If you’ve ever been caught in a rainstorm wearing a leather jacket, you know what happens when it dries. Chances are, it will wear a little tighter the next time you put it on. That’s because if leather dries too quickly, it can shrink and become brittle. At the S.B. Foot tannery, great care is taken to make sure that the hides are dried properly after their hours tumbling in tanning solution. The drying process is a slow and deliberate one, perhaps less glamorous than the tanning itself, but one crucial to the quality of the leathers that we use to make our boots.
Right out of the wooden drums in which they have bathed, the hides are sopping wet, stacked by hand by burly men in rubber boots and aprons to be transported to the drying room. The hides then are laid flat on the layers of a tall mechanical “sandwich”that pulls out the initial moisture without applying too much heat. From there, they are pulled through a set of large rollers that press out more moisture while stretching the leather to eliminate unwanted wrinkles as the hides dry. Finally, the hides, which still are damp to the touch, are transferred into a large heated room, where they are individually draped over hundreds of rods where they will be left to completely dry.
Of course, the leather that leaves the tannery is destined to be made into rugged boots that will no doubt get wet countless times over their hard working lives. But that’s why, after tanning and drying, the final step in the process is to treat the leather with penetrating oils that protect them from moisture.
“I grew up in a woodshop,” Dan Cordell shouts above the sound of a lathe spinning a length of white ash. A shaft of sunlight is made three-dimensional by the dust in the air and chips fly as he deftly transforms the wood into a baseball bat using only hand tools. “My Dad taught me everything I know.”
Cordell and his wife, Alex, are the co-founders, and sole employees, of Solid Manufacturing, a company that makes and sells wood furniture, leather goods and a variety of household items you never thought you’d need until you see them. Everything, from the wooden pour-over coffee stand, to the leather key fob, to the baseball bat, is made by Dan and Alex in a small workshop near a railroad yard in Minneapolis using domestic hardwoods and American made leathers.
Alex studied furniture design at Minneapolis College of Art and Design; while Dan focuses on the woodworking, she does much of the product development as well as the finishing work—sanding and hand-oiling—while managing the administrative end of the business. Watching them work together, it becomes clear that they complement each other well and play to their strengths.
The Solid Manufacturing duo started making things in Dan’s father’s woodshop just south of the city, selling their wares at pop-up events around town and through an online Web store. “We couldn’t do what we do anywhere else but Minneapolis,” Alex says while she rubs a block of wood with linseed oil. “It’s a city driven by people and community and when we launched, we were immediately embraced and it gave us the motivation and inspiration for us to keep going.”
Solid Manufacturing is one of the latest in a long legacy of Minnesota companies that make things of quality using traditional materials and techniques, a legacy that includes the Red Wing Shoe Company. This is not something lost on Alex and Dan Cordell, who were wearing Red Wing Heritage boots when we stopped by for a visit—Alex in a pair of 9111 round-toe boots and Dan in a pair of Iron Rangers. “At the end of the day, my boots are always full of wood chips,” he laughs.
So what makes Minnesota such a breeding ground for the so-called “maker” culture, where DIY becomes a society of inventors, designers and tinkerers? Is it the long winters that inspire creativity? Or perhaps the frontier history of self-sufficiency that has been passed down to its residents. For Dan Cordell, it came from spending time in his father’s woodshop and a desire to make leather bracelets for Christmas gifts. He bought some scraps of leather and thread and taught himself. “I grew up in a place where you make things, or you try,” he says.
Solid Manufacturing Co. has an eclectic portfolio of products tied together with a common thread of honest Minnesota handcraft. But if Alex and Dan have a signature product, it is a three-legged stool made from black walnut, oiled to a rich brown, with legs painted in a number of bright colors. Its simplicity and stripped down purity of purpose are its appeal, not unlike a classic baseball bat, or a pair of Red Wing Heritage boots. In a word—solid.
In the early twentieth century, Red Wing, Minnesota had only a few dirt roads. In the winter, or after a good rain, those streets would get muddy, making a good pair of boots a necessity. But our founder, Charles Beckman, a respectable businessman, wanted a pair he could brush off and wear right into his shoe store on Main Street. So that’s what his Red Wing Shoe Company made—sturdy, versatile footwear that could take some abuse and still look good. And that’s the kind of shoes and boots we’ve been making ever since.
The Beckman name has always been reserved for Red Wing’s most refined footwear, and we’ve added two new styles that add to that legacy. Built around our number 210 last, the latest Beckman chukka and oxford have a more refined shape. We’ve used premium Featherstone (Smooth Finished) leather for a rich, classic look and added stitching details that make them more durable while adding to their elegance. The new Beckmans are built using Goodyear welt construction for maximum durability and underneath, our lugged Roccia sole gives traction so the shoes can go from muddy streets right into the office. Charles Beckman would no doubt approve.
In 1954, Red Wing introduced a humble shoe that would go on to cover more miles than any other we’ve made. Called simply the No. 101, it would come to be known as the Postman, thanks to the legions of mailmen who wore them on their rounds. We’ve never stopped making this popular shoe so it’s no surprise that the Postman is one of the company’s best sellers. The same nonslip sole and one-piece quarter that were added in 1960 still make the shoe as comfortable and durable today as it was pounding the pavement over 50 years ago.
This year, Red Wing introduces two new colors to the Postman collection, our rugged Copper Rough and Tough (No. 3107) and a stylish Navy Abilene (No. 3108). These comfortable and versatile shoes feature our white Atlas Tred sole for excellent grip, Goodyear welt construction, and low maintenance, durable leathers from the S.B. Foot tannery. They’re built right next to the original Postman shoes at our factory in Red Wing, Minnesota. And of course if your uniform, or your taste, demands it, the original style No. 101 is still available in shiny Black Chaparral, ready to put on the miles.
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 phở, or brew his own beer.
Truong is the son of immigrants and grew up in and around his family’s Vietnamese eatery on St. Paul’s 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 phở and bún but with influences from Vietnam’s French colonial era, and produce and proteins bought from local farms.
Local sourcing also extends to Truong’s 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 he’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!