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.
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.
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.
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.