Inside the historic St. James Hotel—established on the main drag of Red Wing, Minnesota in 1875—sits a room lined with humble displays that pay tribute to what the city was built upon. 

One display highlights the area’s fertile lands, which provided abundant resources for the Silvernale, Oneota, and Dakota indigenous tribes for many generations. European explorers and settlers called the Native American community along the Mississippi River “Red Wing’s Village,” named after the chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota band who first settled there.

Another highlight is the discovery of glacially deposited clay beds in Red Wing which led to a boom in pottery making, with millions of stoneware pieces being shipped out of the city at the industry’s peak. Red Wing also has strong tradition of supporting the arts, thanks to institutions like the majestic Sheldon Theatre.

red wing stained glass window

Then there’s the shoe factory and tannery: Red Wing Shoe Company (or simply “The Shoe,” as it’s called around town), and S.B. Foot Tanning Company, founded in 1905 and 1872, respectively. The two companies have long had a close relationship; in fact, Charles Beckman, the founder of Red Wing Shoes, learned the shoemaking trade from Silas Buck Foot himself. That close relationship between The Shoe and the tannery only became closer when Red Wing Shoes acquired S.B. Foot in 1986.

There are precious few places like this left in the United States: a city home to both a world-class boot manufacturer, and a tannery that sustains it. And I recently had the rare honor and privilege to tour the facilities of both companies. 

S.B. Foot Tanning

Since 1908, the S.B. Foot tannery has been situated along Bench Street in the southern part of Red Wing. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the tannery’s age, it still manages to hold some secrets within its walls. Just a few weeks before our visit, a locked and disused room was discovered in the tannery that contained several old documents, including a ledger dated from 1858, written by Silas B. Foot himself.

S.B. Foot is actually divided up into two separate facilities about a mile apart: the “lower” tannery is where each hide arrives to begin its journey towards becoming leather, while the “upper” tannery up the road applies the final coloring and finishing to the leathers before they are shipped out.

sb foot

My companions and I arrived at S.B. Foot’s lower tannery bright and early on a Monday morning, where we were met by our tour guide, Mike Larson, the global product design and development manager for Red Wing Shoes. He ushered us into the tannery’s unassuming front office, which apparently was last updated sometime in the 1960s, an unmistakable vintage given away by the wood paneling and “spaghetti” acoustic ceiling tiles. After donning our personal protective equipment, we stepped out onto the production floor.

S.B. Foot sources steerhides that mostly come from within a 600-mile radius of Red Wing. But when the hides arrive at the tannery, they’re already in the form of “wet blues”—an early, basic stage of chrome-tanned leather that has been left wet (and blue, due to the use of chromium salts) to keep it fresh. This preparation is done by Twin City Tanning up in South Saint Paul, which does the messy work of dehairing and preserving the hides, thereby turning them into the canvas that will eventually become one of S.B. Foot’s many leather products.

sb foot wet blues

First things first, though—each piece of soon-to-be S.B. Foot leather has to be graded for its thickness and quality. The sorters go through each piece with a thickness gauge to determine the average depth of the hide. One of the sorters, Jeff, explained to us that they look at the whole hide for scars, cuts, and other imperfections, and then grade the leather (from A down to E) before throwing the hide in a corresponding pile. A-graded leathers—those with minimal imperfections and excellent grain character that will look great in an aniline/un-pigmented state—are typically destined for the Red Wing Heritage line.

sb foot gauging wet blues

After a visit to S.B. Foot’s Mosconni leather shaving machine—used to even out the thickness of each hide—these pieces are thrown into one of the oak drums in the color mill area. It’s one of the loudest environments in the tannery, and certainly the wettest. The hides will spend less than a day in these drums, often between 14 to 20 hours. The drums offer a wide latitude of utility; not only are they essential for applying a base color to the leather, but they can also be utilized for impregnating the leather with fat liquors, and even vegetable re-tanning. The people in this part of the tannery are probably some of S.B. Foot’s strongest workers—they face the unenviable task of pulling each sopping-wet piece of leather out of the drums’ liquor, wringing them out, and throwing them onto a pallet to dry for a bit.

sb foot color drums

sb foot wet hides

A more thorough drying process follows, and watching it makes one think of a gigantic dry-cleaning operation. A vacuum dryer with enormous steel plates is used to compress and heat up the leather, reducing the leather’s moisture content to around 25 percent. The last leg of drying, called “sticking,” is more rudimentary: each piece of leather is hung up on what is basically an enormous coat hanger on a massive carousel that moves through multiple rooms of the lower tannery.

sb foot vacuum dryer

sb foot sticking

Before the crust, or unfinished, leather leaves the lower tannery, some finer details have to be massaged out, somewhat literally. Many of these sides of leather will go through a staking machine, which works the leather to soften it and help the oils to migrate throughout the flesh, making it more pliable. For the work leathers, more oil is applied to the surface of each side through the use of a curtain coater, which drapes the leather in a fish-based oil to promote resistance to acids in harsh work conditions. Some of the leather may also get sanded and buffed by a large set of rollers that has one of the most gigantic belts of sandpaper that I have ever seen—probably around half the square footage of an average studio apartment.

sb foot curtain coater

sb foot curtain coater

We then made our way up the road to the upper tannery, where each piece of crust leather turns into a finished product. In the lower tannery, most of the sides we saw were strictly shades of black and brown, with a matte appearance; in the upper tannery’s warehouse, there’s a whole rainbow of leathers, with a multitude of different lusters and grain textures. The vast bulk of these leathers will go on to become Red Wing boots, but some of them will be made into other leather goods, distributed to independent leather dealers, or used for military contracts.

sb foot warehouse

The largest pieces of equipment in the upper tannery are the spray booths, where dyes are applied to the surface of the leathers. The spray booths’ conveyor belts stretch about half the length of a football field, and feature multiple chambers with carousels of spray nozzles that apply several coats of dye. 

sb foot spray booths

There are two lines of spray booths that sit parallel to each other, and they are an obvious example of how some of S.B. Foot’s older equipment is being gradually superseded by much newer machinery. On one side, you’ve got the tannery’s old workhorse spray booths, still chugging along, their industrial-grey metal panels splattered by decades of dye and machine oil. Next to that, there’s a sleek new set of spray booths from Spraytech, which feature nozzles with electronic eyes that can “see” the edges of the leathers, enabling a uniform application of dye on each piece.

sb foot old spray booth

sb foot spray booth carousel

After dyeing, some of the leather travels through a roll press that will emboss the grain with a distinct pattern and texture. Otherwise, it’s time for final inspection—each piece of leather is evaluated against a standard to ensure that it’s within spec for color, thickness, temper, and overall appearance.

sb foot embossed leather

sb foot finished leather

S.B. Foot produces roughly 12 million square feet of leather each year. It’s almost hard to believe that output when you consider just how repetitive and punishing tannery work can be. It requires the lifting and moving of dozens, if not hundreds of entire sides of leather each day, along with meticulous inspection of the product each step of the way. Most of the people we saw there worked with quiet focus and determination, and the ones we spoke with seemed to take enormous pride in what they were helping to create.

sb foot staking machine

Before moving on from the tannery, we briefly stopped in to take a look at the leather and shoe testing lab. The lab houses a variety of different machines and instruments—some from modern times, others that seem to date back to the mid-20th century—that are used to poke, prod, push, pull, and punish leather samples in a myriad of ways. Tests are done to evaluate just about anything you can imagine, including abrasion resistance, tensile strength, waterproofing, hardware corrosion resistance, even lace strength. On a table, we also saw a number of new and used shoes and boots laid out—most of them from Red Wing Shoes, along with some competing brands. Many of these pairs had been returned to the lab from field-testing stints, which last anywhere from one to six months, and take place in a variety of different conditions.

sb foot leather testing

With the tannery in the rearview, it was time to make a short drive across town to visit the temple of The Shoe—Red Wing’s renowned shoe factory.

Red Wing Shoes Burnside Plant

The Burnside Plant is a whopping 120,000-square-foot facility located a few miles west of downtown Red Wing, just off of US Highway 61. (Many people may not know that Red Wing Shoes is not the only footwear manufacturer in town—right across the street from Burnside, Riedell has been making ice skates and roller skates since 1945.) Burnside is sometimes referred to as Plant 2; Plant 1 was Red Wing’s original shoe factory, located downtown at the corner of Main and Potter. Burnside employs about 240 people who work in two shifts to produce about 25,000 pairs of footwear a week. The bulk of Red Wing’s Heritage line is made here, as are many of its work and safety products.

red wing shoes burnside

red wing shoes burnside interior

photo by Josh Bornstein

It’s difficult to get a sense of S.B. Foot’s scale without wandering through all of its many different rooms in its two separate facilities. In contrast, when you walk into the Burnside Plant, you immediately see how staggeringly large the whole operation is. Most of the building is one enormous room with numerous different stations and equipment sprawled throughout. The production floor is largely organized by “cells” of teams that focus on particular areas of the shoemaking process, such as skiving panels or zigzag-stitching the uppers closed. Within these cells, the workers rotate through different individual tasks to prevent monotony and fatigue. Without Mike being there to guide us, we almost certainly would have gotten lost wandering through the production floor.

red wing shoes strap cutters

red wing shoes mike larson

We had to walk quite a ways into the plant to get to where everything begins: the clicking department. We saw a few of the old-fashioned clicker presses sitting to the side, which still see some use, mainly for cutting insoles. Nowadays, Red Wing mostly relies on computer-aided clicking machines from Italian company Comelz for cutting the uppers, and they’re something of a technological marvel to behold. 

red wing shoes clicker press

red wing shoes clicking digitizer

At a digitizer station, an operator puts a piece of leather under a hood and uses a laser pen to mark where any scars or other defects are. She also uses this pen to grade different areas of the leather to dictate where specific pieces—quarter panels, tongues, vamps, and so on—should be cut from. The leather is then brought over to a semi-automated cutting machine that has robotic arms with knives. This machine takes the clicking info from the digitizer, and then after measuring that data against the pattern of the boots being made, cuts each piece, humming like a swarm of bees as it slices through the leather. This machine cuts each panel in the most efficient way possible, leaving behind very little waste. Extremely cutting-edge stuff (pun absolutely intended).

red wing shoes clicking machine

Batches of these upper pieces get bundled together as they make their way to be skived, and then closed: sewn together to create a complete pattern. Some of this closing happens with more modern sewing machines from companies like Brother, but Red Wing’s renowned squadron of over-a-century-old Puritan stitchers still get used for the double- and triple-row accent stitching on some of their footwear. The Puritan machines house hoppers full of hot wax that drips onto the threads as they get chain-stitched through the leather, making the stitches durable yet flexible. The sewing operators are skilled at using the Puritans and other sewing machines to the point where it seems like they could do it all while watching a Vikings game. Some operators even had multiple sets of uppers lined up to close several boots in quick succession.

red wing shoes uppers bundles

red wing shoes puritan sewing machine

photo by Josh Bornstein

red wing shoes zigzag stitcher

From there we walked over to check out Red Wing’s massive library of shoe lasts, the forms around which a leather upper is wrapped, or “lasted,” to create the size and shape of any piece of footwear. Mike explained that many of the lasts had been in service for decades. To demonstrate, he pulled a random last out of one of the bins—an inscription said it had been made in 1989. It looked like it was still capable of handling many, many more years of factory work.

red wing shoes lasts

The last leg of the whole process—lasting, bottoming (aka attaching the outsoles), and finishing—mostly revolves around a conveyor belt that snakes its way through a medley of different stations and machines. Again, some variety is sprinkled in here to help break up monotony for Red Wing employees. Scattered along the conveyor belt, we saw what would eventually become Blacksmith lace-up boots in Copper Rough & Tough, Nailseat Pecos roper boots in Brown Boomer, and even some Beckman Flatbox boots in Black Klondike. (Yes, they’re still being made! Just not for the American market, sadly.)

red wing shoes conveyor belt

After a device resembling a deep fryer is used to quickly steam the uppers, the boots are fitted onto a shoe last. The vamps of each boot get firmly smooshed around the last in a press to ensure the uppers are snug against the last before the boots are actually lasted. The lasting machine uses mechanical fingers to pull the uppers around the last, and is calibrated for each boot’s particular last, size, and leather to ensure the proper amount of tension. 

red wing shoes pre-lasting

Once the leather welt strip is attached to the gemming (a canvas rib that’s glued to the bottom of the footwear’s insole, to which the welt is connected) and the underfoot support-providing shank is glued on, it’s cork-filling time! We saw one of the operators apply a gluey glob of cork to some insoles and use a hot iron to spread it out. It was a bit like watching someone make a peanut butter sandwich, but much less appetizing.

red wing shoes welt and gemming

red wing shoes cork filler

The cork is left to dry for a bit before the sole layers are glued, nailed, and then finally stitched on. We saw the burly old Jupiter sole stitcher chug its way around the boots’ soles, producing wisps of steam from its heating elements.

red wing shoes outsole stitching

red wing shoes half soles

After the heels get attached and the edges get sanded down and finished, one major step remains: final inspection. We were able to chat for a moment with Hillary, who was working in the quality check station that morning. She uses her eyes to look for obvious imperfections (leftover glue, weird creases, loose threads) while feeling around inside the boots for any other issues (such as protruding nails). Simultaneously, she puts the boots under a heat gun to even out the luster on the leather and relax any creases. If the boots are good to go, she’ll get them boxed up.

red wing shoes inspection

red wing shoes boxes

Hillary explained that she is not the ultimate judge of whether or not a flawed boot will pass inspection. Instead, she flags any pairs that have potential issues, and they’re set aside for a quality control manager to make a final deliberation. If a boot does not pass inspection, it’s not necessarily destined to be labeled a factory second or get thrown away. Mike pointed out a work bench where some flawed boots get taken apart and fixed right up. Some of the boots that visit this bench still have the chance to be designated as first-quality boots.

red wing shoes waiting for inspection

Many of the boots that leave through Burnside’s doors may return someday to be resoled or otherwise repaired. While some of Red Wing’s independent dealers will send customers’ boots to local cobbler shops, many of them are sent back to the Burnside mothership. Red Wing’s repair department is tucked into one of the corners of the plant’s sprawling production floor, and as we walked up to it, my jaw dropped: a mountain of cardboard boxes, each filled to the brim with boots, waiting to have new life breathed into them. I somehow resisted the urge to dive into the boxes to see what kinds of unique old pairs were waiting to be fixed. Mike picked up a pair of well-loved Pecos that were sitting on a nearby countertop; their production stamp indicated they were originally made in 2000, and they’d just been refreshed with a new set of wedge soles.

red wing shoes boots waiting for repair

red wing shoes repaired pecos

The repair department is staffed by about a dozen cobblers. Some of these repair specialists are seasoned veterans of cobbling from outside of Red Wing Shoes, while others come from different departments of the factory. In spite of the honestly intimidating pile of boots waiting to be fixed, Mike told me that their turnaround times for repairs are still only around four weeks.

red wing shoes repair department

red wing shoes repair tickets

With how the repair department is set up, it’s no wonder it’s so efficient. It’s like someone mashed together six or seven cobbler shops into one super-sized entity. Each cobbler has their own workbench, along with multiple finishing machines decked out with a full complement of brushes and belt sanders. Naturally, the cobblers also have access to Red Wing’s last library, so any boots that are particularly misshapen can be fully restored on their original lasts.

red wing shoes cobbler sanding

red wing shoes repair lasts

red wing shoes cobbler hammering

I could tell that the people we spoke to at Burnside were a bit tired—shoemaking of any kind is not easy work—but nonetheless quite happy to be there. There exists an unmistakable sense throughout The Shoe that this factory is deeply important to the people of the Red Wing community, and like their counterparts at S.B. Foot, the shoemakers at Burnside rightly seem remarkably proud of their work.

red wing shoes burnside banner

photo by Josh Bornstein

As a Minnesotan, I take great pride in hailing from the same state as Red Wing, and my first high-quality footwear was a pair of the classic 875 moc toe boots. It felt a bit like coming full-circle in my personal shoe obsession, and the visit reaffirmed my feelings of respect and admiration for Red Wing Shoes and the people who make their footwear. 

red wing minnesota

Downtown Red Wing and the St. James Hotel (center). Source

Those displays in the St. James Hotel offer a fitting tribute to the history of S.B. Foot Tanning and Red Wing Shoes, on display for all to see. Given the forces of globalization and more affordable offshore production that have ravaged the American footwear manufacturing industry over the last four to five decades, it would shock no one if the hotel exhibit—and memories of former workers, and the city’s name itself—would make for fantastic nostalgia, but nothing more. 

The tannery and factories are special places to be sure, and worth marveling at. But it’s Red Wing’s ongoing commitment to continuing operations inside those walls that makes one of the great American footwear brands exactly that.

All photos by Grayson Hary unless otherwise noted.  

sb foot leather stacks

sb foot hanging leather

red wing shoes eyelet setter red wing shoes stitching heel counters red wing shoes puritan stitcher in operation

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