Bucket list: Tour the ShoeSome people live clear across the world and have heard the name Red Wing Shoe, yet some who reside right in Red Wing barely know the backstory of the company.
By: Regan Carstensen, The Republican Eagle
Some people live clear across the world and have heard the name Red Wing Shoe, yet some who reside right in Red Wing barely know the backstory of the company.
Fortunately, the Red Wing Shoe factory offers free tours twice a week so the public can get an up-close-and-personal look at how the well-known line of boots came to be, and what goes into them from start to finish.
“One hundred hands usually touch a boot before it goes to the warehouse,” Shoe salesperson Josie Bull said.
More than 700 people are employed at the Red Wing factory alone, sharing the responsibilities of putting out quality shoes fast enough to meet demands for them. Although the number of employees is larger than the population of several small towns in the area, co-workers at the factory get to know each other well.
Tour guide Sarah Kiczula, a summer temp at the factory, leads groups through the floor of the factory and into several different areas of production when tours are held every Monday and Friday.
People who take the tour will see hundreds of skilled workers crafting various sections of boots on dozens of machines — some 100 years old — without blinking an eye.
“They’re very skilled,” Shoe spokesman Maurice McClurg said. “People are always amazed at the craftsmanship that our employees have.”
They’d have to be skilled in order to do so much of the work by sight alone. While some of the production areas use guides to ensure accuracy, others make judgments simply by looking at the material and determining on their own where certain pieces belong.
Crystal Peterson, a salesperson at the Shoe’s retail store downtown, said she can’t believe how quickly the factory workers do their jobs. But it’s the friendly demeanor they maintain while working so hard that impresses her even more.
“Even if they’re stitching something, they’ll look up and smile,” Peterson said.
The collective efforts of workers in the Red Wing factory as well as the Shoe’s two other factories in Missouri and Kentucky help the company produce more than 1.2 million pairs of shoes annually.
“Coming to the Red Wing plant is your chance to see true American craftsmen building premium products,” McClurg said.
Brian and Marilyn Fahrenkrug, a couple from Neenah, Wis., made the most of that chance on Friday when they joined Kiczula and about a dozen other curious people for a tour. They had yet to see the ins and outs of any type of shoe factory. But while the process may have been new to them, the Red Wing brand shoes were no anomaly.
“You hear about them all the time,” Marilyn said.
While being guided through the cutting, sewing, bottoming and finishing departments, the Fahrenkrugs and the rest of their tour group learned about the difficulties behind each job in addition to the general history of the plant.
Having started in 1905, Red Wing Shoes has expanded over the years to produce boots that protect workers in more than one hundred countries across the world. Though many see the company as makers of only work boots, there’s much more to the Shoe’s reputation.
Red Wing Shoe also owns and produces Irish Setter hunting and fishing footwear, as well as Vasque hiking and trail running footwear — one of the many things people learn while visiting the local plant.
The Fahrenkrugs took the tour during their last of three days spent in Red Wing. They said they planned to follow up the tour by dropping in to see some finished products lining the walls of the flagship retail store. And walking out with a pair of their own was a definite possibility.
“You never know,” Brian said, adding that he’s in need of boots that are suitable for work but also for play when he’s out on hunting trips.
If anything’s going to tackle both of those tasks for years to come, it can probably be found at Red Wing Shoe.
After all, they’re “Built to fit. Built to last.”