sb foot tannery

Silas Buck Foot’s First Foray Into Shoe Manufacturing

In 1857, a 22-year-old inventor headed west from Pennsylvania in search of business opportunity. His name was Silas Buck Foot. Foot eventually reached Red Wing, a newly incorporated city situated in the bluffs along the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota Territory. Red Wing was the territory’s largest population center at the time, Minnesota didn’t become a U.S. state until the next year, and was a thriving boomtown. Foot knew he had found the ideal place to call home. Foot tried several different ways to earn a living in Red Wing. He settled on opening a general store, for which he eventually bought a supply of shoes and entered the footwear business.

In 1862, Foot partnered with shoemaker George Sterling to form Sterling & Company. This was Foot’s first foray into shoe manufacturing. Their offering included shoe pacs: a product that was moisture resistant and tanned with the hide hair left on for warmth. The shoe pacs became very popular among farmers and other outdoor workers around Red Wing. Demand became so high, in fact, that Foot, Sterling and three employees found it increasingly difficult to keep up with orders.

sb foot tannery

First Tannery Opens, Foot Gets Involved In Community

For Sterling & Company, one of the biggest challenges to ramping up shoe pac capacity came from the limited supply of quality cattle hides from outside tanneries. In 1872, the company opened its own leather tannery just outside Red Wing city limits. The 3,660-square-foot wooden facility was named Trout Brook Tannery for the stream it was built alongside for a water supply. A staff of 15 tanned 150 sides per week, with each side providing enough leather to produce adequate shoe pacs. The bottleneck eased and business thrived.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Foot became a permanent fixture in the community. He served as Director of the First National Bank of Red Wing and was a member of the National Shoe & Leather Association, St. Paul Jobbers Association, and Western Shoe Jobbers Association. Hard economic times in the 1890s almost forced the Trout Brook Tannery to shut down, but Foot saw a future for the facility. He bought out his partner and became sole owner in 1897, renaming the business S.B. Foot & Company. Within a year, Silas’s son, E.H. (Ed) Foot, became deeply involved in running the business alongside his father. Ed convinced Silas that if he wanted to remain competitive in shoemaking, his company would have to invest in a new tannery with more capacity and updated processes.

A Bigger, Better Tannery In Town

The S.B. Foot tannery opened in 1908 on Bench Street within Red Wing city limits. (The tannery remains at this same location today.) Just under 25,000 square feet of plant space processed 600 sides per day, four times the number Trout Brook Tannery processed in a week. That same year, Ed took over as president and owner at the passing of his father. Three additional direct descendants of Silas Buck Foot would lead the tannery in the decades to come, after Ed Foot’s tenure ended with his
passing in 1957. Those include Ed Foot’s two sons S.B. Foot II (Si) and E.H. Foot, Jr. (Hawley), along with Ed’s grandson S.B. Foot III (Buck).

At the same time, a young German immigrant named Charles Beckman formed the Red Wing Shoe Company in a building just a few miles away from the S.B. Foot tannery. Beckman learned the shoemaking business from Silas Buck Foot himself, and he founded the company to fulfill an unmet need for work boots that offered both durability and comfort. The concept really took off, and the Red Wing Shoe Company became the tannery’s largest and most consistent customer. Two world wars would soon elevate demand for both companies’ offerings to an entirely new level.

sb foot tannery

Supporting The War Efforts

When America entered World War I in 1917, the damp, cold weather on Europe’s Western Front was ideal for causing trench foot, a painful and sometimes serious condition. General John J. Pershing oversaw the design of water-resistant boots to better protect soldiers, and many of these boots were made of S.B. Foot & Co. leather. The tannery was recognized as a “model for the leather industry.”

During World War II, the Red Wing Shoe Company developed “Skytrooper” jump boots that were highly popular among U.S. paratroopers, which incorporated S.B. Foot leather. Tannery employees voted unanimously in January 1942 to move to a seven-day workweek for the war effort. The group received prestigious “E for Excellence” recognition from the U.S. War Department in 1944 for going above and beyond to support the troops overseas. The Pentagon once again turned to the S.B. Foot tannery during the Vietnam War, through the development of a special tropical water-resistant leather to protect soldiers in jungle-like conditions. Since then, the tannery has produced enough sides to manufacture more than 60 million boots for the U.S. military alone.

The Tannery Joins The Red Wing Shoes Family

In 1986, more than 80 years after first providing leather to its customer down the road, S.B. Foot Tanning Co. was acquired by the Red Wing Shoe Company. The transaction was a perfect fit due to the tannery’s commitment to quality leather and the shoe company’s commitment to quality footwear, along with both companies’ extensive experience working with one another. Both companies became iconic symbols of the City of Red Wing, employing generations of family members and continually supporting the community for well over a century.

“There were some growing pains early on, but they didn’t last long,” said Buck Foot, great grandson of founder Silas Buck Foot and president at S.B. Foot Tanning Co. from 1981 to 2007. “Each side had to give up some autonomy in order for the collaboration to work, but it worked and still does to this day.”

Going Strong At 150

Today, a century and a half after first opening the facility at Trout Brook, S.B. Foot Tanning Co. serves as the primary leather supplier across the Red Wing Shoe Company family of brands, such as premium Red Wing Shoes work boots; the Heritage lifestyle collection; and the Irish Setter brand for sporting enthusiasts. The tannery also manufactures a variety of other premium quality leathers for products such as apparel, small leather goods, bags, and even furniture.

“Vertically integrating the tannery into our manufacturing process has definitely helped us to elevate quality, which benefits customers worldwide,” said Bill Sweasy who served as Red Wing Shoe Company president during the early years after the acquisition. “But what still makes me most proud, and I’m sure every family member who once ran this company would agree, is our longstanding legacy of keeping jobs in Red Wing and positively impacting the lives of people in this community.”

The S.B. Foot Tanning Company and Red Wing Shoe Company have both possessed a strong family leadership component since the beginning. This tradition will continue in July 2022 when Allison Gettings, daughter of Bill Sweasy, becomes president of Red Wing Shoes, the first woman in its history to lead the company. “I grew up roaming the halls of Red Wing Shoes, and even at an early age I noticed there was a certain way people carried themselves that was different,” Gettings said. “I sensed the pride they felt in where they worked, plus a strong work ethic. It’s about doing things the right way, which isn’t always be the easy way. But it is always the best way to advocate for our customers, our employees, and the communities in which we live and work. I couldn’t be more excited about our future.”

sb foot tannery

(Article taken from The Red Wing Post No. 9 by Red Wing Shoes)

Written by Wouter Munnichs
I'm the founder of Long John. Next to running this daily magazine, I'm working as a freelance denim specialist for the industry. Titled as 'Denim Influencer 2020' by Rivet 50. Celebrated my 10th anniversary with Long John in 2021.