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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the late 1800s, America was in the midst of a gold rush. Prospectors 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.
The 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 »
The Blacksmith can truly be considered the classic American work shoe. In the early 1900s, when Red Wing Shoe Company first began to service rural America, this style of shoe became vastly popular across the country. Versatile and reliable, it was used in farm fields and blacksmith workshops during the day before being cleaned and shined up for a night out on the town. It was the all-purpose shoe for many
years in many industries.
With the positive momentum around the sole used on Blacksmith no. 2955 and Iron Ranger no. 8119, we updated the complete Blacksmith range featuring the 430 Mini Lug outsole. Reintroducing as the Blacksmith no. 3340, 3341, 3342, and 3343. The Mini Lug sole has been designed to showcase a smooth and refined side profile of the Blacksmith while adding traction and durability. In addition to the sole update, all Blacksmith styles now come with the classic bronze eyelets and speed hooks.
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. 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.
No 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.
Ready to send in your boots? Find directions here.
“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
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. www.acontinuouslean.com
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.
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 »
A new pair of Red Wing boots is like a blank sheet of paper. But the longer you wear your shoes, the more this sheet becomes a chronicle of past events. Scratches, spots, and stains tell of manifold experiences and, as time moves on, a simple pair of shoes will come to tell the story of your life. At Red Wing Shoe Store Berlin, we are the proud owners of the largest vintage Red Wing collection in Europe. 300 pairs from the 1930s up to the 2000s. Aviator boots from the 30’s, hunting boots from the 50’s, gentleman’s boots from the 60’s. These boots have walked through countless countries. They have been to the tops of mountains, the shores of oceans, and the major cities in the world. Weathered and beaten, all of them have acquired a unique character, and if they could talk, each pair would have one hell of a story to tell.
Even though there is a very active trade in worn-in boots, we don’t sell any of them, but challenge our customers to start wearing in their own boot, which will have a story of its own to tell soon enough. After all, those pairs will be the most precious in the end.
I remember an Italian biker who came in one Saturday wearing his 35-year old pair of Engineer boots. The black leather had turned grey and marks on the boot hinted at numerous motorbike adventures. The outsoles were in poor condition though and he asked desperately whether we could fix them. He had had them resoled elsewhere, and the job had been done poorly. Unfortunately, that had rung in the final round in their 35 years of companionship. Feeling sorry for him, Mick offered to give his boots a place in the collection in exchange for a free pair. The biker smiled: “Even if I can’t wear my boots anymore, there’s too many memories tied to them. One can’t leave such a thing behind…”
Our most special pieces are probably the ‘Skytrooper’ Jump Boots. These myth-enshrouded, very rare shoes were produced by Red Wing Shoe Company from the early 40’s to 50’s and served as footgear for American Paratroopers during WWII. Soldiers wearing these boots were dropped from the sky and had to work their way through any kind of terrain or situation. It is impossible to track single story lines some 70 years later, but it is safe to say that both, wearers and shoes, went through experiences we cannot even imagine today. These pairs are no longer blank sheets, but completed books. They tell more than an individual story; these boots have become part of history.