IBM-like support in 1906 – Hamilton-Brown Shoe Factory, 1123 Wilkes Blvd.

Last week, a May 18, 2010, article in the Columbia Missourian outlined a list of what it called unprecedented incentives provided to IBM to get it to open a service center in Columbia.

Those incentives, outlined by newspaper articles, include $28 million in tax credit incentives from the state as well as a city agreement to buy the building for $3.2 million and lease it to IBM for $1 (yes, one dollar) per year for 10 years. In return, IBM has promised to employ 600 to 800 people and stay for 10 years.

But this is not the first time a company has gotten help to locate in Columbia, nor a company promised to employ 600 workers and to stay here. The Hamilton-Brown Shoe Factory building at 1123 Wilkes Blvd., in Columbia, Missouri is an example of a similar, though less expensive, venture.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission’s Notable Properties List.

This historical building got its start in 1906, when the Hamilton-Brown Shoe Company contacted the newly formed Columbia Commerical Club, which would go on to become the Chamber of Commerce. At this time, all of the major shoe companies in St. Louis were seeking to open plants in smaller towns to save on labor costs. During this time period, St. Louis was the center of the world’s shoe manufacturing and Hamilton-Brown was the largest shoe manufacturer in the world.

The Columbia’s plant would be the company’s first foray outside of St. Louis.

To land this industrial plum, the Columbia Commerical Club had to agree to raise funds to buy the land and the factory and to install a railroad siding to serve the new factory. For its part, Hamilton-Brown agreed to operate the factory and keep a certain number of employees working for at least 10 years. At the end of that time period, the Commerical Club would sign the building over to the shoe company.

The Columbia Commercial Club raised the necessary funds, about $60,000, in roughly two months, to Alan R. Havig in his book 1984 book, “From Southern Village to Midwestern City: Columbia, An Illustrated History.”

In today’s dollars, $60,000 would be worth roughly $1.5 million in 2009 dollars, according to the website, which is derived from Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson publication, “Purchasing Power of Money in the United States from 1774 to 2010,” MeasuringWorth, 2009. URL

For a while, it was more or less a success, although it never met its promise of employing 600 workers.

It operated from 1907 until 1939, when it earned another note in history as the only large company in Columbia to close its doors permanently during the Depression.

Even before then, the company had had its problems.  

In 1916, the Columbia Missourian published a “scathing review of working conditions and quoted a nurse as saying, “Tuberculous persons should not be permitted to work in the factory because they spit on the floor and other inhale the germs with dust and become infected with the disease … I never saw so much careless expectoration as there is in the shoe factory. While I saw many signs warning the workers to be careful with their work, I did not see one warning them against spitting on the floor. I do not see how human beings can stand it. When I visited the factory in December the air was sickening,” according to the NRHP document.

Soon after, a new factory manager W.H. Braselton was brought in and the work day was cut from 10 hours to nine and workers received a 5 percent pay increase.

By 1917, things had improved and the Columbia Commerical Club determined the company had met its agreement and signed over the deed for the factory to Hamilton-Brown, according to the NRHP form.

In 1920, Braselton also gave the employees what the NRHP document calls a “surprising bonus” — a 10-day paid vacation. He denied it was due to a lack of work. Yet, documents show a year later, the workforce had fallen 50 percent, and in April 1921, only 178 workers were on the payroll. Work did rebound, however, and in 1923, the workforce stood at 369, who turned out an average of 2,000 to 3,000 pairs of shoes each day, notes the NRHP document.

After the shoe factory closed in 1939, the building continued in use for manufacturing into the early 1960s, for manufacturing wooden airplane propellers during World War II and then by the Ar-Cel Garment Factory.

Today, the building has been completely renovated and is owned by Atkins Investments and operates as an office complex.

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