Friday, April 9, 2010

Making Shoes in Derry, New Hampshire

A typical "ten footer"

Shoemaking was an important industry in New England. Shoemaking was the second biggest industry in Massachusetts during the 1800s and 1900s. Most shoe factories were based in Haverhill, Brockton and Lynn. Peabody, Massachusetts was called the “Leather City” and provided the leather for the shoemakers.

At first, the shoes were made at home workshops. Many people had a shoemaking shed in their yard, and the entire family worked on the shoes, one piece at a time. The women sewed the uppers, the men pegged the soles. The shoemakers were paid about 25 cents for each pair of shoes delivered to the distributors. These small shoemaking buildings survive still in many New England dooryards, and are called “ten-footers” because of their size.

Jan Matzeliger of Lynn changed the shoe industry by coming up with a method of making the shoes entirely by machine. Other inventors had made machines to cut parts of the shoes, or to sew some parts. Matzeligers machine made from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, and it was patented in 1883. Men were hired to man the machines in large factories that supplied the entire country with footwear.

The United Shoe Machinery Corporation, which I blogged about on April 8, 2010, made the machines that made the shoes. This corporation was based in Beverly, Massachusetts and became a monopoly on producing shoemaking machinery early in the 20th century, securing Massachusetts’ role in the shoe industry.

In 1870, Colonel William Pillsbury purchased 18 buildings in downtown Derry, New Hampshire for his shoe manufacturing enterprise. Formerly he was in Londonderry, but the move to Derry placed his factory closer to the railroad to Boston. The industry provided a major source of employment for Derry until 1960, when fire destroyed the large plant. As a volunteer for the website “Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness” I am often asked to trace families who came to Derry to work in the shoe business. Sometimes these families are in the Derry censuses for twenty years, and then the family retires from the factory life back to whence they came, and most often they stayed here, leaving marriage or death records, and obituaries in the Derry News.

The Pillsbury Shoe Factory

Most of the obituaries of the factory workers portray the life of a shoe worker. Life was good when everyone was gainfully employed, and the community flourished with churches and clubs. There was a train to Boston, and trolley lines ran to Manchester, Salem and Canobie Lake Park. The French Canadian workers worshipped at St Thomas Aquinas Catholic church, and belonged to the Knights of Columbus. The Yankee workers were born in upstate New Hampshire or Maine belonged to the First Parish Congregational Church, the Baptist church or St. Luke’s Methodist, and joined the Masons. Everyone belonged to the VFW and the Beaver Lake Association. These institutions all still exist here in Derry along Broadway and Crystal Avenue.

By 1900 three quarters of Derry’s population lived and worked in walking distance of Broadway, near the Pillsbury shoe factories. The farms were abandoned for factory work, and many became summer homes. It didn’t last forever, however, since the manufacturing of shoes moved to the southern US and overseas. The 1960 Chelmsford Shoe Factory fire destroyed the wooden factories and tenements, and they were not rebuilt. The last shoe manufacturer in Derry, Klev Bros, closed in 1989. Local workers had to travel to Manchester or Massachusetts to find manufacturing work. Broadway is now lined with small businesses and homes. Most shoes Americans wear today are not produced domestically.

Today, the shoe industry has been replaced by high tech manufacturing companies in Derry, and most of the business community continues to be made up of many family-owned businesses. The opening of Route 93 in the 1960s provided a boost to the population. The Derry population is now 5 times bigger than it was in 1963. Both Londonderry and Derry have become bedroom communities for commuters to Manchester, Massachusetts and even Boston. The noon lunch whistle no longer blows for the factory workers at the old brick fire station on Broadway, because now it is an Irish Pub.


For More information:

Nutfield Rambles, by Richard Holmes, 2007

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Coming from the high desert areas of Oregon -- and the scent of sagebrush in the air --- it is most interesting to hear about the people and times on the east coast. Very interesting.

    Also, really enjoy the pictures.

  2. I'll bet that a lot of these shoes were shipped out to Oregon 50 or 100 years ago!