No. 49: Industry Series – The Brown Shoe Company of Salem, Illinois

Until recently an interesting factory existed at the small railroad junction town of Salem, Illinois.  In the glory days B&O’s busy St. Louis line and the MP (the former “Mike & Ike”) met and interchanged in Salem.  MP maintained a yard and roundhouse just north of town.
The factory in question was the Brown Shoe Company, which was on the B&O a few hundred yards west of the B&O depot.  The Brown Shoe Company had its headquarters and a major plant facility in St. Louis, and smaller, outlying plants in places like Litchfield and Charleston, Illinois and Vincennes, Indiana.  Yes, this is where Buster Brown shoes were made.
I am grateful to my buddy Pat Carie of Vincennes, Indiana for allowing the use of photos from his historical collection in this post.  Pat has a great site on Flickr called Union Depot – Historic Rail Images.  It’s not your typical roster shot site.  Pat has posted a lot of cool pictures of the railroads of southern Indiana at work.  He has included a lot of nice shots of facilities, people, and a lot of interesting views from the very early 1900s.  The direct link is  It’s worth your time to take a look.
Salem Shoe, 1919
Above.   A view of the Brown Shoe plant in Salem circa 1929.  From the Patrick Carie Historic Railroad Archive Collection, Vincennes, Indiana.  The  B&O main line can be seen in the foreground with the main track farthest from the viewer.  The Google Earth view of the plant, seen below, shows its proximity to the B&O’s east-west St. Louis line.  North is “up”.  The depot is just barely out of view to the right.  The depot was still standing in 2015 and was in use by CSX maintenance crews.
What I always admired about the plant was it’s classic early-1900s brick architecture which included a loading dock for railroad cars, a separate building with a coal-fired heater, a large smokestack, and a water tower.  There are fewer and fewer of these factories around today which is one reason why it is important to document them and try to preserve their relationship with the railroads and the community.
Below are a number of detail photos I took of the plant around 2004.  Immediately below is a trackside view.  Studying the postcard view above, there was deep loading dock just to the left of the garage structure in the center of the photo–just about where the truck is parked–that reached out to a single-ended track on the property.
The view above is also a trackside view.  Studying the 1929 postcard above, box cars would have been loaded or unloaded behind the garage where the truck is sitting.  One single-ended track served the plant which left the main track at the distant left and continued adjacent to the building, toward the photographer, ending in the area where the No Parking sign is located.
Above.  This is where the plant starts to get interesting.  The one story building in the foreground most likely was a small power plant for the factory.  The single-ended siding that served the plant left the main line at the left, and proceeded alongside this structure.  I have a hunch that coal was delivered to the building here.
Below is a closeup of the area where I believe coal was delivered.  The tall silo may have been used to store coal.
Immediately below is a view of the Maple Street end of the building, which faces east.
Below is a popular view.  This is the Whittaker Street side of the plant, which faces north and the surrounding community.
Finally, below, a view of the water tower and smokestack near the College Street, on the west side of the facility.
Freight Traffic
I had a conversation on the B&O Yahoo Group about the factory.  There is not much information available on freight shipments but B&O expert Jim Mishcke speculated that freight traffic would probably be box cars in and out and that was about it.  Raw materials like leather, boxes, cartons, packing material, tools, equipment and parts inbound; finished goods outbound.
Jim also wrote, I would think that the low-bulk-density shoeboxes…there is lots of air between shoes…would make short, high boxcars desirable, but 10′-0″ Interior Height was considered high for B&O.  Packing the car with lightweight boxes, cartons or cases would be nowhere near load capacity by weight.  Whether B&O accommodated this shipper preference, what with plenty of 8′-4″ inside height M-26’s around, is unknown. 
The guys on the B&O list don’t have any freight records handy that record destinations for loaded cars, but potential destinations could be anywhere in the US and perhaps Canada.  The most likely destinations would be regional or city distribution warehouses, perhaps Sears Company warehouses, and so forth.  Cars with LCL loads could be delivered to smaller warehouses or railroad freight houses in smaller cities or large towns.
The Brown Shoe Company of Vincennes, Indiana
Below is a terrific view of the Brown Shoe Company plant in Vincennes, Indiana.  It is a photo worthy of study.  The plant resembles other Brown Shoe Company plants, such as the one in Salem, and is set up in a similar fashion.  It is also situated near a railroad junction–in this case, just barely out of view at the upper right–is the junction of the B&O, PRR, L&N (C&EI originally), and NYC lines.  This is another photo courtesy Patrick Carie, Historic Railroad Archive Collection, Vincennes, Indiana.
The family resemblance of this plant and the Salem plant is interesting.  The shape of the structure, the outbuilding on the far side, the single stack, and the water tower are signature items.  And a note to modelers; despite what we have always been told about modeling rooftops, the main factory building has nary a chimney, vent or fixture of any kind…just something that looks like an elevator or machinery house…and that’s it.
What’s this?  it looks like the flying photographer caught the plant during a local coal delivery.  We are the beneficiaries of his excellent timing.  Check out the closeup below.
I cropped Pat’s photo so we can check out the proceedings.  Sure enough, those trucks are delivering coal to the plant.  Note the truck dropping coal between the tracks and the conveyor moving the coal into the building.   At some point this plant likely received coal by railroad car.  A second, nearby empty truck gives us an indication that the plant had at least a one-railroad-car capacity.  There also appears to be a large, open-top bin behind the building trackside–perhaps that was at one time a coal bin.
Knowing what we know about the Salem plant, this photo gives us an indication that the Salem plant had a similar arrangement with one track and two spots–one for box cars, and one for coal delivery.  Note that I didn’t say “hoppers” as it was common for railroads in this region–in this era–to deliver coal in gondolas and box cars.
Another item worthy of note is the sawdust burner on top of the building.  Production waste, such as wood shavings (for shoe heels) and other remnants, were sent to this area and burned.
Unfortunately the plant was completely destroyed by a fire a few years ago.  The amazing picture below, courtesy of KTVI TV in St. Louis, shows the plant completely ablaze.  Interesting that the entire building is completely engulfed in flames.  According to news reports the fire was so hot that it destroyed several home in the community near the plant.  Thankfully the building was vacant at the time of the fire.
Jeff White, a friend from the B&O RR List on Yahoo Groups, e-mailed and told me an interesting story about the building.  Jeff wrote,
I was inside the Brown Shoe building a few times when I was with the Salem Police Department responding to burglar alarms.  I’m really surprised the building lasted as long as it did.  It seemed like a real fire trap.  There were a lot of household goods belonging to military families stationed overseas stored there back in the 1990s.  I forget the name of the contractor who was renting it as warehouse space.
I hope you enjoyed this installment and can make use of the information.  Thanks again to Pat Carrie for use of his photos.  Pat is a Great American.  – John G

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