tannery, saving jobs and keeping the rich heritage and skilled work of its employees in Red Wing. While some of the leather tanned at the Trout Brook Tannery is sold to other companies and the military, its main export destination is just a mile down the road to Plant No. 2 of the Red Wing Shoe Company.
Rolls of tanned supple leather in various rich colors and textures arrive at the factory stacked like cordwood, waiting to be transformed into shoes and boots. Plant 2 is a low slung brick building with a sturdy, unassuming look, not unlike the products that come out of it. Inside are the sounds of drumming industrial sewing machines, the hiss and clunk of heavy stamping equipment and the usual hum of people working. It is a veritable beehive of activity, ordered chaos, with narrow aisles flanked by shelves of raw materials – laces, stitching thread, thousands of insoles and bins of precisely-sized foot-shaped forms, or “lasts,” looking eerily like so many prosthetic feet.
Side by side, soles are cut to size from sheets of material by men manning archaic presses and also by automated machines, like some sort of cobbler version of the “John Henry Versus the Steam Engine” tale. Leather is stamped out in the various panels that will be sewn together to make a complete shoe. Stitching is added and panels assembled impossibly fast by skilled hands on ancient sewing machines. These machines bear patent plaques from the late 1800s and look indestructible. Heavy black steel, the machines are cloaked with foam-lined leather to dampen their deafening staccato. They resemble the knights’ warhorses, clad in protective armor and indeed they have withstood a century of battle.
A spool of thread on top of a sewing machine feeds through a reservoir of hot wax before it is fed into the needle for stitching. Men and women whose hands are as deft as a surgeon’s, but bear more calluses, assemble shoes with rapid-fire speed. Soles are attached to uppers around a plastic last – “last-made.” Glue is applied, outer soles applied and then stitched before they’re trimmed. A final station inserts laces and performs quality checks before the finished shoes are dropped into their boxes for shipping.
To walk through the Trout Brook Tannery and Red Wing’s Plant 2 is a privilege. As with our food, our clothing and shoes often arrive sterile and neatly packed from some faraway place and we give little thought to their origins. To see hands cutting, gluing, stitching and trimming leather and rubber gives a glimpse into the purity of human work, where things are made from raw materials like the skin of a cow as they have been since time immemorial and since 1905 by the banks of the Mississippi in southern Minnesota.
Red Wing shoes are emblematic of Minnesota, of the Midwest, and of America. This is not fine European footwear, built to impress, but rugged, unpretentious boots overbuilt to withstand railroad yards, muddy fields and factory floors. Their origins are in the industrial Midwest, from a time when steel mined in the north was shipped through the Great Lakes to the great steelworks of Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit, where it was made into cars, rails and bridges. And while the economic landscape of the region has changed, Red Wing shoes have not and we hope they never will.