The building at 1123 Wilkes Blvd., built in 1906-1907 for the Hamilton-Brown Shoe Factory, was part of an effort by city boosters to bring industry to Columbia.
It was a success — at least for a time. The factory operated from 1907-1939, but it earned another claim to fame in 1939. It was the only large company in Columbia to close its doors permanently during the Depression.
The building that marks this early effort to stimulate the economy was named the the National Register of Historic Places on July 19, 2002, and placed on the Notable Properties List by Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission in 2003.
But this effort to boost Columbia’s employment wasn’t the city’s first. “In 1869 a public meeting considered establishing an Immigration Society to attract workers to Columbia,” notes Alan R. Havig in his book 1984 book, “From Southern Village to Midwestern City: Columbia, An Illustrated History.”
But, Havig notes, until World War II, little came of these efforts with the exception of the Hamilton-Brown Shoe Factory.
In 1906, the Hamilton-Brown Shoe Company of St. Louis, the world’s largest shoe manufacturer at the time, notified the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, the Commercial Club, it wanted to build a branch factory outside of St. Louis. “The community selected would raise $60,000 to build the plant, provide a railroad siding and supply low-cost utilities and workers,” Havig writes. The agreement would also call for the city to sign the building over to Hamilton-Brown at the end of 10 years if the company kept its part of the bargain, employing roughly 300 to 600 workers.
Raising $60,000 was a tall order — that amount would be worth roughly $1.5 million in 2009 dollars, according to the website measuringworth.com, which is derived from Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson publication, “Purchasing Power of Money in the United States from 1774 to 2010,” MeasuringWorth, 2009. URL http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/
Yet, it only took two months for the funds to be raised and the building went up during the winter of 1906.
Its opening marked Columbia’s first large-scale industrial facility and Hamilton-Brown’s first facility outside of St. Louis, according to the NRHP form.
The company employed an average of 300 workers, roughly half of what had been promised, yet in 1917, the Columbia Commerical Club determined the company had more or less met its agreement and signed over the deed for the factory to Hamilton-Brown, according to the NRHP form.
There were other problems beyond the company never hitting an average of 600 workers. In 1916, the Columbia Missourian published a “scathing review of working conditions and quoted a nurse as saying, “Tuberculous persons should not be permitted to work in the factory because they spit on the floor and other inhale the germs with dust and become infected with the disease … I never saw so much careless expectoration as there is in the shoe factory. While I saw many signs warning the workers to be careful with their work, I did not see one warning them against spitting on the floor. I do not see how human beings can stand it. When I visited the factory in December the air was sickening,” according to the NRHP document.
Soon after, a new factory manager W.H. Braselton was brought in and the work day was cut from 10 hours to nine and workers received a 5 percent pay increase. The newspaper reported the Commerical Club visited the factory, in preparation to giving the factory to the company, and determined it was being “run in a clean and sanitary manner,” according to the NRHP document.
Braselton brought other improvements to the factory beyond cleaning it up. The Y.M.C.A. resumed offering classes at the factory taught by University of Missouri graduate students. Braselton also set up an in-house grocery for the employees, selling groceries at cost.
In 1920, Braselton also gave the employees what the NRHP document calls a “surprising bonus” — a 10-day paid vacation. He denied it was due to a lack of work. Yet, documents show a year later, the workforce had fallen 50 percent, and in April 1921, only 178 workers were on the payroll. Work did rebound, however, and in 1923, 369 people were at work in the factory, turning out an average of 2,000 to 3,000 pairs of shoes each day, notes the NRHP document.
However, the shoe factory closed in 1939, but the building continued in use for manufacturing into the early 1960s, for wooden airplane propellers during World War II and then by the Ar-Cel Garment Factory.
For more information on this building and the shoe manufacturing industry in Missouri, see the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for this building.