Built in 1830, the Henry Wilson Shoe Shop is located in Natick, Mass.
The tiny wooden workshop, known as a “ten footer,” was used by Henry Wilson (1812-1875), a shoemaker who eventually became Vice President of the United States from 1873 until his death in 1875.
Wilson was born (birthname: Jeremiah Jones Colbath) in Farmingham, New Hampshire, to a family of little means. At just 10 years old, little Jeremiah was indentured by his father to a farmer until the age of 21.
“In 1833 he was released from his apprenticeship and Jeremiah changed his name to Henry Wilson, inspired either by a biography of the Philadelphia school teacher Henry Wilson or by a portrait of the Rev. Henry Wilson in a volume on English clergymen,” according to the Natick Historical Society‘s website.
“He then left Farmington and it is said that he walked 100 miles from Farmington to Boston, where he settled in the town of Natick. He became an apprentice to a master Natick shoemaker, and after just a few weeks of training Wilson ventured out on his own.”
“In 1837, the railroad arrived in Natick and the town’s shoemaking industry boomed. In 1838, at the age of 26, Henry Wilson employed 18 workers and produced 18,000 pairs of shoes. In 1847, his company manufactured 122,000 pairs of shoes and employed 109 workers.”
Wilson’s specialty was the “brogan,” a simple, inexpensive leather shoe. “Strictly speaking, Wilson was a “cordwainer”, which is a highly trained artisan who could make shoes using new leather, and not a “cobbler” who could only repair shoes,” the website says. “Most of his customers were located in the American South, where many enslaved people on plantations wore them.”
Despite his clientele, Wilson was an outspoken abolitionist. Once, he refused a payment equivalent to more than $25,000 in today’s terms, after finding out the debtor planned to sell slaves to pay his debt to Wilson.
He set his sights on the military and politics during the 1850s, becoming involved in the anti-slavery movement, working hard behind the scenes to try to prohibit slavery from moving out West, and to work toward giving Blacks the right to vote, although that would not come for many years.
A political adversary was the first to unkindly refer to Wilson as the “Natick Cobbler.” However, Wilson later turned the slur into a political asset. In the 1872 presidential race General Ulysses S. Grant and Henry Wilson campaigned under the Workingman’s Banner as the “Galena Tanner” and the “Natick Shoemaker.”
The Shoe Shop was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.