On the road again: Red Wing Museum
With apologies to Ed Sullivan and every comedian who tried to imitate him, “We have a really big shoe …”
Well, boot, actually. But it is really big.
The size 638 1/2 D model 877 work boot was crafted in 2005 to celebrate the centennial of the Red Wing Shoe Company in Red Wing, Minn. It was constructed exactly, and from the same materials, as the more than 1 million pairs of boots Red Wing produces every year.
The boot, which towers in the lobby of the original Red Wing production facility at 315 Main St., Red Wing, Minn., now also a museum, required a staggering inventory of materials, time and labor:
- The boot stands 16 feet tall, 20 feet long and 7 feet wide. It tips the scale at 2,300 pounds.
- A person fitting the boot would stand 120 feet tall. Red Wing’s boast is “Too big for the Statue of Liberty to wear.”
- The lace is 2 1/4 inches thick and 104 feet long.
- The sole, bendable just like a real sole, is 20 inches thick at the heel and 11 inches at the toe.
- The boot is made from 80 leather hides, 245 cubic feet of urethane foam, 80 pounds of brass for the eyelets, 300 pounds of adhesive, 140 gallons of urethane and 1,200 feet of nylon rope for stitching.
- Design, engineering and fabrication took 4,000 hours over a 13-month period, the equivalent of 70-plus-hour workweeks.
- More than 60 individuals, mostly employees and retirees, volunteered their time to construct the boot. They were joined in their efforts by 15 outside companies.
- To complete the stitching, a worker was lowered into the boot by pulley.
- The gusset label was sewn in Italy.
The boot is taken from the lobby from time to time to make appearances at parades and special events. Otherwise, it serves to greet visitors ascending the adjacent staircase to the Red Wing Shoe Museum on the second floor, which showcases the history of the brand, how the shoes and boots are manufactured and a Wall of Honor displaying pairs of footwear and the names and locations of the real working people who wore them.
The museum also houses an original gallery of Norman Rockwell’s art, including Red Wing ads from the 1960s. Patrons can test their balance and mettle walking on a steel skyscraper beam.
Red Wing’s founder, Charles Beckman, believed in “America’s great promise: If one worked hard enough, one could achieve anything.”
Like many success stories, Beckman merely saw a need and worked hard to fulfill it. When he was a shoe merchant in Red Wing, he became frustrated he couldn’t find high-quality boots that met his standards. So he decided to make his own.
He and some partners pooled their resources and talents and founded the Red Wing Shoe Company in 1905, producing 110 pairs of work boots a day. Their reputation for quality quickly spread and the business developed a solid foundation for the expansion which was to come over the following decades.
From that beginning, the trajectory of the company has been a result of Red Wing’s commitment to quality, unwavering work ethic and a consistent business acumen to detect trends in industry and consumer needs in countries throughout the world.
Through World War II, the company focused almost exclusively on manufacturing and distribution to retail outlets. In 1949, Bill Sweasy took over Red Wing Shoes from his father, J.R., and immediately recognized the business had to adapt to the changing postwar economy.
As he expressed in a 1985 interview, “Here’s the whole population of the country moving out of rural areas, which was our traditional market, and into metro areas. There weren’t any independent shoe stores to speak of in metro areas, and very few of them ever wanted to invest in the widths we thought were appropriate to our price range and the fitting expertise.”
In August 1953, Sweasy traveled to Salt Lake City, where the company had just opened a warehouse to accommodate sales in the West. He met employee Harold Packwood, who pitched a revolutionary new retail idea: developing a retail chain that would sell only Red Wing shoes. At that time, shoe stores carried up to 12 brands of footwear.
Later that year, the company opened its first shoe store in Salt Lake City, featuring all sizes and widths of footwear and offering custom fitting.
Sweasy had also acknowledged the importance of the oil and gas industry and produced the popular “Oil King” and “Driller” boot styles. He heard oil was discovered in North Africa and traveled to Libya to scout the market and started shipping directly to that nation in 1961.
Next came his foray into the Middle East oil worker market, beginning by establishing a commercial presence in Beirut. Eventually, Red Wing became a single purchasing source for oil and gas workers throughout the world.
Sweasy, an avid outdoorsman, also developed a mountaineering footwear brand after traveling to the Tyrol region of Austria to consult with experts.
In 1986, Red Wing acquired a tanning company to consolidate their operations and now serves as a major supplier of leather to the U.S. military.
The company now offers shoes and boots in more than 200 styles, in sizes 4 to 20, and widths A to H. The store chain consists of more than 440 retail outlets in the United States and Canada and has expanded manufacturing facilities in Red Wing and Potosi, Mo. For more information, visit redwingshoes.com, redwingshoeco.com or red-wing.org.Next Article: What’s in a name: Woodstock and Stowe, Vermont
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