Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Earth Shoe

     When the Plymouth Shoe Company ceased operations in Middleborough in 1970 it left 800 local workers unemployed and the former Leonard & Barrows manufactory on Center Street vacant. In summer 1972 the Earth Shoe Company, a subsidiary of Kalsø Systemet, Inc., a Danish company best known for its production of Earth Shoes, acquired the former Leonard & Barrows plant and commenced production a few months later. At the time Raymond Jacobs of the Earth Shoe called Middleborough “a shoe industry ghost town” in reference to the large number of residents that had once been employed in the industry.
      Developed in the late 1950s and 1960s by Danish yoga instructor Anne Kalsø, Earth Shoes featured a “negative heel” which shifted the wearer’s weight from the front of their foot to the back, thereby improving both posture and comfort. While on a vacation in Copenhagen in 1969 with his wife, photographer Raymond Jacobs discovered the shoe which he began to sell as the awkwardly-named Kalsø Minus Heel Shoe at a store he opened on East 17th Street in Manhattan on April 1, 1970. That date coincided with the first Earth Day and in a stroke of marketing inspiration, Mrs. Jacobs named the shoe Earth Shoe. The shoe immediately became popular and in 1972 the Middleborough plant was opened as the company’s sole American manufactory.
      Demand for the shoe was driven by ads in national magazines and mentions in the Whole Earth Catalogue while television programs such as the Tonight Show, What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth also featured the shoes. By 1975 there were 100 outlets in the United States selling Earth Shoes which were also available through mail order. Celebrities such as Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, Peter Fonda and Bob Dylan were all noted to wear the “fan-toed clodhoppers”. So great was the demand that the Middleborough factory could not keep up. Newsweek magazine’s October 14, 1974 edition noted that the Middleborough plant had quadrupled its staff to 200 over the previous year and had similarly quadrupled production to 250,000 pair annually.
      The Earth Shoe was a unique product. Judy Wiksten, writing for the Middleboro Gazette in 1972 described the shoe for her readers. “An Earth Shoe, to put it mildly, is an extraordinary object….Although they’re frankly not beautiful, they are marketable dynamite.” Time magazine referred to them as “clumpy footwear that defies most principles of shoemaking.” Even Jacobs acknowledged their apparent lack of fashion appeal. “The basis is not style, but function”, he said. Consumers agreed and lines formed outside stores of customers eager to buy.
Ultimately the failure of the company to meet this demand created issues between Earth Shoe and retailers which in turn led to legal action. Only five years after the Middleborough plant was established, the company was dissolved in 1977. Still the brand survives today.

Plymouth Shoe Company manufactory, Center Street, Middleborough, MA, photographic half-tone from the Middleboro Gazette, January 8, 1970.
The image accompanied an article concerning rumors of the possible closure of the plant, an action blamed on increased foreign competition. The plant in fact did close later that year. The photograph was taken from near the corner of Pearl Street and shows the Center Street façade.

Earth Shoes
A sample pair of the iconic Earth Shoe.

Earth Shoe advertisements, 1974
Much of Earth Shoe's advertising was geared towards explaining the shoe's concept and benefits. The top ad appeared in newspapers across the country while the bottom was seen in national news and fashion magazines. Due to advertising like this, the demand for Earth Shoes soared and production could not keep up.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"Recollecting Nemasket" Inspires Dutch Singer-Songwriter

      “Guess you never expected a Dutch singer/songwriter to write and record an album based on stories from Middleborough”. Frankly I would have said no to such a suggestion, but that was precisely the line that greeted me in last Friday morning’s email. Inspired by articles about Middleborough history posted on Recollecting Nemasket, Dutch independent singer-songwriter Wouter Broekman has released two songs, “101 in the Shade” and “Cranberry Swamp”, as a double A-side single and is currently at work completing a fourth album based upon historical Middleborough material.
     While the international appeal of Middleborough history seems at first remarkable, that Broekman has chosen to draw upon Middleborough history is unsurprising in the final analysis. Both historians and songwriters share a common desire to tell stories. And while local history is often perceived as narrow and very specific in regard to geographical location, like history in general it is about documenting and understanding the human condition over time. Localization of history simply makes the themes it explores more accessible, immediate and relatable to local audiences who can understand them better because they know the people and places involved. In the end these themes remain universal and transcend locality, having a potential appeal to a global community as demonstrated by Broekman.
     “101 in the Shade” draws its inspiration from a Recollecting Nemasket post regarding the summer of 1911 when one of the worst heatwaves and extended droughts in Middleborough’s history was recorded. The song’s title is taken from an item in the Middleboro Gazette that reported July 3 as the hottest day for many years with the temperature hitting “101 in the shade at the postoffice at noon.”
     In it Broekman writes:

Cause it’s close to 101 in the shade
The rising heat sets fire to the fallen hay
101 in the shade
Get off the land, this ain’t no workin’ day

    The second track on the single, “Cranberry Swamp” takes it lyrics from
a poem simply entitled "Cranberry" that was originally published in the mid-19th century at a time when commercial cranberrying was in its infancy. It was republished by Recollecting Nemasket in 2009 where Broekman discovered it. As alluded to in the poem by the unknown author, children were involved in harvesting the berry and some local schools like that at South Middleborough were closed in September in order to free the children to work on the bogs or, as they were known in mid-19th century parlance, "swamps".

In Autumn, when weather is cool,
We'll join in a holiday romp;
Away from the school we will hie,
Away to the Cranberry swamp.

The Strawberry, Raspberry too,
And Blackberry, quickly gone;
The Blueberry cannot endure
When frost and the snow come on.

But Cranberries where they are grown,
Or put into family store,
Care nothing how cold it may be,
And last till the winter is o'er.

They last till the Strawberries spring
All lonely and ripe from the sod,
And berries thus circle the year
With proofs of the goodness of God.

To accompany the poem, Broekman has written a distinctly American-feeling folk tune that is beautiful in its simplicity and ideally suited to the lyric.
     Both songs are part of Broekman’s current project, “A Life in Song”, a CD of American folk-style songs drawn from Middleborough history. Broekman explained the origins of his lyrical inspiration in an email to me:  “Some time ago I stumbled upon the story of 6-year old Wallace Spooner, who died after jumping out of a window of Ocean House on the banks of the mill pond on Wareham Street - as featured on your blog. The story inspired me so much that I am currently writing and recording an Americana-style CD around this fact. The songs of the album tell the -partly fictitious/partly true- story of the Spooner family. I am incorporating several historic events from Middleborough, such as the burning down of the Alden shoe factory, the hottest day in years, the Cranberry Poem and more. I have written a song about the demolition of Ocean House as well.”
     The Ocean House was a ramshackle building located on the west shore of the mill pond at Wareham Street, its name a possibly satiric barb aimed at luxury hotels which were then in vogue at the seaside. For local Middleborough children without means, this was their ocean-side alternative. The Ocean House proved popular with neighborhood children who would dive from its open windows into the mill pond below. This activity ended, however, following the tragic 1905 death of six year old Wallace Spooner who while engaged in diving from the building struck his head upon a stone wall, fell into the river and drowned. Nothing, however, was done with the property until 1908 when the Middleborough Board of Health condemned the structure which was demolished two years later in spring of 1910.
     Broekman currently performs regularly in the Netherlands and always includes both “101 in the Shade” and “Cranberry Swamp” in his set, along with others he has written but yet to record. He describes his songs as having "clear influences of folk, country and Americana with a contemporary singer/songwriter sauce.... The acoustic guitar is my main support."
     Both songs may be heard on Bandcamp and Broekman's own site.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

South Main Street Snow, Easter 1915

South Main Street looking southwestward from Nickerson Avenue (right) and Webster Street (left). The street is virtually impassable save for the street railway tracks.

Another View from Easter 1915

The intrepid photographer that ventured out to capture the scene of Center Street covered by snow on Easter Sunday (April 4), 1915, also took this photograph of Peirce Academy with the Central Baptist Church in the background. (Thatcher's Row is just out of the image to the left). The Middleborough Post Office now occupies the site of the Academy building which at the time housed the district court for Middleborough.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Easter Sunday, 1915

One of the more historically notable snowstorms in Middleborough's past was the blizzard of Easter Sunday 1915. Described by the Middleboro Gazette as one of the worst in years, the storm in early April dumped a considerable quantity of snow on the town leaving church-goers on April 4 to confront the remarkably un-spring-like scene in the photograph above. The view depicts Center Street taken from in front of what is now Santander Bank. Recognizable is the Glidden Building at the right of the view. Though little plowing has been done, the street railway has managed to clear its tracks and the owners of the T. W. Pierce hardware store (the building at the immediate right with the sign marked "SHOES") have shovelled the sidewalk in front of their building, now the site of Benny's. The image below shows nearly the same view without snow.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Horse Founders in Snow, 1886

   Prior to the arrival of the automobile, the arrival of winter snow meant the substitution of sleighs for carriages and the replacement of wheels with runners, with runnered vehicles gliding easily on hard-packed snow. Deep snows however were another matter and were sometimes difficult for horses to negotiate. In certain circumstances the snow could be downright dangerous.  Following a storm in February 1883, the Middleboro Gazette recounted one story - part ghost tale, part animal rescue - that spoke to the dangers heavy snow could present horses.

   Two young men came over from East Taunton, in a sleigh, last Sunday, and left the team standing on Benton street, near Cornelius Murphy's residence. The horse became restive, and finally went off on his own account. It was between nine and ten o'clock that night, when John Driscoll's boys were going to bed., on looking from the window over the meadow between the house and the river they saw some dark object moving, and having read about a 'ghost on School street,' were affrighted, and called for the father. The father advised them to go to bed, and not watch the dogs any longer. But they protested, and said they knew it was not dogs, until finally Mr. Driscoll went out, with stout stick in hand, to drive off the dogs, when behold he found a horse lying upon his side in a snow-bank tangled up in the harness. He sent for help, and the horse and sleigh that belonged to the Taunton boys was rescued from a position in which the horse would have soon died. He ran through Lincoln avenue, and up by Mr. Churchill's residence, and over an embankment of five feet depth, overturning the wall, breaking the sleigh, and tearing off his skin in several places. The only wonder is that he was discovered at all.

Old Sturbridge Village Sleigh Rally by Marcy Reed, 2013 

The Middleboro Gazette, "Middleboro", February 13, 1886, page 4.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Vandalous Pigs That Swim, 1895

Sadly Middleborough's cemeteries, like those elsewhere, are periodically the objects of vandalism.  In the early autumn of 1895, the Nemasket Hill Cemetery saw its grounds vandalized by unlikely perpetrators - pigs - who swam along the river.  The incident was recorded in the Middleboro Gazette of October 10, 1895.

A number of pigs created sad havoc in the Hill cemetery last week. They evidently swam the river, and several lots, some of the best, were badly torn up and considerable expense has been required to put them in proper condition again.

No record is given of either the pigs' owner or the fate of the transgressors.

Middleboro Gazette, "Middleboro", October 10, 1895, page 4.