Once known as ‘Shoe City,’ Brockton loses its last factory

Elaine Allegrini

In 1919, there were 39 shoe manufacturers in the city with some 13,000 employees.

Soon there will be none.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Larry Siskind, president of the Brockton Historical Society.

Siskind and other Brockton leaders were saddened to hear that the venerable FootJoy company, which dates back to the mid-1800s, will shut down its Brockton operation within six weeks. The closing will put 103 people out of work and end an era that put Brockton on the map.

“It’s very sad because it’s been such a big part of Brockton’s history for such a long time,” said Mayor James E. Harrington.

FootJoy had struggled in 1995, but, working with city leaders, hung on here and was ranked as the number-one producer of golf shoes in 1996. At the time, the Brockton plant produced 900 pairs of FootJoy Classic Golf Shoes a day. They cost more than $200 a pair.

That kind of success harkened back to the heyday of Brockton’s footwear industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, dozens of factories teemed with the shoe-making labor of thousands of employees — many of them immigrants who came here for a better life.

Brockton became known as the “Shoe City.” There were 91 shoe factories in the city at the turn of the century. But gradually, they left or closed.

Consumers in an increasingly throw-away society turned to cheaper, imported shoes. And many remaining U.S. manufacturers moved to the South for cheaper labor and the Midwest where leather supplies were closer.

By 1964, there were only 10 Brockton shoe factories, employing 2,000 workers.

Today, the shoe industry lingers in Brockton at the Montello Heel Co., Barbour Corp. and Rextrude Co., which make shoe-related products.

But some say the closing of FootJoy may mark the end of Brockton’s shoe-making industry.

“It’s sad to see the last shoe company in Brockton closing,” said John Learnard, director of the city’s Shoe Museum. “It’s a great part of American history.”

Museums preserve city’s heritage

Brocktonians can get a glimpse at their city’s shoe legacy at the Shoe Museum, and shoes are to be featured in the Fuller Craft Museum’s upcoming “The Perfect Fit — Shoes Tell Stories,” an exhibit opening June 6 and featuring today’s shoes and their meanings.

The Shoe Museum is part of the larger Brockton Historical Society’s multi-faceted complex featuring the Fire Museum, the Rocky Marciano Exhibit and more.

But it is open for only two hours every other weekend; attendance is low, save for a few school groups that bring children in on occasion.

At the museum are hand-sewn shoes and the machinery that made those shoes — “the finest made anywhere,” Leanard said.

“It was a thriving industry,” he recalled. “So, too, was the whole South Shore.”

There were shoe factories in Randolph, Rockland, Weymouth, Abington and Middleboro.

The Civil War, advances in technology and old-fashioned ingenuity had combined to make this area the world’s leading footwear manufacturing center.

Union soldiers needed boots to fight the Civil War, and emerging technology made it possible for local shoe manufacturers to meet the demand. During the half-century that followed the Civil War, and well into the 20th century, the shoe was king in Brockton.

“Too bad it’s a history lesson at this point,” said Learnard. “They made great contributions.”

Learnard himself is a part of that history. Now 87, he recalled the day in 1960 when he came to Brockton and went to work for the Knapp Shoe Co. as vice president of sales.

Now, “people are still going to continue to wear shoes, but not as many American-made shoes as foreign-made shoes,” he said.

He likened the shift to the evolving automobile industry. “It’s sort of a conundrum.”

Searching for a new identity

The closing of FootJoy’s Brockton plant is part of a company-wide reduction as the economy slumps and there is less demand for golf equipment.

“It’s a sad day because it closes a chapter in history,” Learnard said.

The company announced in December a three-phase plan to reduce its workforce. New hiring was halted and empty positions left unfilled, then buyouts were offered followed by layoffs.

Earlier this month, the parent company of FootJoy — Acushnet Co. — laid off 100 people.

FootJoy’s closing will be felt throughout Brockton — at the workforce center where the employees will seek training for other jobs and in the building left behind, a big old factory on Field Street that once busted with activity.

“The tradition of FootJoy was very long and very proud,” said John Merian, president of the Downtown Brockton Association and a downtown merchant.

“It’s time for the city to find a new identity,” Merian said.

“In order for the city to be competitive in the next millennium, we need to find a new way,” he said. “Health care is one area, another is green technology.

“I’m very optimistic. You can’t look at the past, you have to look forward,” Merian said. “This has nothing to do with Brockton, but what the parent company is doing in the marketplace.”

Elaine Allegrini can be reached ateallegrini@enterprisenews.com.