Red Wing boots and Sven Clogs have a few things in common: Both are brands worn around the world and made in Minnesota, in factories that are about an hour away from the Twin Cities — in Red Wing and Chisago City, respectively. And their factory outlets happen to make perfect day-trip destinations, especially if you love shoes. My family made pilgrimages to both this spring.
“The sign says no climbing!” I warned my 3-year-old daughter as she tried to jump and touch the cream-colored contrast stitching along the toe. (She couldn’t.)
Red Wing Shoes was first established in 1905 by a German immigrant shoe salesman named Charles Beckman in a lovely little Mississippi River city about 55 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. It still employs about 1,000 people in Red Wing.
The company no longer offers public tours of its factory and tannery buildings. Still, the “shoe museum” that opened in 2009 inside the store at 315 Main St. gives an interactive glimpse of how the shoes are put together and the company’s history. And there’s that giant boot. Built in 2005 to celebrate the company’s centennial, it’s a blown-up but exact replica of the popular 877 model, first released in 1952.
My family of four spent a morning at the store and museum (651-388-6233; stores.redwing.com/red-wing-mn).
We first checked out the new Wall of Honor, a collection of well-worn and at times inspiring boots that was installed in March. Each boot has a plaque with its model number and the name, occupation and hometown of the person who wore them and sent them in to the company. One such person is Bill Rapetti, a Massapequa Park, N.Y., crane engineer and operator who wore his Red Wing 1203s during recovery work at Ground Zero.
A self-guided tour takes you through well-designed displays — from a pair of 1908 black lace-ups believed to be the company’s very first boots to a dated marketing ploy they used in the 1950s: a life-sized statue of the town’s Dakota Sioux namesake, Chief Red Wing, that was sent to dealers around the country to sit outside their stores.
Videos give an inside peek into the manufacturing plant, and a flow chart on the back wall shows each step in a work boot’s construction, leather piece by leather piece.
When in Red Wing, the shoe store and museum is worth a visit even if you don’t feel like shopping — if only to take a selfie with the giant boot. However, an in-person stop can also mean major savings on Red Wing’s beautifully made shoes. The basement outlet sells closeouts and factory seconds at as much as 70 percent off retail, while the main-level store has the biggest selection of Red Wing models — including the lovely women’s boots in their Heritage collection — available anywhere.
By the time my husband was trying on his third pair, our youngest daughter was in full toddler mode, yelling “shoe” and pulling down boxes. We decided to get lunch.
A few blocks away on Bush Street, Bev’s Cafe (651-388-5227; bevscafe.com) serves breakfast all day. We loved the pancakes made with Sturdi- wheat, a patented mix created by a Red Wing farmer back in 1939.
Next we headed to Colvill Park, which juts out into the Mississippi River and offers great views of the bald eagles that spend their winters fishing in the open water. We spotted five of the majestic birds right away — and spent a long time watching one right above us in a tree, its eyes on the water, scanning for fish.
“Owl!” our little one yelled.
“Eagle!” we answered.
Chisago City and the Swedish Circle
We were deep in the clearance racks at the Sven Factory Outlet Store (651-257-4591; svensclogs.com) in Chisago City, about 40 miles northeast of Minneapolis. Right below us, workers were cutting and stapling leather in the 24-employee factory in the basement of this farmhouse.
“Mom! You should get the pink ones!” my 3-year-old exclaimed, eyeing a pair of shiny patent leather clogs in a Pepto-Bismol-like shade.
Founded in 1974, Sven has been making clogs in Chisago City for a little over three decades. In the world of clogs, Sven is a major name, picked to make clogs for the Clogmaster, a West Coast “clog guru” famous for holding personal fittings in Manhattan and Los Angeles. They don’t offer tours, so a visit is really all about shopping in the factory outlet to get significant in-person savings, check out clogs in a dizzying array of leathers, heights and styles and maybe even order a custom pair.
We tried on more than a dozen pairs of clogs — and got help from a salesperson, who had my oldest daughter tap her toes on the floor to test the size — before settling on Mary Janes in a robin’s egg blue for her and a purple suede pair with a decorative seam for me. We headed outside to check out the garden gnome in front of the factory and happened upon a few workers on lunch break. “I bet I cut out the leather for those shoes,” one woman told us, smiling.
At lunch, a half-mile mile up Hwy. 8 at the Northern Lake Tavern & Grill overlooking Lake Martha (651-257-0100; thenorthernlaketavern.com), the tater tots were crispy, dusted with parsley and salt, and amazing. No fewer than three of the waitresses complimented us on our clogs.
Chisago City is the first in a chain of towns extending northeast along Hwy. 8 that call themselves the “Swedish Circle.” 0After lunch, we drove about 3 miles north to Lindström. In the 1990s, the locals decorated their old water tower like a Swedish coffee pot, complete with giant rosemaled flowers. More recently, this city of around 4,500 fought to keep the umlaut in its road signs. We popped into the cozy and fragrant Lindstrom Bakery, home of the “Scandinavian Donut,” and left with ginger cookies.
Our last stop was the 43-acre Franconia Sculpture Park (651-257-6668; franconia.org), about 7 miles from Lindström and open from dawn to dusk every day, free to the public. It’s home to more than 100 sculptures, including Bridget Beck’s Playstation, a fanciful play structure. We changed out of our new clogs and into mud boots, and my oldest was off running with delight toward the sculpture’s swings.
Erica Pearson (ericapearson.contently.com) is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis.