Toasting Tradition

Boots, bowls, and now beer in the heritage haven of Red Wing

The last stop on my Red Wing itinerary should probably have been my first. But it was early when I arrived—too early for the kind of beverages poured out at the new Red Wing Brewery. Scott Kolby and William Norman opened the brewpub’s doors last December, ending Red Wing’s 61-year brewing dry spell with the kind of operation that makes you want to knock off work on a Friday afternoon and hold down a table here for the next few hours—even if you work in the Cities.

The place is a locavore’s dream, from the pizza dough and garlic bread (made by Hanisch Bakery a mile up Main Street) to the wine (supplied by nearby Falconer Vineyards and Cannon River Winery). Even the labels lean local, with photographs by Kolby and Norman that match the beer names: Jordan Creek IPA, People’s Porter, Barn Bluff Brown Ale, Work Boot Red Ale, Stoneware Stout.

If any place deserves to celebrate itself, it’s Red Wing. Here, history isn’t repeating, but continuing. Boots, pottery, the Mississippi River—same as they ever were. Only now the boots are sold for hundreds of dollars by J.Crew and the pottery is hot on eBay: staying true to your roots never paid so well. But it didn’t happen by accident. Red Wing is a tightly knit place, woven together by passionate shop owners and friendly residents. Chatting with Brian Schneider and Tom Quanrud in their Inspired Home & Flower Studio resulted in a list of people I should talk to next: Nicole at the St. James Hotel, Tracy at Downtown Main Street, Laurie at The Port, Scott at Red Wing Brewery. The list goes on, stalwarts all of them.

At Red Wing Shoe Company’s flagship store, the whiff of leather-scented masculinity belies the boots’ handcrafted beauty, each pair a wearable piece of history. That history includes the world’s largest boot: a 16-foot tall, 20-foot long, 7-foot wide, size 638 ½ D monster in the store’s entryway. It’s impressive and Instagram-worthy, but I’m more awed that the boot-making process hasn’t changed since the company began in 1905. 

Red Wing Pottery displays the same dedication. Aside from a 20-year lapse in production (from 1967 to 1987), these clay crocks, jugs, and mugs have been a signature Red Wing product since 1878. The pieces aren’t glamorous by any means, their gray/tan base more practical than flashy. But as I hold one of the mugs, my fingers curling around its sturdy base as I imagine the steaming coffee that will fill it, I feel a sense of unity with this place—a connection deeper than any mass-produced, made-in-China cup could ever elicit.

A mug, a pair of boots: these are the trades that put Red Wing on the map and keep it there. But they aren’t what make it a destination. I find that in the people behind the counters—of stores, museums, inns, bars. At the Red Wing Arts Association Gallery, housed in the historic 1905 railroad depot, I spend an hour chatting with a volunteer. While browsing the Scandinavian gifts at Uffda Shop, the saleswoman tells me she grew up in Red Wing, moved away for many years, and then returned, because “there’s no place quite like it.” Laurie, the bartender at the lovely St. James Hotel’s The Port, knows my order even before I do. With every interaction, my appreciation of and attachment to the city grows, and by the time I burrow into bed at the Golden Lantern Inn, I’ve fallen for Red Wing.

My history tour continues the next day at Sheldon Theatre, a sort of miniature Orpheum. Built as a lavish venue for traveling shows in 1904, the theatre was converted to screen movies during the Great Depression. Much of its original glamour—glittering gold accents and intricately carved marble—was lost in the process and would have remained so if not for a major restoration in the mid-1980s.

At Pottery Place Antiques, I’m literally immersed in the past, surrounded by endless aisles of Depression glass, vintage toys, and well-thumbed novels. This is where history ends up, it seems, in a town that throws nothing away to progress.

History comes full circle as I relax onto my barstool at Red Wing Brewery, a pint of People’s Porter in hand. Within the walls of this strip-mall pub lives Red Wing’s other signature calling card: beer. Taking another sip, I don’t think history’s ever tasted better.
 

MNMO’S GUIDE TO RED WING

WHERE TO STAY
Live like a president at the Golden Lantern Inn. Former Red Wing Shoe President Jesse R. Sweasy spared nothing when building his home in 1934, and it’s just as majestic today (721 East Ave., goldenlantern.com).

WHAT TO DO
See how boots are made at Red Wing Shoe Company (tours run May–October; corner of Cannon River Ave. N. and Hwy. 61; redwingshoes.com). Watch potters at work at Red Wing Pottery (1920 W. Old Main St., redwingpottery.com). See a show at the Sheldon Theatre (443 W. Third St., sheldontheatre.org). See art in action at Anderson Center, the largest artists-in-residence program in the upper Midwest (163 Tower View Dr., andersoncenter.org).

WHAT TO EAT
Get the donut of the day at Hanisch Bakery (410 W. Third St., hanischbakery.com). Grab pizza and a pint at Red Wing Brewery (1411 W. Main St., redwingbrewing .com). Enjoy fine eats and cozy digs at The Port (406 Main St., st-james-hotel.com). Friday nights, head to Marie’s for the fish buffet (217 Plum St., mariesunderground.com).

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