Historic Structures

Brown Shoe Company Factory, Litchfield Illinois

Date added: September 13, 2022 Categories: Illinois Industrial

The factory was built with a reported $70,000 in community raised funds and built during a record fifty working days; it opened in March of 1917. The building represented at the time the next largest industry in Litchfield after the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation built earlier in 1904. The prominent St. Louis architect Albert Barleton Groves designed the Brown Shoe Company Factory building and supervised its construction. Incorporated in nearby St. Louis, Missouri, in 1893 under the name Brown Shoe Company by president George Warren Brown, the company expanded into Midwestern cities with additional manufacturing plants, warehouses, and supply centers beginning in the 1910s. Competition for these vital facilities resulted in many communities raising their own construction funds to attract Brown Shoe to town; such was the case in Litchfield, Illinois. The Litchfield Brown Shoe Company Factory was originally designed in 1917 in a "T" shape with the primary facade located in the north and west-facing building corner of a "T" shape along South State Street; the building received a major historic addition first in 1922 (expanded to four-stories by the mid-1920s) that resulted in the present "F" shape building. The Litchfield plant provided a great number of desperately needed jobs for the local and surrounding communities from its inception in 1917 until the early 1950s. The Brown Shoe Company survived the Great Depression, even establishing a vital employee welfare association, a recreation park, a credit union, and other special programs for its Litchfield employees and staff. Towards the end of the 1930s, Brown Shoe developed a soon-to-be nationally known brand of men's shoes known as "Roblee" the brand was solely manufactured in the Litchfield plant.

The Brown Shoe Company had its beginnings in nearby St. Louis, Missouri. George Warren Brown, a merchant and manufacturer born in 1853 in Granville, Washington County, New York, arrived in St. Louis twenty years later in 1873. Brown was soon offered a position as a shipping clerk with Hamilton & Brown, a wholesale shoe company founded in part by George's older brother Alanson D. Brown. George Brown accepted an opportunity to become a traveling salesman and acquired the entirety of North Missouri as a sales territory before he was twenty-one years old. According to biographers Hyde and Conard, Brown became "impressed with the fact that a line of shoes especially adapted to St. Louis territory should be made in St. Louis and thus endeavored to persuade his employers to establish a company factory for such a purpose; his employers were not impressed with Brown's idea and did not look at the prospect favorably." Brown immediately resigned his position with Hamilton & Brown, considered at the time a grave mistake by his former employers, and sought to establish his own shoe manufacturing company.

In 1878, George Warren Brown formed a business in St. Louis with A. L. Bryan and J. B. Desnoyers, then known as Bryan-Brown & Company. The business started off slowly with a capital of $12,000, mostly already expended on shoe machinery, lasts, and patterns. By 1885, Bryan's health became an issue and he quickly retired and the company changed its name to Brown-Desnoyers Shoe Company. As fate would have it, in 1893, Desnoyers retired leaving Brown the sole owner of the firm and hence it was named the Brown Shoe Company. Brown was the company president since 1881, and was credited as leading the company to a position of "one of the greatest shoe-manufacturing and jobbing concerns in the United States." In 1899, Hyde and Conard credited the Brown Shoe Company as being the:

Pioneer shoe manufacturing concern doing business in St. Louis at the time... a distinction of which Mr. Brown might feel proud, in view of the fact that he was [the] prime mover in establishing successful shoe manufacturing here which has grown to such colossal proportions and [has] been the great lever in making St. Louis the greatest shoe market selling direct to the retail trade in the world.

Brown Shoe Company contributed to the St. Louis shoe industry as it expanded rapidly after the turn of the 20th century as the city leapt from a position of ninth to third in the country by 1905, challenging New England's hegemony. A combination of low cost production, an innovative selling plan, and assertive advertising distinguished the young and flexible St. Louis market from its eastern competitors and provided a basis for Brown Shoe Company's future growth. Brown Shoe Company's highly efficient division of labor enabled the maximization of volume which in turn lowered production costs that led most importantly to the establishment of separate factories for the manufacture of different styles and grades of shoes.

By 1919, shoe manufacturing in St. Louis was the largest annual business enterprise. Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis, home of Brown's central offices and distribution headquarters had gained a reputation as "Shoe Street, U.S.A.," claiming more shoe trading than any street in the world. Outside of the immediate headquarters on Washington Avenue but still located in the City of St. Louis, the Brown Shoe Company acquired the former LaPrelle Williams Shoe Company building on Jefferson Avenue in 1904, constructed the "Homes-Take Factory" on Russell in 1904 (designed by Albert B. Groves), and set out to construct a number of known Brown Shoe facilities in small communities throughout the Midwestern region over the next two decades. A 1953 source indicates that these facilities amounted to thirty-nine buildings in six states. One such community, Litchfield, Illinois, was in close proximity to St. Louis and easily accessible via railroad routes.

The concept of constructing a Brown Shoe Company Factory in Litchfield, Montgomery County, Illinois, was initially considered in 1916 when at that time it is stated "progressive local citizens of the community and officials of the company met to determine the potential of locating such a plant in Litchfield." This event was so vital to the community of Litchfield that the date 1916 is permanently imprinted in the Litchfield timeline as the day "Brown Shoe was established." According to the Centennial History, the local community agreed to raise $70,000 for the physical construction of the future plant. Behind the drive to raise the funds were important community leaders (Merchants' Protective Association of Litchfield and later Chamber of Commerce members) such as A. R. Stansifer, R. L. Hurt, and J. C. Strehle.

Albert R. Stansifer was selected to go to the directors of the Big Four Railroad in Cincinnati to secure the lease on the present building site of the Brown Shoe Company, then owned by the railroad; his efforts were instantly successful. Stansifer, the youngest son of James T. and Abigail Barnett Stansifer, was noted as being active in the financial life of the community and was instrumental in bringing not only the Brown Shoe Company to Litchfield, but also the American Radiator Company. R. L. Hurt was chairman of the drive in raising the funding. Joseph C. Strehle, born in Litchfield in 1868 was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce for over thirty years and also instrumental.

The Brown Shoe Company commissioned a prominent St. Louis architect, Albert Barleton Groves, to design the Litchfield plant; Groves was retained to supervise the building construction. Groves had designed other buildings for Brown Shoe Company in nearby St. Louis. As originally designed in 1916-1917, the Litchfield factory building was considered unique for its time in comparison to the previously constructed St. Louis company factories either by Groves or any other architect. An important article by Albert Groves is contained in a 1918 issue of the American Architect it quoted that:

The capacity of a factory is measured by the number of the operatives it will house. In the St. Louis district, shoe factories are built 60 ft. wide with two rows of posts. As the machinery and operatives occupy one-half of the width of the outside bays, the number of the operatives is fixed by the total length of the outside walls. In this case the available funds would not permit of the construction of a building of sufficient length and 60 ft. wide. As a certain length was necessary the only logical thing to do was to make it less wide and thus reduce the cost. A study of the existing shops showed that two of the three bays were filled with empty and loaded racks and the area of one bay was occupied with machinery and racks in transit. It was then decided to build a factory 39 ft. wide and change the routine of the work in, through and out of the factory to conform to this plan. The result is a cleaner looking and more efficient factory.

This important article contains an illustration of the 1917 factory design showing a row of support posts down the center of the building. Groves reported that the building was constructed with 2 x 14 inch joists with 14 inch centers, 10 x 14 inch girders with column spacing of 18 feet on centers; posts had cast iron caps and foot plates. A forty-foot office extension illustrated in the design is shown as containing the main stairwell, an elevator shaft, and employee restrooms; railroad tracks are situated along the secondary elevation along East Sargent Street. The article continues to describe specific elements of the original building design in detail, in particular that: 300 windows were four feet wide with two foot six inch brick piers in between; that the building was equipped with an automatic sprinkler system with a steel tower and tank in the yard (since demolished); a system of wiring for power and light, and a plumbing system of about 125 fixtures.

Grove's report in American Architect also stated that each of the four floors had 10,000 square feet of working space. Interesting enough to mention in this narrative are the following facts: that the building materials were bought from stock and consisted of fourteen (railroad) carloads of lumber, delivered from St. Louis in a reported seven days; 300 window frames also from St. Louis, made and delivered in ten days; twenty-five carloads of brick from Belleville, delivered "as required" and finally sand and gravel from Alton. The building was completed in fifty working days and it is noted in the American Architect that thirty days thereafter, $75,000 worth of machinery was in place with 400 operatives making shoes.

The 1953 publication, The Centennial History of Litchfield, Illinois, recalled the importance of the construction of the Brown Shoe Company Factory earlier in 1917. It reports that the new factory was opened the week of March 31, 1917, with a formal reception for the public held on the evening of April 13, 1917. It is also noted that a band concert by the local Moose Band was held in the adjacent downtown district when at 7:00 in that evening, the first sounding of the new factory whistle interrupted the festivities. The whistle also signified that the entire assemblage of people were to move down to the factory area where the band was established on the roof garden for another concert. Continued into the evening of April 13, 1917, additional music was provided by the Crescendo Orchestra and the Factory Booster Quartet.

The 1930s was a period in Litchfield Brown Shoe Company history that signaled a decade of company-wide and civic improvements. For instance, an Employees Welfare Association was organized in 1933 during an important employee meeting at the local Elks Club. Established at this particular meeting was a company provision of insurance payments for all members. A year later, in 1934, a recreation park was established on the company property with provisions for tennis, softball, croquet, basketball, horseshoes, and baseball with sports equipment furnished by the Welfare Association made available to employees and their families. The park, sometimes historically referred to as "Welfare Park," became the home of the "Brown Shoe" baseball team, the girls' "Air Stepper" softball team, the girls' "Red and White" softball team and other department teams. One historic source states that the park site was originally part of the former "Big Four Commons," being a property of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis railroads. Story of the park dedication made the local paper and is documented in the local publication of the Litchfield Sesquicentennial Committee. The park was later given to the town of Litchfield and renamed "Community Park" it is now known as "Schalk Field."

In 1935, a local Blown Shoe Company newspaper was established. Conceived a year earlier in 1934 by employee and future newspaper staff Frank Randle, the paper was named "Shu Horn." A year later, in 1936 a company credit union was organized in Litchfield. In 1937, a public address system was purchased for use in Welfare Park as well as for company entertainment and business meetings. In 1939, the Litchfield Brown Shoe Company Factory began to produce a distinct line of "top grade men's dress shoes," listed under the nationally known advertised name of "Roblee". In just under a twenty-year period the factory was producing 3,000 pairs of these shoes daily, shoes that were shipped to "towns and cities in every state of the union and to many foreign countries." Production of the Roblee men's line expanded over the next decade and included a variety of styles with specialized models for United States Military men.

The final days of Brown Shoe Company in Litchfield were signaled in the March 22, 1967, issue of the Litchfield News-Herald where it was reported, "Holy Week to Announce Shoe Closing;" the story said:

"Brown Shoe Co. and Litchfield Chamber of Commerce chose the third day of Holy Week to announce the St. Louis based firm was terminating operations here next month after 50 years."

Over ten years prior, in 1953, it was reported that an average of 450 employees were making 15,000 pairs of shoes per week. According the Litchfield News-Herald, the announcement was posted on the employee bulletin board at the factory during the lunch hour; an actual presentation was given to the group of directors at a separate luncheon the same day. Not much more other than general company history was included in the report. Issues regarding the fate of the factory building suggested offering the property back to the community for $71,000, even though earlier in 1916 it was that same community that raised $70,000 for the building construction. A private buyer was said to have offered the then book value of $77,000 for the building.

In 1971, ADENCA, Inc. moved into the then vacant building. Original owner and retired carpet layer Al Osterman earlier teamed with friend Bob Bitner to form a company in nearby Barrington, Illinois. The company manufactured kitchen cabinets as well as window and door frames. Soon, dental cabinetry accounted for 50% of the business and the partners decided to expand production. So in 1971, the partners relocated to the former Brown Shoe Company Factory and by 1972, the company was considered one of Litchfield's largest businesses. Adenca would also leave the building.