Daryl Mark walks like a man who’s been on the job for 44 years. His tall frame and groomed gray mustache present commanding air as he garners a friendly hello from just about every assemblyman along the line.
As Quality Manager at S.B. Foot Tanning Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota, he oversees thousands of cowhides that enter the factory as bare carcasses and leave as precision-tailored slabs of lustrous leather destined for any number of applications around the world. Most notably, much of what’s produced here will move right down the road to the Red Wing Shoes factory.
He was our tour guide for this special look into the leather making process at a tannery that’s been in continuous operation since 1872.
At first, the smell of the process is overwhelming.
A variety of chemicals fill the air, immediately surrounding the plant and masking the undeniable beauty and pride of the operation inside. These chemicals and dyes (and their contingent smells) are essential to creating some of the best leather in the country. A rainbow of browns, tans and reds are the end product of a process that has no less than six steps and dozens of man-hours per hide.
While modern Italian machinery has helped speed up the drying and maturing process to meet global demand, the process is largely unchanged from Silas Boot’s initial run more than 120 years ago.
The leather is finished at a second facility down the road where it receives final drying and polish and is then divided into rolls based on where it’s headed.
The pride in assembly and attention to detail continues at Red Wing Shoes Plant 2, just a quick ride down State Route 61. This is where all of its shoes are made, including the Heritage line, which we were there to see in detail.
This newer line pays homage to some of the company’s older footwear lines with updated profiles that are putting Red Wing back in the country’s trendiest boutiques.
The operation is deceivingly large. One lobby door acts as the gatekeeper between the outside world and some of the most impressive manufacturing anywhere in the country.
Red Wing’s vast floor is organized much like an automotive assembly line. The familiar rainbow of leathers is a dead giveaway to the starting point for all of the brand’s models.
Each model – work shoes, Pecos (cowboy boots), Heritage, hunting boots – goes through much of the same process helmed by workers who have been perfecting their craft for decades. (A fabric cutter recently hung up her scissors after 48 years on the job.)
Once material has been measured and cut, the frame gets sewn around a “last,” which is a plastic model of the particular shoe that the heel and other essential parts are fixed around. Once the shoe takes shape, it’s removed from the last and enters a carousel where the outside sole is installed and the remaining stitches are placed.
The final product is a pristine piece of footwear that’s meant to last generations. For all of the stories about pairs of Red Wings that have been through hell and back, they do eventually need more TLC than the owner can provide.
When that times comes, the shoes are sent to the Repair Shop: a small back corner of the factory that re-crafts more than 40,000 pairs annually. A team of five master shoe artisans take apart and put back together decades of leather ranging from simple crack fixes to full sole replacements.
It seemed especially pertinent to take this tour only a few weeks out from the day where we celebrate our independence and everything that makes America America. Red Wing Shoes is a collective of more than 300 (many union) who take immense pride in crafting a generational product.
Even though our country is divided as ever, we should take solace in and protect traditions like Red Wing Shoes. American manufacturing is a dying art, but it’s one of this nation’s cornerstone foundations and something that people on both sides of the aisle can agree on.
Perhaps that’s all we need: A reminder to look within every now and then.