The First Red Wing Shoe Store

Bill Sweasy took over the company from his father, J.R. Sweasy, in 1949. This post-WW II era demanded that businesses adapt to the changing economy. As the son of a shoe man, Sweasy recognized the signals that the business of selling footwear was changing quickly.

“Here’s the whole population of the country moving… out of rural areas, which was our traditional market, and into metro areas. There aren’t any independent shoe stores to speak of in metro areas…and very few of them ever wanted to invest in the widths that we thought were appropriate to our price range and the fitting expertise.”
* Bill Sweasy Oral History interview, February 25-26, 1985

About this time, Red Wing Shoes opened a warehouse in Salt Lake City, Utah so customers in the growing western region could get their footwear more quickly. Sweasy saw great potential in the western region, and traveled to Salt Lake City in August 1953 to meet with his salesmen and the new employees. In particular, one employee caught his attention.

Harold Packwood (“Pack” to those who knew him) had roots in retail footwear. Pack approached Sweasy with a new retail idea that would radically change the business of selling footwear. Those close to Sweasy said it wouldn’t work. But Sweasy believed in Pack’s new idea and it changed Red Wing Shoe Company forever.

    Bill Sweasy with Harold Packwood and the western salesmen in Salt Lake City, Utah, 1953. annotations by Bill Sweasy.

    The radical new idea: develop a retail store that would sell only Red Wing Shoes footwear. At the time, a traditional shoe store might have sold six or twelve different brands of footwear. Would customers be ready to embrace a completely new buying experience at a Red Wing Shoe Store?

    To test this new retail venture, the first Red Wing Shoe Store opened in Salt Lake City in 1953. It carried all sizes and widths produced by Red Wing Shoes and offered a custom fitting experience. Additional stores opened across the West in cities such as Denver, Phoenix, and San Francisco. Customers responded, as Sweasy knew they would, to the individual attention they received from the store owners and to the wide selection of sizes and widths.

    “To reach into metropolitan markets, Red Wing Shoes has been financing new shoe retailers out west who build their customer appeal on their ability to fit any size foot. This experiment began with a Salt Lake City store 10 years ago and continues to show promise. Red Wing Shoes is financing about 20 such stores today.*”
    *Red Wing Daily Republican Eagle, August 23, 1963

    Early investors were hard to come by, so many of the owners were previous Red Wing Shoe Company employees. Jack Dilley and George Matsumoto had both worked in the Salt Lake City warehouse, shipping shoes. Dilley opened a store in Redding, California. Matsumoto started a Red Wing Shoe Store in Stockton, California and became so successful that he went on to open three more stores.

    Jack Dilley and Bill Sweasy outside Dilley's Red Wing Shoe Store in Stockton, California, 1960

    Harold Packwood and Jack Dilley inside Dilley's Red Wing Shoe Store in Redding, California, 1960

    Front entrance of George Matsumoto's Red Wing Shoe Store in Stockton, California, 1960