Where It All Started: Red Wing, Minnesota

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Birthplace of an Icon: Red Wing, Minnesota

A walk down Main Street in Red Wing, Minnesota tells a tale of the city’s successes, past and present. Red brick buildings line the idyllic street, as people and cars flow through the heart of the city. Among the historic buildings, the Red Wing Shoes Museum stands as a tribute to the 112-year legacy of the company. Nestled along the Mississippi River in Southern Minnesota, Red Wing is home to just over 16,000 people. It may seem surprising that a brand with global reach would not only begin in a small city in the Midwest, but remain there for over a century. However, a look back shows how the city and its people made Red Wing, Minnesota the perfect place to build a lasting legacy of American-made footwear.

Prior to European-American settlement, the Mdewakanton Sioux made the area along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Southern Minnesota their home. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States Army began to explore the northern reaches of the Mississippi River. Reaching what is now Southern Minnesota in 1805, the Army first encountered Chief Red Wing, for whom the city is now named. In 1851, the Treaty of Mendota transferred ownership of native lands to the United States government. White settlement in Southern Minnesota began shortly thereafter, and Red Wing was incorporated as a city in 1857.

 

Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc. Corporate Archives

 

The Homestead Act of 1862 sparked the land rush in the Western United States, and Red Wing quickly grew as Norwegians, Swedes, Germans and New Englanders populated the area. Among the new residents of the area were thousands of women who actively worked the fields, setting the tone for a community with strong female leaders. In the fertile lands in the Mississippi River Valley, vast fields of wheat were planted, and in 1873 Red Wing was recognized as the world’s largest producer of the grain.

 

Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc. Corporate Archives

 

Growing demand for leather products and a lack of reliable sources for tanned leather paved the way for local resident Silas B. Foot to open Trout Brook Tannery (later renamed S.B. Foot Tannery) in 1872. During this time, the demand for durable work footwear began to grow along with the growing immigrant community settling in the area. In 1905, the tannery began to supply leather to a local “shoe jobber” named Charles Beckman, who had founded the Red Wing Shoe Company that year. The combination of a commitment to quality leather and the craftsmanship of Red Wing Shoes would create a partnership that survives, unbroken, to this day.

In 1986, Red Wing Shoes acquired S.B. Foot Tanning Company, continuing the tradition of quality-first, Red Wing family-owned business. The tannery remains in operation today, providing much of the leather for Red Wing footwear, using updated techniques originally developed by Silas and E.H Foot. Today, Red Wing footwear is still handmade on the banks of the Mississippi in the city where Charles Beckman first started it all. The company has grown along with the city, today employing over 1000 people. For many of Red Wing’s employees, footwear is a family affair. Stretching all the way back to the early years of the company, generations of family members have worked to build shoes, and in the process, build the legacy of the company that has called Red Wing home for 112 years and counting.

Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc. Corporate Archives

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