Unique New England Museums: Brockton Shoe Museum

By Carla Charter

BROCKTON, MA. – Brockton was once known as the largest worldwide producer of shoes. The Brockton Historical Society has preserved this manufacturing legacy in their Shoe Museum.

“In Brockton in the early days,” according to Nicole Casper, president of the society.  “A lot of farmers made shoes in the winter in their Ten Footers, little houses in the back of their house, basically a shed like building, where they would do leather work and make shoes during the winter months.  The shoe industry grew from there.” The name Ten Footers, came from the fact that the area of the shop building was usually 10 feet by 10 feet.

“Millions of shoes were made a year, once technology allowed factory machinery to make the shoes. Two of the largest shoe companies in the city were W.L. Douglas Shoe Co. and George E. Keith Co. We were the largest maker of shoes worldwide from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. Thousands were employed, many of them immigrants,” Casper said.

Brockton shoes were sold worldwide, Casper continued, adding that Douglas had his face on the bottom of every shoe so they knew them around the world. Brockton had over 90 shoe factories and allied companies at the turn of the century

Brockton’s allied industries made heels, tacks, eyelets and other different parts of shoes. The shoe companies would then put the parts together. Two allied companies still exist in Brockton, Montello Heels and Barbour Wetting.

The shoe industry began a decline in the 1920’s due to several factors including companies moved south and north to Maine due to cheaper labor and the Great Depression. “After World War II until the 1950’s and 1960’s, foreign companies also had an impact,” Casper said.

The shoe museum started in the 1970’s with a donation of a large collection of shoes, many Brockton made, from the Doyle family. Money was raised and an addition was added on to the historical society to house the museum.

“In recent years we have partnered with Stone Hill College who helps store the collection of over 400 pairs of shoes and helps maintain the shoe displays at the society,” Casper said.  Currently there is a display of the W. L. Douglas Co.  Along with being a company owner Douglas also served as a Massachusetts Governor. There is also a display highlighting the George Keith Co.

Also on display are a collection of Presidential shoes some made in Brockton, “We have the sneakers of Bill Clinton, the shoes of George H.W. Bush, the shoes of Gerald Ford, and the sneakers of Jimmy Carter.

Shoemaking tools on display include those used to make shoes by hand and the original Cobbler bench of Zeba Keith from the 1700’s who was an ancestor of George E. Keith of the George E. Keith Co. The museum also has several different sewing machines relating to the shoe industry as well.

In October the museum will be holding a program on the Spanish Flu and World War I.  “As part of that program we will have military shoes of World War I on display.“

The historical society and museum is open on the first and third Sunday of every month. The society recommends people check their Facebook page to make sure they are open before visiting. More information on the Brockton Historical Society can be found at brocktonhistoricalsociety.org.