Shoes, to the Source
Inspired by what's so often on our feet, we go on a shoe-town drive-around from Brunswick to Lewiston to Norridgewock, stopping by shop floors and shoemakers to see how and where they're made.
It’s Americana come to life on the second floor of a long brick building in Lewiston (pop. 36,140). The latest chapter of Maine’s centuries of hand-sewn shoe heritage is on full view. I breathe in whiffs of raw leather from the racks stacked with smooth and pebbled leathers and a dozen colors of suede. The sights and smells are part of the shoe- inspired pilgrimages we’ve been making this year. On this day it’s Quoddy, where more than 25 people do the cutting, sewing, and soling of shoes, boots, and moccasins— mostly for custom orders for individual buyers. The 70-year-old company makes 700 to 1,000 pairs each month, all by hand.
It’s a rebirth of the brand. After finances and production went stagnant in the early 1990s, Quoddy was brought back to life when the grandson of the Quoddy Wigwam Gift Shop owner and his wife decided to shift careers and learn the shoemaking trade. Kevin and Kirsten Shorey made the shoes themselves in a Calais barn at first, and they are both still principals with the company. Company president John Andreliunas explains that he invested in Quoddy after a career in athletic footwear in Boston and a childhood of summers spent way downeast, around Eastport. He remembers Shorey’s grandfather’s shop in Perry, which was a longtime Route 1 stop for moccasins, along with sunglasses, t-shirts, and Passamaquoddy-made baskets.
Andreliunas traces the continued interest in Maine shoes back to the state’s natural influence on the evolution of preppy style. “Because of the landscape, prep was basically invented in Maine,” he contends. College students from around New England would drive up for weekends here, still wearing their Brooks Brothers blazers and madras plaids. “Moccasins and Norwegian-style fishing shoes were repurposed as loafers to wear to clambakes and beach cocktail parties. Bass Weejuns were invented here. It was all an accident of history, and Maine was in the center of it.”
SEBAGO AND DEXTER ARE PLACES?
In my earliest introduction to Maine shoes, it was those Weejuns that I noticed first. And then the Sebago Docksides that everyone wore without socks. But that was when I was a kid growing up on the coast of South Carolina, and wasn’t yet familiar with the shoe dominance of Maine—or the people and places that gave the shoes iconic names. As I’ve spent more time in this craftsmanship- driven state, I’ve learned that the shoe history is deep. Many of the shoes I’ve long admired or owned were made in Maine. And some still are.
The signs for a New Balance outlet and factory are a beacon every time we pass through Skowhegan on the way to ski mountains in western Maine. In Belfast, the early-1800s-founded Colburn Shoe Store, “the oldest shoe store in America,” sometimes arranges window displays of vintage pairs of Maine-made shoes. I remember a shoe realization that I had at the busy Italian restaurant inside the massive brick building at the edge of Wilson Lake a few years ago. Calzolaio Pasta Co. is inside part of the original location of the G.H. Bass shoe factory, where the famous Weejuns were handsewn, starting in the 1870s.
It all adds up. My favorite around-the-house shoes are Town View Leather Moccasins made in Dexter. I’ve got a good decade-plus of wear on my stealthy L.L.Bean Maine Hunting Shoes, which have a supple bottom that lets you walk quietly in the woods. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards has owned Bean boots for most of his life, including one pair passed down from his uncle that dates back to the 1960s. He’s with me for the Quoddy jaunt. For our next shoe outing, as we drive to the much larger and more modern boot-making factory of L.L.Bean in Brunswick, we do a shoe count from memory. Between us, we figure, he and I own more than a dozen pairs of Maine- made shoes.
BRUNSWICK FOR BOOTS
The appeal of L.L.Bean boots is that they’re “quirky, beautiful, and functionally innovative. They’re tougher than a gator,” explains Mac McKeever when we meet inside the boot factory in Brunswick (pop. 20,645). He’s a public affairs representative for the company (and a boater and fisherman), and marvels that the basic design has changed very little since Greenwood-born Leon Leonwood Bean developed the rubber-soled boots with leather uppers back in 1911. “He was ahead of his time.”
When McKeever leads us into the production area, I’m struck by the vast size of the open factory floor and the buzz of stitches piercing the leather pieces being guided by hand on sewing machines. It’s here they mold the rubber bottoms and attach uppers of leather and waxed canvas, and sometimes linings of shearling or fur. At workstations all around, more than 450 people work here in three daily shifts and will make as many 750,000 boots this year, McKeever tells us, averaging about 45 minutes per pair from start to finish.
One of the leather-stitchers, Lesley Raffel, pauses near a pallet stacked with shearling that will be used for the L.L.Bean Signature line of Wicked Good boots. “I’m one of only two people here who make them,” she says, and finds a finished pair so we can feel the woolly lining. “They’re really thick and furry. When I saw that Oprah wore a pair in her magazine last winter, I said, ‘Hey, I probably made those!’”
Raffel says she had no experience stitching when she moved to Maine from Ohio and, with the company’s extensive training, she’s since worked at L.L.Bean for close to 25 years making luggage, totes, and now boots. “There are so many components, and it’s nice to do a lot of different things. It’s not boring at all.”
A few dozen yards away, I see Paul and Pat Derocher look up from their work and smile. Before they were married, each started work here in the 1980s as a leather cutter—placing what look like oversized cookie cutters on the leather and using a large mechanical press to make quick, stamping cuts. “We met side by side, just like this,” Pat says, “and we’ve stayed just like this.”
We also see a carousel-like contraption—a rubber injection molding machine that turns pea-sized pellets of rubber into boot bottoms. I’m eager to see it in action, but it’s not due to be turned on until a later shift. Instead, we get a glimpse of the corporate culture when one of the famed stretch breaks begins, and everyone on the floor stops working for a few minutes for a series of bends, twists, and sweeping arm motions done all together— along with laughter and chatter all around.
Before leaving, we stop at the boot “rebuild” area and I notice tags on pairs sent in from places as far-flung as Georgia, Rhode Island, and Oregon. Peter Frank has done this before, mailed in his woods-worn boots so a craftsman here can replace the rubber bottoms and sew them again to the leather upper. (Alternately, sometimes it’s the leather upper that needs replacing.) The rebuilds are popular, McKeever says, because people get attached to the foot-feel of their boots. “The leather molds to your feet over time,” he says, “and the boots become even more well-loved and comfortable.”
The New Balance buildings in Norridgewock (pop. 3,254) stretch for so long that the facility is deemed a “campus.” I’m excited to be here because I’ve been running in New Balance for years, and I seek out models from the Boston-based company that are made in the United States. On two floors, machines and people are in motion. Before retiring, Sheldon Kilkenny worked as a supervisor of the New Balance production lines here and in the neighboring town of Skowhegan (pop. 8,302) for more than 35 years. He’s visiting for the morning, too, and shows us around, beginning by lifting up a yard-long piece of leather that’s about to be cut into saddle pieces for the shoes. “It’s genuine pigskin,” he says. “Just like what they use to make footballs, and it wears like iron.”
The leather is soft, and I’m impressed, but what Kilkenny tells us next is truly amazing.
It takes seconds, not minutes, to complete various steps—15-20 pieces for each shoe are compiled by a production line of up to 32 people completing precise tasks and passing the shoes along. He says the factory’s eight teams will produce more than 4,000 pairs on the day we visit.
I let those numbers sink in as I watch for a while. Innovative tools and machines add efficiency and speed, but at every step it takes human hands to guide the process. During lunch break—there are two cafeterias open for the 300 or so workers—we meet John Poulin of Waterville, who tells us that before being hired in 2002 and trained as a cutter and then team leader, he was a chef at summer camps. Poulin sees similarities in his work at New Balance. With both cooking and shoemaking, “it’s all about preparation and timing. You’ve got a ‘recipe’ you’ve got to follow, and you always have to have the next part ready to go.”
Like everyone we’re meeting on this shoe spree, Poulin takes pride in what he’s making. When he’s around town in Waterville or down in Boston for the day, Poulin says he scans every room at foot level to see who’s wearing New Balance. Cutter Richard Cunningham of Fairfield says he does the same thing. One time he met a man visiting Maine from Minnesota who was wearing the 1540v2 model, the exact kind Cunningham had been working on. “I said, ‘Hey, I made those. I personally cut all the pieces out.” The man explained that he was diabetic, “and he said he had never had a pair that made his feet feel so comfortable. That made me feel good, knowing it was something I had made and that I’d once had my hands on.”
Cunningham is personally devoted to the shoe brand, and he says he likes the most colorful shoe models the best. “I’m not a plain person.” And while he’s had chances to train for other positions at the company, he’s content where he is. “I’m fortunate to be with the same team for the past 13 years. I love cutting. I love what I do.”
I think again of that first visit back at Quoddy, when we met Danny Mallette. In a sleeveless shirt and jeans, he is another one of the craftsmen who epitomizes the heritage of this trade. From Auburn, the son of a hand-sewer, Mallette deftly sewed the whiskey-hued leather of a Quoddy canoe shoe, the pieces stretched over a last in a men’s size nine.
He realized early on that he was “scrappy and fast” when it comes to the piecework of shoemaking. And he found that he has a natural talent for designing shoes and the patterns needed to scale a design down to a size 7 or up to size 13. As I watched him work, I noticed the array of hand tools, the sharply pointed awls, hammers, wooden-handled blades, and steel scissors on the worktable, along with the tack-sized pegs that he’d tapped in to hold the leather in place as he sewed with a uniform, lateral stitch.
It was one of the quieter moments during this self-made tour, and I was struck by the complexity and the simplicity. All of this confident, by-hand workmanship and artistry in these Maine shoe towns is for one purpose—the very human and singular task of making shoes, one pair at a time, for another person. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, it’s me.