New England on a Pedestal

202. The Shoemakers

September 25, 2023 Doug Farquharson Season 2 Episode 2
202. The Shoemakers
New England on a Pedestal
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New England on a Pedestal
202. The Shoemakers
Sep 25, 2023 Season 2 Episode 2
Doug Farquharson

We visit the city of Marlborough, MA and the Town of Natick, MA in this episode and take a look at the shoe making industry of the 19th century.

Show Notes Transcript

We visit the city of Marlborough, MA and the Town of Natick, MA in this episode and take a look at the shoe making industry of the 19th century.

(Recorded live in the field.) Hello Pedestal Peeps! I’m reporting from the field today and I’m in Marlborough Massachusetts in Centennial Park on the corner of Granger Boulevard and South Bolton Street. To commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of becoming a city, Marlborough dedicated this small park which consists of a semi-circular wavy brick wall and a brick path winding through some landscaping. And in the center of all this is what we’ve come looking for. When deciding what to put here, the city wanted something that would honor the citizens who populated the city and built it up into what it is today. The Shoemakers that I’m standing in front of represent those hard working people. The statue consists of two people, a man and a woman in the center of a round, foot or so tall granite pedestal. The male is depicted sitting on what is known as a shoemaker’s bench, hammer in one hand and a boot in the other. He appears to be nailing the heel onto the sole of the boot. Standing next to him is a woman in a dress inspecting a woman’s shoe. I’d guess she is about five and a half feet tall, give or take.

There are a few plaques and signs dedicating the park. It is one stop on what is known as The Museum in the Streets, which is a public project that identifies historically significant places and things around the city. It’s a pretty neat idea that I think we will probably take a closer look at in a future episode.

It's a rather busy intersection as you may have noticed. Parking is limited although there is a lot diagonally across the street. I often pass by here on the way to one of my jobs. During the winter, I’ve noticed that like other statues around New England, people have a habit of decorating it for Christmas by placing Santa hats on the workers’ heads and maybe wrapping an old scarf around their necks.

In this the second episode of season two, we will take a closer look at why The Shoemakers wound up here in Centennial Park. Join me back in the studio.

Hello and welcome to the New England on a Pedestal podcast. I am your host, Doug Farquharson in what I like to call our Studio North. If you follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and you should, you’ve seen a couple photos of Studio North. And if you’re wondering, it’s up in the lakes region of Maine where not even being on vacation can keep me away from this little podcast adventure for long.

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The Shoemakers, Marlboro MA

I found couple of interesting notes about the park and statues that we visited while reading an online version of the Main Street Journal, a local Marlborough newspaper. Almost all of the names on the bricks that make up Centennial Park are people who worked in the shoe factories. In some cases multiple generations of names are listed. In fact, the sculptor of this piece, David Kapetanopoulos worked in one of the factories for a brief period as did his parents and grandparents.

The same article went on to say, “The statues in Centennial Park show early shoeworkers, perhaps people who worked part-time making shoes out of a workshop attached to their home. When the shoe industry was beginning, much stitching and pegging was accomplished by individuals in "ten-footers.” Though small shoe shops might not have measured exactly ten feet by ten feet, "ten-footers” was the nickname for a work shed commonly found throughout New England during the mid 19th century as the cottage shoe industry began to thrive. Tanneries supplied the processed animal hides needed to produce shoes, which, at first, were not differentiated by left and right foot.”

Eventually, larger factories began to spring up around town and the shoe industry moved from the home to massive multi story buildings. There were approximately fifteen to twenty different shoe and boot manufacturers at one time or another in Marlborough including the Rockport Company established in 1971. Product was shipped all around the United States and to Cuba and the West Indies. Soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War wore boots made in Marlborough and the surrounding area. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders wore them as well.

Frye Shoe was founded in 1863 and is the longest continually operated shoe company in America. In 1888 their factory became the first to use electricity. Another factory, The Rice and Hutchins Shoe Company produced its own electricity and provided it for Marlboro Electric Railway which was only the second such rail system in America. One of the largest factories in America was the Boyd and Corey Shoe Factory which stood five stories high and covered one and a half acres. Many of the factory owners tried to out do each other as a symbol of their wealth and prosperity by building larger and larger personal mansions, as well as large housing developments for their workers. Many of these housing units still exist today. As more immigrants came to the states and more modern technology became available, the shoe making processed changed with the times and became more sectionalized and more like an assembly line. Through the last half of the 19th century, Marlborough enjoyed quite the economic boom. Around the turn if the century however, with workers striking amid the national movement for better working conditions and pay, the town and its factories saw a massive decline in production as factories were forced to close and people moved away to find other work. By 1983, there were no shoe manufacturers left.

Nearby there are several other statues and monuments as well and we could spend several episodes talking about them. But let’s just take a short walk and visit one of them.

(Recorded live in the field.) I took a walk about one block up from The Shoemakers statue and I’m on the Union Common at the corner of Main Street and Bolton Street. There are picnic tables and a small stage set up here for summer time concerts and events. In the corner of this open field closest to the intersection is the John Brown Bell Tower, listed as stop number eleven of the Museum in the Streets.  The tower is about two stories tall and is made of mostly of stone with brick making up the last couple feet below a medium sized bell under a small protective roof. So what is this all about. It’s actually an interesting tale that goes back to the American Civil War. In 1859, you may recall that John Brown and his band of abolitionists attacked the federal armory in Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. It ended badly for him as he was eventually hanged for treason. Flash forwards a few years and Company I of the Massachusetts 13th regiment who had more than a few Marlborough fire fighters among its ranks found themselves tasked with securing arms and other useful items from Harpers Ferry before the Confederates could take them. That’s where the story begins and it brings us here, across the street from The Vin Bin, a wine, cheese and sandwich shop in what was once the Marlborough fire station. It’s an interesting tale that we will dive deeper into in a future episode of New England on a Pedestal.

(Recorded live in the field.) We hopped into the Jeep and drove over to Natick, MA. We are now just off of Route 135 on the northwest corner of West Central St and Mill St. Route 135, as you may recall from last season is where part of the Boston Marathon is run. And we ventured down Route 135 on our very first episode, The Starter, when we discussed some of the statues that represent some of the things along the Boston Marathon route. So, it’s kind of cool that we find ourselves back on that route. So back to where I was. We’re on 135 in Natick, Mass. We’re in a little, tiny parking lot on the northwest corner of that intersection. That was West Central and Mill Streets. And it’s a little parking lot just before the O B Hill Trucking company. If you’ve come to the trucking company, you’ve come a little too far. Turn around, come back, find that small parking lot. Once you’re parked, we head up a red brick pathway into a little bit of a park. Lots of shrubbery, some grass, some beautiful trees. Nice little spot. It’s been taken care of by the town for years upon years. Up ahead of us, we see what looks to be a replica of the original Liberty Bell, minus its crack. And, from some of my research, the old Liberty Bell or replicas of the Liberty Bell, were a symbol of the Abolitionist Movement. So you’ll see them around different areas. This one here is about 4 ½ to 5 feet tall, sits in a nice cradle. Looks very nice and here it sits. Further up the park, we see a tan trim with red clapboard, one story, one room building. It would be probably about 12 to 14 feet wide, and I’d guess about 16 feet long. Couple of windows. Very, very simple. Small chimney sticking out of the top. On a stone foundation. And if you look inside the windows, we can see some old machinery, some tooling, and various other items that would have been used in the early to mid 19th century in shoe factories. Natick is also known as a place that had numerous shoe factories. One of many in Massachusetts. It’s kind of neat. It’s locked up. You can’t go inside, but you can see everything through the windows. A sign attached to the front of the building says “In this little shop, Henry Wilson, the 20th Vice President of the United States learned to make shoes. Was known as the Natick Cobbler.” And then there’s a sign out by the road that pretty much duplicates that. “In this shop worked Henry Wilson. The Natick Cobbler. Later Vice President of the United States. It’s a little bit of a misnomer. He wasn’t really a cobbler. He owned factories here and worked in the factories manufacturing shoes. So a little bit of a misnomer that he was a cobbler. But he is one of the things Natick is known for and the people here seem to be very proud of that fact and they keep this park and his building in great shape. We’ll talk a little bit more about Henry Wilson and the Natick shoe scene.

Henry Wilson was actually born in New Hampshire and named Jeremiah Jones Colbath where he lived and worked most of his young life. He was from a financially troubled family and his father indentured him to a nearby farmer until he was 21 years old. He changed his name and moved to Massachusetts once his service was over. Initially he apprenticed under a shoe maker but eventually set out on his own and while he did work in a ten footer for a time he soon grew as the railroads came to Natick and manufacturing of shoes moved from a cottage industry to the factories. So while the shop we visited referred to him as the Natick Cobbler, he was not a man who fixed shoes but rather a manufacturer o fine quality new footwear. In the middle of the 19th century he turned his interests to politics and the military and became an abolitionist. There is a story that goes on to say the Wilson had a southern customer who was in arrears to the tune of $700-$800, roughly $25000 today. When the customer wrote to him detailing how he intended to pay the debt by selling off several of his slaves, Wilson refused payment and wrote off the debt. He joined the Natick Militia and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. He entered politics and served as a senator from 1855 to 1873. From 1873 to his death in 1875 he served as Ulysses S Grant’s Vice President.  Interestingly, it was a political rival who first used the term Natick Cobbler and intended it as a political slur. Clearly, Wilson used it to his advantage with the working class Americans.

Today, in both Marlborough and in Natick, as well as many similar cities and towns in the area, you can still see what remains of the once mighty shoe industry in the form of old mill buildings and massive old homes. The Museum of the Streets we mentioned early in this episode is quite an interesting endeavor and is very worth the effort to visit and follow along its route throughout the city. Wilson has left his mark all over Natick: from his small cobbler shop to a middle school to a historic district to Street names.

Both places boast some wonderful eateries also. Try The Vin Bin in Marlborough or Fireflies across town. The Morse Tavern in Natick is a great place to meet the locals and wash down some fantastic pub fare with fresh cold draft beers. If Italian food is your thing, you can’t go wrong with Agostino’s.

As we mentioned before, the concept behind New England on a Pedestal is rather simple. Travel around our six-state area, find some interesting statues, and discuss them. We have a growing database of statues, monuments, and sculptures that we will be covering over time, but we certainly do not know all of them. That is where you can assist us. Shoot us an email at and tell us about a favorite or unique or odd statue you know. If you have additional information or maybe a correction about something we have already shared, please send it our way and perhaps, we will add an addendum to a later episode. What we are doing right? What we can do better? We can be reached via email at That’s New England on a Pedestal all one word at F A R Q I E dot com.  Go to Facebook and like the New England on a Pedestal page. Follow us on Instagram. 

Until next time, be safe, be well, and keep discovering. Thanks for Joining us!