Anyone who walks into the Vincennes JayC Store, using the Washington Avenue entrance, passes by a small plaque on a section of bricks embedded in the entry wall. The bricks and plaque commemorate the site as the one-time location of the Brown Shoe Factory. The factory had its official opening there on May 27, 1926, 95 years ago this month, and began producing shoes a few days later.
It was in November 1925 that Vincennes became a contender for the possible location of a Brown Shoe subsidiary factory. The company, which had general offices in St. Louis, already had 15 factories, all of those in Missouri and Illinois, with the exception of one in Union City, Tennessee. One of the big drawbacks for Vincennes as a choice was the distance from St. Louis. Brown had originally planned to build the factory just 70 to 75 miles away from their home offices. Many other cities were in the running, a number of those in Illinois. A plus for Vincennes was the fact that it was the largest city being considered.
There would be a big economic impact on whatever community landed the factory. Brown officials expected that it would in time employ more than 500 people and have an estimated annual payroll of half a million dollars. The choice was finally narrowed down to three cities: Vincennes and Effingham and Sullivan in Illinois.
At first, the chance of Vincennes getting the factory seemed hopeless, but the city persisted, with valuable assistance from J. W. Phipps, industrial agent for the B. & O. Railroad. On Nov. 9, an industrial committee appointed by the Chamber of Commerce went to St. Louis to discuss the city’s prospects with Brown officials. The latter agreed to come and tour Vincennes on Nov. 19 and were pleased with what they saw. More Brown representatives came four days later to look over prospective factory sites. Finally, on Nov. 27, 17 Vincennes businessmen and officials, among them Chamber President B. F. Nesbitt and mayor-elect Claude Gregg, took the train to St. Louis for a dinner with Brown officials at the Missouri Athletic Club. At that gathering, the announcement was made that Vincennes would get the factory, provided the city could meet the company’s requirements, chiefly payment of a $125,000 bonus to help cover the cost of the building and equipment.
The company had settled on the B. & O. SW Railroad ground across from Union Station on Locust Street as the site for the factory. This was an open area known as the B & O commons, where in the past traveling circuses had set up. For the factory to locate there, Locust Street had to be closed from Sixth Street to Fairground Avenue (now Washington Avenue).
A drive was started for subscriptions to raise the required $125,000. The city undertook a major effort to meet the total, with donations coming from individuals, businesses, and organizations. W. M. Alsop was chairman of the campaign.
On Dec. 11, a door-to-door city-wide canvass was held to help raise the money. At 7 p.m. that evening, factory whistles blew, sirens sounded, and car horns honked as people crowded Main Street. A sign had been placed on the lawn of City Hall at Fourth and Main streets and was electrified to flash red lights as the amounts subscribed were totaled. A band added to the festive atmosphere. At the conclusion, the goal was surpassed with $171,057.90 subscribed. When late subscriptions were added on, the total exceeded $172,000, a testament to what citizens could accomplish when they worked together to achieve a goal that would benefit the entire community.
Things moved quickly after the required money was subscribed. The contract between Brown and the city was signed and on Dec. 28, the construction contract for the factory was awarded at St. Louis. The Hoffman Construction Company of Evansville got the job with their low bid of $82,600. Victor C. Knauth, of Vincennes, received the plumbing and heating contract.
Ground for the three-story brick factory was broken in the beginning days of 1926, with the goal to have it completed by May 1. By the middle of January, the brick walls were already four feet high and by mid-February the walls of the third floor were going up. In late March, the factory was nearly complete, and the company announced it would begin operations on June 1. With that news, the city began planning a big celebration for the end of May to mark the opening.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.