By the 1970s, Red Wing's famed Main Street scarcely resembled its 1870s glory days. But Red Wing was revitalized in the following decades by the vision and initiative of the Red Wing Shoe Company's William D. Sweasy.
In the 1950s, Red Wing thrived as a prosperous factory town. Workers in the clay industry produced famous Red Wing Pottery, while the city's sewer pipe plant throbbed with activity. A tannery, two shoe factories, two malting operations, an inner tube factory, linseed mill and a flour mill hummed along. Two major railroads served the town. Twenty years later, however, some of these operations were gone and others struggled to survive. As the U.S. economy faltered in the 1970s, so did Red Wing's.
William D. Sweasy took control of Red Wing Shoe Company in 1949 upon the death of his father, Jesse, who had joined the company in 1914. Red Wing Shoe Company had made military footwear during the two world wars. With the end of World War II, the company had shifted away from war work to specialize in rugged but comfortable work boots. Red Wing shoes had a reputation for high quality, and high quality made for strong sales. But the younger Sweasy saw a need to bring the modest family owned Main Street firm up-to-date and expand operations.
Sweasy reorganized, giving department heads more power and creating specialized management teams for each department. Red Wing Shoe racked up record profits in 1952, thanks in large part to the popularity of the Irish Setter Sport Boot. Under Sweasy's leadership, the company added a Salt Lake City, Utah, branch in 1950 and opened retail outlets on the West Coast.
Red Wing Shoe continued to build on the success of the Irish Setter. The company introduced its Vasque outdoor division in 1965. Americans were embracing hiking boots during the 1970s, and the Red Wing firm capitalized with lightweight boots and walking shoes.
After Sweasy assumed the role of Chairman of the Board in 1972, he started working to revitalize the town of Red Wing's aging business district. He first targeted the once fashionable St. James Hotel. Sweasy suspected the run-down 1875 structure might not see its one-hundredth birthday. Under Sweasy's leadership, Red Wing Shoe created the Red Wing Hotel Corporation and went about restoring the Victorian hotel to its past splendor. The shoe company's chairman hoped a revived St. James would serve as the cornerstone for a downtown renaissance.
The renewed hotel proved a success, praised for the quality of its restoration and its impressive Main Street presence. As Sweasy expected, the St. James drew positive attention to the downtown district. It earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The Hotel Corporation took on another restoration project. It purchased Red Wing Iron Works. The 1866 building, the city's oldest industrial plant, stood just below the St. James overlooking the Mississippi River. Its conversion into a unique apartment building became another Red Wing historic site preservation success story.
Sweasy's vision helped produce a series of renovations that transformed important but timeworn downtown buildings. Structures near the St. James underwent major facelifts. Riverfront Centre, a half block east of the hotel, combined five buildings from the 1860s and 1870s. The Lawther Block (1859) and Keystone Building (1867), located across Main Street from the newer St. James, won their turn to be properly restored. The mood carried into residential neighborhoods where owners of nineteenth-century houses undertook their own restoration work.
Red Wing Shoe Company, meanwhile, continued to adjust to changing market and economic conditions. Sweasy's son Bill would assume leadership of the firm in 1984. He successfully used the same flexible management style that his father used to keep the business strong. And like his father, he also worked to keep Red Wing vibrant. The senior Sweasy remained onboard as CEO until he passed away in 1991.
Angell, Madeline. Red Wing, Minnesota: Saga of a River Town. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1977.
Marvin, Patrice Avon and Nicholas Curchin Vrooman. Heart and Sole: A Story of the Red Wing Shoe Company. Red Wing: Red Wing Shoe Company, 1986.
Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History, Red Wing: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.
Rasmussen, Christian A. A History of the City of Red Wing, Minnesota. Red Wing: Privately published, 1934.
"Red Wing Shoe Co. Attributes 87 Years of Success to One Word: Service." Red Wing: Red Wing Shoe Company, Inc., 1992.
Sicherman, Al. "Sole Asylum: A Tribute to Red Wings, the Shoes That Work." Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine (May 1994): 54-58.
Youngblood, Dick, "If the Shoe Fits, in All Likelihood It's a Red Wing Product; Work Boot Is Key to 93-Year-Old Minnesota Company's Success," Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 20, 1998.
Schouweiler, Sara M.. Fifty Years of Red Wing Shoes, 1905-1955. Red Wing: Ray Johnson Printing Co., 1956.
In 1972, after two decades leading the Red Wing Shoe Company, William D. Sweasy launches a successful effort to revitalize Red Wing's aging downtown business sector.