St. James Hotel: Corner of History and Hospitality

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

These days, the trip from St. Paul to Red Wing, Minnesota takes a little more than an hour on U.S. Highway 61, the road passing through rolling hills and small towns along the way. Ignore the fast food and sport utility vehicles and the scenery is much as it was a century ago; though the nearby Mississippi River is only glimpsed occasionally, its presence is felt in the carved bluffs and fertile farmland out the window until it rounds the bend below Barn Bluff in downtown Red Wing.

In 1915, this trip would have been slower, by horse-drawn carriage, train or paddlewheel steamer, but at the end of the journey, one could look forward to a glass of ale, a fine meal and a clean bed at the St. James Hotel which by then was already a 40-year old institution in downtown Red Wing. Some things haven’t changed. The St. James still anchors the corner of Main and Bush Streets, a short walk from both the train depot and the boat docks, and now Highway 61, welcoming guests from St. Paul and beyond.

St James, 2015.
St James, 2015.
St James Hotel, 1938. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
St James Hotel, 1938. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


The history of the St. James is inextricably bound with the history of Red Wing itself. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Red Wing was at the outer edge of the frontier known as the Great Northwest, a territory known for its vast forests, fertile ground and numerous lakes and rivers. This was a land settled by entrepreneurs and farmers who left the Old Money dynasties of the East to find their own success and carve out new lives. The fields surrounding Red Wing and the bluff country of southern Minnesota were ideal for growing wheat and the nearby Mississippi became the ideal way to transport it. The big river was a pulsing artery connecting the mills to the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans further south. As a natural stopover on this important trade route, Red Wing needed a hotel.

In 1875, a group of 11 civic leaders proposed a grand building to accommodate the town’s flow of visitors. No expense was spared in the construction of the four-story Italianate building, which was furnished with the finest America and Europe had to offer—carpets, wallpaper, furniture—in addition to modern conveniences like steam heat and hot water taps in the bathrooms. This attention to detail paid off; the St. James quickly became the hub of social life in Red Wing, hosting dignitaries, politicians and captains of industry alike. It also brought tourists, who rode the train or paddlewheel boats to Red Wing seeking cool respite from the heat of the cities.

St James, 2015.

St James Ballroom, 2015.
St James Ballroom, 2015.


Of course, fine furnishings only go so far. From its opening day, on which a Thanksgiving feast was hosted, food service was a top priority at the St. James. Aided by a state of the art kitchen, ingredients were locally grown, canned, baked and roasted a century before the term “farm to table” came into common parlance. The grand dining room of the St. James hosted regular banquets known for lavish menus and often ending with the specialty of the house: homemade bread pudding that was liberal with its brandy sauce.

St James, Jimmy's Pub, 2015.
St James, Jimmy’s Pub 5th Floor, 2015.
Veranda Restaurant, 1915. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
St James, Veranda Restaurant, 1915. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


No history of the St. James Hotel is complete without the Lillyblad name. Charles Lillyblad took ownership in 1909 and the family owned the hotel until the mid-1970s. But it was Clara, Charles’s wife, whose legendary hospitality and high standards pervaded every corner of the St. James for much of the 20th century and whose spirit remains a muse. Clara was known for her tough white glove inspections and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and scrub pots, but also for her kindness, especially to those who may not have been able to afford a meal or a room at the hotel.

If Clara Lillyblad walked into the St. James Hotel today, she would still recognize it. There’s less traffic from the train station and docks these days, so the hotel’s lobby has been moved to the Main Street side of the building, but just around the corner is the original one, quietly preserved, facing Bush Street. The 19th century pipe organ is ready to be played by anyone brave enough and the library with its stained glass windows, dark wood paneling and warm fireplace invites one to pull a book from the shelf and while away a chilly winter afternoon. The winding main staircase is lined with portraits of the hotel’s founders, and the upstairs hallways bear evidence of Red Wing’s history, from newspaper clippings about long past local events to a memorial for a boating tragedy downriver. The lighting is now electric but sconces and ticking clocks remind visitors of this place’s golden age, when one might pass a senator or a visiting polar explorer in the hallway on the way to Sunday dinner.

St James, 2015.
St James, 2015.
St James Staff Christmas Party, 1955. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
St James Staff Christmas Party, 1955. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN

Over the past century, much has changed in Red Wing. Main Street is less muddy and the wheat trade has been overtaken by pottery, shoes, ice skates and tourism as the town’s main industries. But the St. James remains, still welcoming guests in much the same way it did 100 years earlier, a bastion of unwavering warmth and civility in the frontier town that has grown up around it. Peeling away its century and a half of hospitality and charm is like pulling back its ornate wallpaper to find another, equally exquisite layer beneath it.

Downriver, Red Wing is a Real Place

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

In the last decades of the 19th century, St. Paul, Minnesota became a boomtown in the newly opened Northwest Territories. With the city’s location on the Mississippi River, and as a major stop for the East-West railway, the grains and lumber harvested in the fertile fields and forests to the north could be shipped downriver or sent back East. In 1881, the aptly named Silas B. Foot, who owned and operated a leather tannery S.B. Foot Tannery 50 miles south in Red Wing, opened a small shoe company in St. Paul, from which he sold fur-lined mocassins for farmers working in the cold Minnesota fields. Foot commuted every weekday from his home in Red Wing, where he ran the tannery, to St. Paul and back again. Foot couldn’t have known then that his fate in the footwear business rested not in St. Paul but back in Red Wing, where a century later, his tannery would become a part of Red Wing Shoe Company.

St. Paul, 2015
St. Paul, 2015
S.B. Foot Tannery, Red Wing, MN, 1940's.
S.B. Foot Tannery, Red Wing, 1940’s. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN

The train journey home from St. Paul in the evenings took Foot along the banks of the Mississippi, through growing river towns, dense forest and farmland until the river widened and passed beneath the bluffs that tower above Red Wing. The journey today is more often done by car but the view remains much as it would have to Foot, peering out from his train carriage as the sun set.

Mississippi River Bridge no: 15. St Paul, 2015

Along the great river in downtown St. Paul, powerful tugboats idle at their moorings while huge barges loaded with grain and lumber are tethered, waiting to be pushed downriver through a system of locks to Kansas City, St. Louis and beyond to New Orleans and the Gulf. Foot would have seen similar boat traffic on his short walk from his office to the then newly built Union Depot to catch the train home. As the Mississippi meanders out of the city, it flows under the cliffs of Mounds Park and soon widens, passing the sandstone caves of Battle Creek on its way to the river towns to the south.


20 miles south of St. Paul, Hastings is situated where the Mississippi jogs east and where the St. Croix River flows in, a classic Midwestern river town that today looks much as it would have near the end of the 19th century. Despite the shiny new bridge that spans the river, the crenellated facades of the buildings on 2nd Street jut skyward like the ramparts of an old fort, evidence of this town’s long history. Well preserved, the buildings now house cafes, antique dealers, butcher shops and the occasional pub, many of their tops bearing the years of construction—1863, 1880, 1901—from the era when S.B. Foot was passing through as a regular commuter.


This region is still farm country and the towns’ streets are lined with dusty pickup trucks on a weekend afternoon, farmers who come into town for errands, perhaps a visit to the bank or a beer and a bite. Between quiet towns like Miesville and New Trier, with their ancient brick churches and tidy ball fields are working farmsteads, many still with rusted equipment and derelict outbuildings of bleached wood that form a three-dimensional palimpsest of the agricultural history here.  The landscape gradually changes from an undulating patchwork of farm fields to the craggy sandstone bluffs of the river valley. Hawks and the occasional bald eagle circle overhead, riding the thermals and well camouflaged deer present a constant road hazard. The road pitches down, deeper into the valley and seemingly back in time until it emerges at the city limits of Red Wing.

Welcome To Red Wing
Welcome to Red Wing, 2014
Red Wing Downtown, shot from Barn Bluff, 2015
Red Wing downtown, shot from Barn Bluff, 2015
Downtown Red Wing, shot from Barn Bluff, 1900. Photos courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN

In 1905, an enterprising businessman named Charles Beckman began making shoes out of a factory in downtown Red Wing. Beckman’s shoes were the sturdy sort of boots that were favored by the hardworking men in the region—miners, farmers, railroaders and tradesmen. The footwear had to serve double duty—comfortable, durable work shoes by day and polished up shoes for a dinner out by night. For tanned leathers that could meet his unique requirements, Beckman turned to S.B. Foot and an historic relationship was born. In Beckman’s Red Wing Shoe Company, Foot found the ideal partner and he gave up his footwear business to focus on leather tanning. He also gave up his daily commute to and from St. Paul, remaining downriver for good. The rest, as they say, is history – both companies still manufacturing in Red Wing, MN today.

New | The Wrenchmonkees Iron Ranger

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

The Wrenchmonkees Iron RangerWe collaborated with the Wrenchmonkees from Copenhagen on the design of an exclusive boot, the Wrenchmonkees Iron Ranger.  The clean and simple design represents a boot in which Scandinavian functionality and American handcraft tradition blend together perfectly.

Black has been the Wrenchmonkees color for the last 7 years, so Black Spitfire leather was the natural choice. Black Spitfire is a heavily waxed roughout – reverse suede – leather. The combination of wax with the roughout leather guarantees a beautiful worn look when the shoes are used for riding a bike frequently. Wrenchmonkees co-owner Per Nielsen: “The model is based on functional preferences. The iconic Iron Ranger is a great boot for handling a bike. The Vibram sole is the right choice for driving a heavy bike on wet, greasy, or slippery surfaces.”
The boot is equipped with brass eyelets and speed hooks, reflecting the brass details that are often seen on the Wrenchmonkees’
designs, whether it is a bike or their clothing line WM A.C.
The Wrenchmonkees boot carries style no.4545 and is a limited release, available from November 27 at selected retailers in Europe.

Faces of Red Wing | Wrenchmonkees

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Web4 Biking and American work shoes: at first glance these two don’t have much in common. The hi-tech biking world appears to contrast starkly with the craftsmanship of Red Wing Heritage. But appearances can be deceptive. For a few years now, a small, nearly forgotten subculture within the biking world has been enjoying continuously growing public interest. A world in which tradition, workmanship, and an eye for detail play a main role. And not in the least due to the stunning work of the Wrenchmonkees.

It’s the 60s of the previous century. Record racing, later named café-racing, is thought up by bored young working class bikers, hanging around the jukebox of the renowned Ace Café in London. In those days, a song (‘record’) lasted for about three minutes. Record racing meant that at the start of the record, you had to race to a fixed point and be back before the song ended. The goal was to break the magical barrier of 100 miles per hour (‘doing the ton’). If you managed, you were rewarded with the prestigious title of ‘ton up boy’.

Read more »

In Search of Precious Metal: The Mesabi Iron Ranger

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

In the late 1800s, America was in the midst of a gold rush. Iron rangers crisscrossed the continent, from the Yukon to Wyoming digging and panning for the precious metal. The wilderness of northern Minnesota, with its dense forests atop Precambrian rock, held promise and men scoured the land looking for gold. Near the turn of the century though, something else was discovered that would change the region forever and shape the land and the lives of those who lived there. In their quest for gold, miners stumbled upon streaks of the blood-red mineral, hematite, unwittingly scraping the surface of the world’s largest underground cache of iron ore on what would be henceforth be called the Mesabi Iron Range.

Mesabi_smallThe early history of mining on the Mesabi Range is intertwined with that of Red Wing Shoe Company. The miners needed tough but comfortable boots that could stand up to the long days and tough conditions a northern Minnesota mine pit presented. Red Wing responded with the now iconic Iron Ranger, a boot made of thick leather with an oil resisting outer sole, speed lacing hooks, and a comfortable cork midsole. The defining characteristic of these boots though, was their double layered toe, capped to protect the miner’s feet from injury as they labored with hand tools and heavy machinery. That boot is still made today, the fittingly named Iron Ranger, and it represents not only Red Wing’s commitment to making boots for working men and women but also its Minnesota origins.

Read more »

Breathing New Life — Red Wing’s Repair Department

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

In a far corner of Plant 2, row upon row of tired boots are lined up, faded and derelict, as if waiting to receive their last rites. Flapping soles hint at untold stories of hard use. These boots look ready to be put out to pasture, left by the door for dog walking duty or trips to the mailbox. But this is the Repair department at Red Wing Shoe Company and instead of a sorry tale, it is one of renewal rather than retirement.

RD2-5_sm Red Wing Shoes is unique among most shoe brands in that we repair our own boots and we’re proud of this distinction. Typically, repair is an independent cobbler’s job, not the factory’s from which the footwear came. But how better to fix boots than by the same hands that built them in the first place and with original equipment? Like prodigal children, thousands of battered boots come back to the banks of the Mississippi, some making the round trip more than once.

Red Wing repair orders come in, each pair of boots tagged with essential information about the owners and their requests. Some are simple fixes—a new set of soles and laces, a bit of leather treatment—while others can be more complicated. One owner has a leg length discrepancy and needs his right boot sole built up to balance out the left. Another owner would prefer lug soles be fitted in places of the original crepe, perhaps for a new look or just for a little more traction. Our Repair department aims for a turnaround time of less than a week for a pair of boots and bins are labeled for the day of the week each pair arrives. It’s a “first in, first out” system, and the small crew manages to renew an impressive average of 150 pairs per day.

RD2-9_sm RD2-10_smNo matter what the request is, the process starts the same way—soles are pried off and discarded, stitching examined and a new cork layer smeared on to the footbed like peanut butter.Then the boots go under the heat lamps for curing before new soles are attached and trimmed and heels nailed in place if needed. The boots get a generous helping of leather oil to restore their suppleness and color and a fresh set of laces. Finally they’re sealed in a box for shipment back to their owners, ready for loyal service once again. It’s a process that’s repeated on hundreds of boots every week. Every pair that passes through the Red Wing repair department has a story, one only known to its owner, and a story that will continue when he receives his boots back.

RD2-11_sm  RD2-16_sm Red Wing repairWhile the repair department in Minnesota is happy to refurbish any pair of boots that comes in the door, we also have a network of approved cobblers in Europe for quicker service. The best bet is always to bring your tired boots to a Red Wing dealer, who will make sure they get repaired and back on your feet as soon as possible. Find your shoemaker here!

Anecdotes | Grown up in Red Wing boots

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Michael Williams A Continuous Lean Red Wings 1905

“My love of Red Wing began early one Saturday morning when I was thirteen years old. My father woke me up and drove me to the Red Wing store in my hometown of Wickliffe, Ohio, on the East Side of Cleveland to get my first pair of work boots. The excitement of the gift of work boots from my dad quickly faded when I realized that I was then being conscripted into weekends and summers of manual labor. What I learned about working for my dad was sort of surprising to me; I loved working outside and I loved manual labor. When the job was done, you are done. Each day held huge feelings of accomplishment. It was through this experience that my life long appreciation and connection to the Red Wing Shoe Company was forged.

I bought these boots in 2005, the year of Red Wing’s centennial. They are a special edition boot with the style number 1905, an homage to the year of the company’s founding and came with the 100 year lace badges. I have worn them religiously ever since and recently had them re-crafted in Minnesota to make them almost better than new.

These boots are just like my first pair that my dad bought for me and every time I put them on I think about how in one Saturday morning my father taught me about quality, hard work, loyalty and so much more about life.”

Michael Williams, New York

Michael Williams Red Wing 1905

In 2007, Michael Williams founded men’s style site A Continuous Lean, which looks at the world through the lens of craftsmanship, quality and provenance.

Leather tanning | The Wooden Drum

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Follow the installation of a new wooden tanning drum at Red Wing Shoe Company’s S.B. Foot leather tanning facility.  Sturdy, high-quality leather is essential to the process of building a durable Red Wing boot. Red Wing Shoes’ S.B. Foot Tannery uses time-tested wooden drums for the tanning process. Tanning agents, dye and oil are fed into the drum and rotated with the leather hides for 12 hours on average. The time it takes to tan a hide depends on the thickness of the leather and the desired penetration of the dye.

Find all information and instructions on how to take care of your leather boots here.

Red Wing Moc Toe 8882

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Blue! Built with Indigo Portage leather, we welcome style no.8882 to the family. This unique indigo color pays respect to the blue collar worker who initially adopted the iconic 875 work boot in their daily lifes and made Red Wing Shoe Company flourish in the 1950’s.
First introduced in 1953, Red Wing’s moc toe styles are built with the same attention to detail as the boots built long ago. The 8882 is built with premium leather tanned at Red Wing Shoes’ Minnesota tannery and made in the plant located just down the road. The boot is available now at selected retailers.


Faces of Red Wing | Colin Spoelman

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

KC_6 Colin Spoelman runs the oldest distillery in New York City, Kings County Distillery. While that description may sound a bit grand for a five-year-old distillery, Spoelman is very much steeped in old whiskey culture. He grew up in Kentucky, America’s whiskey heartland, and with a healthy DIY attitude launched his Brooklyn-based whiskey brand right as the thirst for craft distilling began to take hold in the U.S., putting him, and his distillery, at the forefront of the craft spirit movement. Spoelman spends most of his time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in a 115-year-old brick building that serves as the headquarters for King County Distillery. On a recent muggy August day the distillery was filled with the sweet smell of whiskey-soaked barrels, and it was there we caught up with Spoelman to discuss his passion for distilling and craft whiskey.

Tell us about your path into distilling, growing up in Kentucky and what that meant.
Interestingly enough my parents didn’t drink. it was a dry county, so there were no bars or liquor stores. Very different culture of alcohol. I grew up going to a bootlegger who was just a guy, not necessarily making moonshine, but he would go into Virginia and buy commercial alcohol and sell it to high school kids and alcoholics.
I moved to New York and would periodically go back and visit the bootleggers, and some of them did sell moonshine. And knowing that people in New York were kind of curious about that, I’d bring it back and share it with people. And that got me interested in this culture I had left, which is really a culture of a lot of homemade stuff.

Did you learn from anyone?
No, because there’s really nobody who really knows how to do it anymore. There are some old-timers in Kentucky but they don’t really like to talk about it.

It’s secretive…
Yeah, but that being said, there are books that are out there. It’s basically home-brewing and then going one step further. The science is pretty straightforward. My experience as a startup hobby distiller was: Wow this is surprisingly easy, and surprisingly easy to make stuff that is comparable or better than commercial whiskeys that are out there.
Read more »