Faces of Red Wing – Hai Truong

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Hai Truong of Ngon Vietnamese Bistro

Hai Truong: Chef and co-owner of Ngon Vietnamese Bistro 

Hai Truong is an autodidact, having taught himself how to swap out a clutch, sew a leather seat for his Moto Guzzi, cook a mean duck ph, or brew his own beer.

Truong is the son of immigrants and grew up in and around his familys Vietnamese eatery on St. Pauls University Avenue. Though he had a promising career in finance after college, the pull of the family business inspired a life change, and about ten years ago he reclaimed the restaurant where he grew up, put his DIY skills to work and created Ngon Bistro.

The cafe specializes in French-Vietnamese cuisine and offers craft cocktails from a space that Truong resurrected from its past. The menu is filled with familiar Vietnamese specialties like ph and bún but with influences from Vietnams French colonial era, and produce and proteins bought from local farms.

Local sourcing also extends to Truongs choice of footwear. I sort of discovered Red Wing boots around the same time I started looking into local ingredients and it led to an interest in American-made products.Truong wears an old pair of Engineer boots that hes had resoled a few times, and owns two pairs of vintage steel-toed Red Wings that he likes for motorcycling. I like that you can just keep resoling them instead of buying cheap disposable stuff,he says.

Boots of Choice: Engineer 2991

Red Wing Heritage Weekender | Ireland

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Ireland1Early the first morning I made my way into an adjacent pasture from where we were staying. Two horses, and one pony greeted me as they enjoyed delicious food before sunrise

Ireland2The Weekender and pony hooves.

Ireland3This one was the most curious and clearly has a good taste.

Ireland3aVibrance all around.

Ireland4You can’t visit Ireland without tasting delicious whiskey.

Ireland4aSpending much of my time in the deserts of the American Southwest, being reminded of what this much rain can do for the landscape was refreshing.

Ireland4bAnd the stout just tastes better.

Ireland5The necks on small, and newly constructed copper pot stills used for making Irish whiskey.

Ireland5aJonah Bayer kept me in stitches the entire trip.


Ireland10 Ireland9 Ireland8 Ireland7 Ireland6Weekender Chukka style no: 3321

Ireland12By chance we flew over just the Southern-most tip of greenland on our flight back the the US. A new place to explore!

Work Hard, Play Hard: Introducing the Red Wing Heritage Weekender

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Red Wing Shoe Company has such a long history of building work boots that sometimes it’s easy to forget we’ve also made footwear for after the workday ends. As far back as the 1950s, we were making shoes for the weekend, when work boots were left by the door. We’ve called this “off the clock” footwear many things over the years—the Great Outdoors Boot, Dunoon, hikers, chukkas—and now there’s a new name. Introducing the new Weekender collection from Red Wing Heritage.

Built for spring mushroom foraging, a spirited round of mini golf or a night on the town, the Weekender lets you play as hard as you work. In other words, perfect for the weekends between now and when the snow flies. It is available in two styles: a familiar chukka boot with ankle height and three rows of lacing (Style no. 3320, 3321, and 3322), and a low-cut oxford (style no. 3301, 3302, 3303). Both are available in three colors—charcoal rough & tough, copper rough & tough and hawthorne muleskinner—and feature our textured polyurethane “Hill” sole for grip and a decidedly casual aesthetic. The oxford and chukka were designed from the ground up to be lightweight, cool for the warmer months ahead, and comfortable right out of the box, with or without socks.



Just because the Weekenders are not work boots doesn’t mean they aren’t built to be rugged companions. They’re hand-made right next to all of our other Heritage boots at Plant 2 in Red Wing, Minnesota.  And the durable leather for their uppers is sourced from the S.B. Foot Tanning Company just down the road, where we’ve been getting our leather for over a century.


To keep the Weekender lightweight and easier to break in, we use a technique called “stitch-down” construction. Also known as “stitch-out”, the outer perimeter of the leather upper is turned out and then cemented and stitched to the larger profile of the midsole before it’s trimmed. By eliminating the sturdy ribbed insole we use in our Goodyear welt boots, the chukka and oxford save weight and are more flexible right out of the box. Unfinished edges, suede lacing and contrast stitching lend a look that’s perfect for a boot called the Weekender. And like all our boots, when your Weekenders start looking tired, you can send them back to Red Wing and our repair department will get them looking new again.







The Weekender is the latest in a long lineage of Red Wing footwear designed for after you punch out, and it comes just in time for summer weekends when you want a shoe that can stand up to your adventures while still keeping things dialed down. You might even be tempted to wear them to work on Monday morning.


Faces of Red Wing | Christopher Winters

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It’s cold at the shipyard in mid-February. The north wind off of Sturgeon Bay whips around the lake effect snow and subtracts a dozen degrees from the thermometer reading. Thousand-foot freighters are docked side by side as if huddled for warmth, their hulls frozen in place by 8 inches of ice. The locks and channels that connect the Great Lakes are closed for the season and these ships are in for their winter maintenance. Despite the frigid weather, the shipyard buzzes with activity—cranes removing scrap from the boat decks high above, trucks and forklifts scurrying around the limestone yard and hard-hatted workers crawling all over these iron leviathans, getting them ready for the spring fit-out which is now only a month away.


Working in the midst of all this activity is a lone photographer, Christopher Winters, who’s been documenting the work here for the past decade. Bundled in insulated coveralls, a battery-heated jacket and his Red Wing Ice Cutter boots, Winters fires his camera in frenetic bursts, darting up and down the gangways, inside the engine rooms and under the massive propellers in the dry dock. He’s no impostor here. The workers accept his presence and respect his work because he respects theirs. The Milwaukee-based Winters is one of the foremost maritime photographers and historians in the Great Lakes region, a published author of two books who drives and sails port to port, April to December from Duluth sometimes as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, camera in tow.

Read more »

Raw Ingredients – S.B. Foot Leathers

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A good chef will tell you that the best meal starts with the best ingredients. Similarly, a good boot has to start with good leather. At Red Wing, from the very beginning, that relationship between raw ingredients and craftsmanship has gone hand in hand. When Charles Beckman started Red Wing Shoe Company back in 1905, he didn’t have far to look for the best leathers with which to work. Just up the road from his factory, on Trout Brook Road, was the S.B. Foot tannery, which had been tanning hides since the 1880s. A partnership was quickly formed and S.B. Foot has been a supplier of leathers to Red Wing ever since.


So what makes S.B. Foot leathers so special? Ask any of the old timers who work there that question and you’ll see a twinkle in their eyes. Is it the hides themselves, which are of uniform thickness and free of blemishes?


Or is it the proprietary mix of tree oils, dyes and tanning agents used to give the leather its rich color and durability? Or is it the traditional wooden drums they’re tumbled in for hours?


The answer is “yes”. The fact is, from the meticulous grading process of blue tinted hides as they come in, to the precise mix of tanning solutions, to the timed tanning in the wooden drums, followed by the gradual drying and stretching and oiling, S.B. Foot leathers are a big part of what makes our Heritage boots so special. Charles Beckman recognized this early on, and Red Wing has been getting its leathers from Trout Brook Road ever since.


Faces of Red Wing | Tom Adams

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Classic Chukka 3140


We sit down with Tom Adams, the co-founder of Pitt Cue, as he gives me the low-down on his restaurant.

Starting modestly on the banks of the Thames in 2011, the guys have grown the business through their creative yet simple approach to great tasting, honest food that is crucially sourced from their own farm.


Where did it all begin with Pitt Cue?

It was formed with a bit of luck; there wasn’t a predetermined plan. I was working in a restaurant and my head chef knew someone that needed help at a new café. Jamie (the co-founder of Pitt Cue) was eating there one day and after we got chatting he said he wanted to do a food truck. I said well I can cook.

Have you always had a background in food and knew it was something you wanted to do?

I didn’t go to culinary school. I would have liked to and actually even applied at one point but in the end I just went straight into a kitchen. I took the normal route, starting on the bottom rung, washing dishes. And it just so happened that along that pathway Pitt Cue happened.


Would you say that the environment you grew up in helped to inspire your ambition in life and with Pitt Cue?

I’ve always been into cooking from a young age; we had pigs at home. Mum butchered stuff, we made bacon, we had a smoker, we had chickens. We always did it that way. It was a natural thing. My brother makes wine. It’s always been a massive part of the family. Doing it from scratch was embedded in me and that’s why now my biggest interest is the processes before the restaurant. Rather than the cooking and the dining, my biggest love is the farm and what comes before. I think that’s what my family is, we’re all farmers. My brothers not a sommelier, he’s a wine maker. And as I grow older I think that’s where my position lies, not the chef, I want to be the farmer. I want to complete the connection between farm and restaurant.

How important is it for you to be fully immersed in the whole process?

Not only is it super important as it’s the only way you have absolute 100% knowledge of what’s coming to the kitchen, you know its good and you trust it; but for me it’s the achievement and the excitement of that goal. The most satisfying thing is knowing that you’ve been involved in every step of the process. You’re not just the finisher, the executer; you’re responsible for everything and I think that’s a nice thing.


You clearly have an appreciation for your pigs and a careful consideration and use for every part of the animal. Is this vital for you?

Absolutely. For the same reason I’m obsessed with using the hairs from the pigs for the flies that I fish with. It’s the same principle, no ones going to know about it, but as long as it happened that fulfills something in me. We don’t put on the menu that everything is from our pigs but we don’t have to if it satisfies us then that is fine. We use our own animals to not only guarantee quality but for our own satisfaction. A good restaurant will be using someone that they themselves would source. It is super important because a well-kept animal and a happy animal is gonna taste better. The chef wants their product to be better but also the knowledge that they’re doing the right thing.


What inspires your menu?

There is no plan, it’s a case of what we can get in. It’s all about getting by with the size of the restaurant and the kitchen. Creating a menu that’s small enough to justify having a restaurant, but not too big so that life is manageable. Everything is super tight and concise, cooked to order. We don’t have much, we can’t have much. It’s a thrift restaurant!

How important is having a strong and local network for the Pitt Cue?

Now we’ve got it up and running it all about the relationships with the people involved. Our farmer Charlie I would consider one of my best friends. The butchers I would consider them great friends as well. Its not just a case of necessity, it’s become a way of life rather than a part of an order sheet. It’s ingrained in me now. If you took away Cornwall or the farm, I would be out. I don’t get enough satisfaction out of just cooking in London and that’s why I spend three days a week in Cornwall, I have to be down on the farm to get a sense of fulfillment, working with the animals and immersing myself in that environment.

What is the idea and inspiration behind your branding and logo?

A lot of it has been organic, its grown and happened. The artwork and logo is all from a friend who’s an artist. I’m lucky to have a network of people around me who enjoy good things; they’re lead by product, not financial gain. It’s the same with Charlie the farmer, the butchers, you guys (Red Wing Heritage), its nice to be things with like-minded people and do it well. They might not necessarily be interested in food but there’s a similar aesthetic behind it.

I have no reason to own three pairs of boots, but there’s a joy about wearing something that’s been made by someone who cares. We don’t have to make all our own bacon, but there’s a joy about doing it right. The customer might not know, it probably loses us lots of money but if its righteous then its worth pursuing.



Is it important in business to be original and to carve your own path?

I think you’ve got to stick to your guns with business. Don’t be different tot try and be different, if you’re doing something and it feels right, you gotta do it. You shouldn’t follow any plans. If you’ve got a passion and something gives you that gut feeling; that’s what you have to pursue. Pig farming has been done before, restaurants have had their own animals before; but if it just feels right to you, you’ve gotta do it. My brother has started making the wine for the restaurant, and of course restaurants have made their own wine before, but if you can enjoy the project and get something out of it then that’s the most important thing.


Do you still feel excited and ambitious for the future?

I am. We need to kick on. Our current site is too small. I would like to focus on the farm and get that even more solid. We need to do something new for sure; it’s just a case of when it feels right and when I’ve got the energy. For now I want to spend more time on the farm working on new sausage recipes.

Update on Pitt Cue Co. New site at 1 THE AVENUE, DEVONSHIRE SQUARE, LONDON, EC2M 4PYP opens this February.

Do you prefer Winter or Summer?

That’s a tough one. You can’t beat sitting by a pub fire in Winter but Summer in Cornwall is something else. I’d go for Spring if anything. The countryside is full of energy as its all about to kick off and everything is started to bud.

Describe Red Wing boots in 3 words:

That’s tough, I don’t think 3 words could do them justice: Changed. My. Life. But I really think they have, before this I was wearing a rough boots on the farm and having to change when I came back into town. But now I have one boot for everything.

Faces of Red Wing | Cody Wellema

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Walking into Wellema Hat Co. in downtown Santa Barbara, California is like going back in time. Part speakeasy, part old-world workshop, the feeling of the place couldn’t be any further from the palm trees, beaches and Spanish Colonial style that surrounds it. Pre-war blues plays quietly from a record player in the corner and there at the work bench is owner and hat maker Cody Wellema, deliberately crafting another custom hat in the traditional style. Beautiful hats in striking color combinations hang from the walls and it’s hard to believe they were made by someone who is almost completely self taught. But Cody is a throwback in every sense of the word and as you get to know him you begin to understand how passionate he is about hats.


How did you get your start?

My interest in hatmaking developed out of wanting to work with my hands and really loving what hats symbolized, kind of a bygone era. And I really wanted to put those two together, so I really researched how hats were made at the turn of the century, the early 1900s and mid-twentieth century and just got started.

Did you have an mentors along the way, or are you completely self taught?

I’m not completely self taught, but pretty close.There were a couple guys along the way that helped me out, that have been at it for 20, 30, 40 years, that gave me a few tips here and there. I found that a lot of people that I reached out to when I was first researching and trying to figure this out– they were shut off about it, and did not want to tell me anything. It was kind of a “super secret society”, I don’t know what it was… but I understand where they were coming from now.They put so much effort into learning it themselves, it was kind of like their baby. They were worried about who they were giving the information to. Is this just some kid off the street or someone who is really passionate about it? So once I earned some respect I did get helped out. Specifically, my friend Linda Kerr who I met as a seamstress working for some master hatmakers in New Mexico. She taught me everything I know about sewing–period. Specifically when it comes to sewing by hand for hats, the sweatbands, the liners, the trim, all that fun stuff. She has a lot of knowledge and we found each other at the right time and we have a great relationship.


Who were your role models when you were younger?

My parents in ways, growing up in split houses and how they raised us in their own ways. My grandparents and even more so my great grandfather. I don’t remember much about him, but I do remember going to his house, and just the real genuine gentleman quality of him, a family man, someone that was always happy, just talking and telling stories about the wars. It was always comfortable there. There was something that was different, that really stood out to me, and still does from what I remember of him.

Do you think of yourself as a “process” or “results” oriented person?

This might be a cheesy answer, but a little of both. I absolutely love the process of things, working through it, learning what I’m doing… but I also love to see the end result. For example with my hats– I love making them, but then seeing the reaction and the person being so satisfied and happy with the final product. It’s finally on their head, and was made specifically for them.


You make hats start to finish, how important is doing every step?

It’s vital, it’s everything that I stand for with my hats. From sourcing materials, to talking to the customer, I want to make sure that each and every part of the process is cared for. Through the most intricate details of the hat making process–with my hands being on it and my eyes being on it– I am making sure it gets done properly and to the highest quality.



What does the word quality mean to you?

Quality, to me, means something that really withstands the test of time. Something that can not only be worn as a fashion or leisure item, but something that can be worn in the elements, traveling, through different seasons: snow, wind, rain or shine– that it can hold up to all that. And the quality of an object like that can have stories to tell. You can have a wallet, or a shirt that somebody made, or a pair of boots, or a hat and you can tell you grandkids about the time you traveled the world with that item, or the time you got caught in a snowstorm in a particular jacket was made for you– and it becomes very sentimental. So I believe the quality of those items have the ability to eventually tell stories, and that’s important to me.


Can you talk about sourcing and working with quality materials?

Sourcing to me is very important. I do my very best to get 100% of my materials here in the States, because I know that  they’re the best quality and they’ve been cared for. When I work with these people, I try to go through mom-and-pop shops. I work very personally with them and make sure I’m getting the right material for the right person. The materials that I use come from some of the only fur felt factories in America, and the world, for that matter. Fur felt is something you don’t see much anymore. You see a lot of wool in hats, a lot of random materials– but fur felts are how hats used to be made, and in my opinion, should be made, because fur felts, depending on the type of fur, can withstand the elements. Pure beaver is the finest quality a hat can be made from. Rain, snow– it can hold up. It’s not a replacement for an umbrella, but it can definitely stand up. As far as ribbons and trims– vintage trims from the early nineteen hundreds, from the teens– a lot of my stuff is from the 30’s through the 50’s. They just don’t make quality ribbon like they did back then. The blends of the cotton and rayon, or just rayon, you just can’t find it anymore in a modern shop. Although I did find one mill that is fantastic and I do use them now to get some modern ribbon. But when I can, I try to source vintage ribbon because the quality was so much higher back then.

When you look at old photos— you see a lot more people in hats. Why do you think that is?

There are two reasons that I’ve seen when I’ve researched this. One is the invention of the automobile. When you’re sitting in a car and you’ve got a brim on your hat, like a fedora, it gets annoying with the headrest. So people stopped wearing hats, or that’s when people started wearing the Flat Caps, the  “Gatsby’s” or “Newsies”, because there was no brim in the back. The second thing a lot of people talk about is JFK’s Presidential Inauguration. Up until JFK, every single president wore a hat at the inauguration, but he did not. People say that he didn’t wear one at all, but he actually wore one all day, in the limo, etc. then took it off for the actual speech. So people say that JFK killed the hat, I don’t know if I believe that.

You talk about being inspired by old films and music, what is it about those art forms that inspires or informs your craft?

I think it just goes back to the previous question, when you look at old photos you see hats everywhere, ball games, cities, family photos. The music that I love to listen to, a lot these musicians came from a place of struggle and poverty, a lot of pre-war blues, even jazz in the early 20’s on the East Coast in Harlem– Fats Waller was great, Blind Boy Fuller, Ma Rainey– when you see old photos of them, or you look at the album covers, you always see hats. That type of music and the lifestyle that they came from– the hats really became symbolic of that time to me.

What inspires your personal style? Do you feel it is a reflection of your craft?

Again, and I probably sound like a broken record, the early 20th century really inspires who I am– not just with style but just in general. I feel like there was a very different way of living back then: you had to work for everything you got.  But there was a very beautiful simplistic lifestyle that they lived, and it was just kind of the norm. All the guys wore suits and hats, ladies wore dresses- and a hat as well from time to time– but there is something about those suits, and the guys working the yards with their hats, that really inspires me to always be dressed for the occasion I guess.I love dressing my own way, from early 1900’s work wear to suits–I think a hat fits it all.


If you had to wear one hat for the rest of your life what would it be?

No doubt it would be pure beaver because I know it would last me forever. It would be some sort of of fedora…2.5” brim, with a teardrop crown.

What is your favorite style hat to make?

I really enjoy being able to communicate with the customer, being able to make it specifically to their desire and their personality.  If I had to pick, I really like making a very traditional 30’s fedora, a little taller crown, decent size brim, maybe a teardrop or a three point crown. Something that would really stand out, but in a very simple way. Maybe black on black, or black with grey, something classy but that you wouldn’t see as often.


If you weren’t making hats, what do you think you’d be doing?

At this point I really don’t know. I’d want to be doing something with my hands, maybe I’d be working for Red Wing, working in their factory (laughs). Before this I was working as a pastor, so maybe I’d be doing that. Doing something I enjoy– I know that. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.

Red Wing boots in three words?

Superior Quality, Heritage (strong family-rooted heritage) and Passion. I think those guys have a passion for what they’re doing.

History of S.B. Foot Tanning Company

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The S.B. Foot Tanning Company was founded in 1872 by Silas B. Foot and George Sterling near Red Wing, Minnesota. In 1859, Foot and Sterling formed a partnership and opened the Foot-Sterling Shoe Factory, producing shoes, boots, and shoe pacs – a form of moccasin that uses deer fur with the hair intact to protect feet from harsh Minnesota winters.

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


Shoemaking created a constant demand for leather and furs, but hides weren’t always readily available. In order to have a reliable leather source, Foot and Sterling established a local tannery in 1872 called the Trout Brook Tannery. It became a wholesale leather company, supplying leather to different businesses around the United States.

Foot became the sole owner of the tannery in 1897, renaming the business S.B. Foot & Company. The tannery soon became a family affair when his son Edwin Hawley Foot started working at the tannery in 1898 and began overseeing the daily operations. As the company began to expand, the factory was in need of a large renovation or new location. Edwin convinced his father to build a new factory and in 1908, the new factory was built on Bench Street, the current location of S.B. Foot Tanning Company. Later that year, Silas passed away and Edwin became the president and owner of the company.

Silas B. Foot portrait revoir 1954. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
Silas B. Foot portrait revoir 1954. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


Due to S.B. Foot & Company’s emphasis on high quality leather, the tannery began supplying leather to local shoemaker, Charles Beckman (more info about Mr. Beckman here), in 1905. Beckman had just founded the Red Wing Shoe Company in an effort to make high quality work boots for hardworking individuals.

Sides piled high, bussing department, 1959. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
Bussing department, 1959. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


Sides on cart, finishing department 1929. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
Finishing department 1929. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


1917 delivery truck carrying packages of finished leather. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
Delivering packages of finished leather, 1917. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


S.B. Foot & Company reorganized during the winter of 1932-1933 and during that time, changed the company name to S.B. Foot Tanning Company. And in 1957, 100 years after Silas B. Foot arrived in Minnesota, Edwin passed away and the business was handed down to Silas B. Foot II. He presided over the business until 1972 when it was passed to his brother, Edwin Hawley II and finally to Silas B. Foot III.

S.B. Foot Office Door, 1954. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN
S.B. Foot Office Door, 1954. Photo courtesy of Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., Red Wing, MN


Though Red Wing Shoe Co. began purchasing leather from S.B. Foot back in 1905, in 1986 it merged two hometown multi-generational family businesses by acquiring the S.B. Foot Tanning Company. The tannery remains operational, uses updated versions of techniques that were originally developed by Silas and E.H. Foot, and still supplies 100% of the leather that is used to make the footwear that made Red Wing a household name.

This film features Red Wing Shoes subsidiary S.B. Foot Tanning Company, located in Red Wing, MN.

St. James Hotel: Corner of History and Hospitality

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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

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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.