Yesterday's post on my uncharacteristic purchase of a pair of ostentatious shoes, and a visit to the Wisconsin factory that made them, left it up to the readers whether to post the second part, or to hurry on to other topics. To my gratification, everyone was unanimous in wanting to see it. So here it is.
When George Washington pressed his lips against the Bible after being sworn in as this nation's first president on April 30, 1789, he was wearing a suit of brown broadcloth, donated by proud Hartford weavers. John Adams was wearing the same suit, cut from the same cloth donated by the same weavers. "They might have been dressed as twins," wrote David McCullough, "except that Washington's metal buttons had eagles on them."
The history of commerce coveting the limelight of the presidency is lengthy. Hatters sent stovepipes to President-elect Abraham Lincoln.
With this in mind, during a visit to the Allen Edmonds shoe factory in Wisconsin, my attention was drawn to letters and photos of recent Republican presidents.
"Reagan's father was a shoe salesman," said spokesman Colin Hall. "And sold our shoes, loved our shoes."
"In Chicago," I interjected.
"President Reagan was a huge fan and wore our shoes all the time," Hall continued. "He convinced Bush Senior to wear our shoes, and they started a neat little thing where every inauguration they wore Allen Edmonds. It carried on with Clinton and Bush Junior. The only man not to wear our shoes at his inauguration was Obama. He wore shoes made in China—Cole-Haans."
"No!" I gasped.
"They asked us for shoes, so we sent them shoes," said Hall. "But we looked at all the pictures, and he's not wearing our shoes. The reasons we decided not to say anything about it is the world was falling apart at the time, the last thing he needed was this company in Wisconsin throwing shoes at him."
Everything about Obama spawns a conspiracy theory, and this is no different.
"Made in China," mused Hall. "Why would he do that?" The obvious answer, Hall said, is that a favor was owed to Nike founder Phil Knight, whose company owns Cole-Haan.
"Look at Obama as another athlete being paid by Nike," he said.
In fairness, I couldn't find any evidence that Obama is indebted to Knight or would feel compelled to wear his shoes. But what chance has truth compared with a good story?
DO THEY SMELL?
Had Obama worn out his Allen Edmonds shoes working the corridors of power, he could have shipped them back to the factory for refurbishing—buying a quality shoe is like buying a car, in that they service it.
Every day, up to 100 pairs of old, shabby, scuffed, soaked, moldy, broken-down Allen Edmonds shoes arrive in the mail ("Do they smell?" I asked a worker, who emitted a rueful laugh. "Especially in summer," she said).
The company does something very high-tech— it first takes a digital photo of the battered footwear, posed fetchingly against a white background—then, after the sole is stripped off and the shoe rebuilt, it takes another of the finished product and e-mails it to customers, to say their reborn shoes are on the way. "Remember these?" the e-mail asks.
One customer, sending in his departed father's Allen Edmonds to be refurbished, asked that his ashes be blended into the hot cork mixture applied between the sole and the shoe. The company complied.
One last thing, before we bid adieu to the world of shoe manufacture. The company owns a specialty lumber mill, in one of those odd business connections one sometimes finds (My favorite: Coors brewery once owned a large toilet bowl factory, not due to the usual beer/toilet dynamic, but because they made their own beer kegs, and the kegs were lined in porcelain).
So Allen Edmonds owns Woodlore, a nearby lumber mill because . . . ready? . . . they were having trouble getting a reliable source of cedar shoe trees, so they went into the business in order to guarantee supply.
And here I thought nature was the only source of wonder.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times March 28, 2010