100 years of Wesco boots
The smell of leather and the hum of machines permeates the Wesco Boots factory in Scappoose. The brick red building sits tucked away off EJ Smith Road, where it's been since the early 1930s.
For more than 85 years, the Wesco Boots factory has produced industrial boots worn by loggers, ship builders, firefighters and anyone else wanting a long-lasting, sturdy shoe.
The company was started by John Shoemaker in 1918, after Shoemaker picked up and perfected the boot-building craft working for other factories around Michigan. Oddly, the name Shoemaker predated the profession.
"When they originally came here, we think they spelled it Shoenmaker," says Bruce Shoemaker, whose great-grandfather started West Coast Shoe Company, which quickly became branded Wesco. "They changed their last name to a more American spelling. They were Dutch, and when they came from that area, they were mostly carpenters, which would explain the wooden shoes by the fireplace."
John Shoemaker made his way to the Pacific Northwest after growing up in Michigan. Framed photos on the walls of the Wesco office depict what were once the four Wesco shops and factory spaces in Portland. After the Great Depression, John Shoemaker lost almost all of his assets in bankruptcy, Bruce Shoemaker says, noting a land trade and the retention of his tools gave John Shoemaker the chance to start over in Scappoose. He built a house, and eventually, what would become the main and only factory for the company.
Bruce Shoemaker is one of six family descendants who works at Wesco. The boot-making company is still family owned and operated.
Shoemaker traverses across a factory floor, where large rolls of leather in black, tan, blue, red, green and cream fill shop shelves.
"It's all produced here," he says. "Nothing we make is produced outside the country."
That's remarkable, considering the company sells about one third of its inventory outside the U.S. Most clothing retailers selling products across the globe rely on cheaper labor markets and materials.
Shoemaker estimates there are roughly 2,000 pairs of boots in active production on any given day at the Scappoose factory. The company employs about 25 people.
Further along the factory are machines for embossing, some for industrial sewing, another station where eyelets are attached to boots, and around another corner, shelves upon shelves of lasts —molded inserts shaped to every size foot the company has ever made shoes for. The lasts are used to shape each pair of boots and they remain inside the shoe until the final stages of production.
"It's still very much a hand process," Shoemaker notes. "We have a machine to help, but it's really the same process."
There are roughly 155 steps to the production process of a Wesco boot, he says.
Just before lunchtime, Pat Barnard finishes stamping the company logo onto a stack of leather cut-outs. The St. Helens woman has worked for Wesco for eight years now. Across the table, a coworker is approaching her 35th anniversary with the company.
"There's a lot of family tradition feel around here," Tyler Hills of St. Helens says, looking up from his desk. "A lot of my family members have worked here as well."
Family ties run deep at Wesco. After John Shoemaker retired, his son, Robert "Bob" Shoemaker, took over the company. Bob Shoemaker's daughter, Roberta Shoemaker, a lifelong Scappoose resident, is now CEO, owner and president.
"I started here right after I graduated college 45 years ago," the CEO says. "Technically it was my first and only job."
Roberta Shoemaker got her start doing clerical work for the company and, in early 1999, she took over as president after her father retired at the end of the prior year.
Over the last 100 years, Wesco has kept its lines of wildland firefighting boots, dubbed the "Firestormer," in production, along with boots coveted by line crews and forestry workers.
"It's still the same way as it was 100 years ago," Roberta Shoemaker notes of the company's production techniques. "There's a lot of processes to the boot and a lot of options, but it's not automated in any shape or form."
Its products are still deeply rooted in niche industries, but over the past 20 years, company leaders say they've seen more boots being sold for casual wear and style, especially in European and Asian markets.
The boots have also gotten some major exposure, thanks to Hollywood.
"I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle," became a resonating phrase following a scene in "Terminator 2," where actor Arnold Schwarzenegger entered a bar nude, and left with a pair of Wesco's signature Boss boots, according to the Shoemakers.
Wesco boots returned to the big screen in 2004 with "The Aviator," which featured leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio in a pair.
"He's wearing boots that my great uncle helped design and make for the movie," Bruce Shoemaker recalls. "There were 22 pairs made for the movie. One for Leo and one for all the extras on set."
Back in the showroom, photos of John Shoemaker and the succession of company presidents line the wall in a timeline of the company's history.
The founder died in 1961, but his business and legacy lives on. This year, Wesco is celebrating its 100th anniversary.