Explore the history of the sole-surviving remnant of Portsmouth, Ohio’s once mighty shoe industry, Mitchellace, Inc. This “narrow fabrics” company emerged from the Panic and Great Recession of 2008 with new ownership and a new name – Sole Choice, Inc., marketing itself as “the SOLE choice for your shoe care and foot care needs.”
Sole Choice now occupies what was originally the Excelsior Shoe Factory and its history is intimately tied to that of Sole Choice. Excelsior began in 1889 under the visionary leadership of Portsmouth native, John E. Williams, who had worked as a laster in the Drew-Selby Shoe Company from 1882 until 1888. In May 1914, Excelsior moved into their newly built factory on Murray Street, where they specialized in the manufacture of men’s and boy’s shoes, particularly their popular line of “Boy Scout” boots. At the time, the factory employed more than one-thousand workers. Today, the Excelsior origins of the factory can be seen emblazoned in the brick smoke stack of the facility’s original dedicated power station.
In the 1922, Forest L. Williams, Sr. and his brothers, A. Graves Williams and Paul Grant Williams – three nephews of John Edwards Williams, the founder of Excelsior – reorganized the company, which would later be known as Williams Manufacturing, Inc. During the Depression, Williams’ business would actually grow, as they produced cheap shoes for children and adults. Over the 1930s and 40s, the company saw substantial growth, while Selby Shoes, the city’s other large (and older) shoe manufacturer, went into decline. Selby’s management found their high end lines of women shoes losing marketshare, and the once thriving company fell victim to a hostile takeover in 1957. While the exodus of Drew Shoes in 1937, following that year’s devastating flood, marks the start of the industry’s decline, the closure of Selby, in retrospect, now clearly heralded doom for the area shoe workers. Selby’s machines were unbolted and relocated, the former factory used as a warehouse before its demolition in the early 1990s.
But, back in 1950, at what could be argued was the height of the city’s shoe industry, 16% of the Portsmouth work force was in shoes – 1,900 at Selby and 2,000 at Williams. By the mid-1970s, all that remained was the shoelace company that the Selbys and Williams had first set up in 1902 as Mitchell Manufacturing.
This company’s roots can be traced back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where A. E. Hume, one of Selby’s traveling salesmen, made a stop at a retail store owned by Charles Mitchell. As it turned out, Mitchell had recently designed and installed a dispensing machine for dispensing shoe-laces. “Put a nickel in, pull a nob, and a shoe lace fell out,” is how Kerry Keating, the former company president, once explained its operation. Struck by the business potential, the Hume convinced Charlie Mitchell to visit Portsmouth and discuss his invention with George Selby, the leading manufacturer of shoes in the city.
Thanks to Selby, an invitation to meet with Mitchell was also extended to John E. Williams and W. G. Williams of Excelsior. These four men struck a deal and formed a new entity, the Mitchell Manufacturing Company. Mitchell then set up a factory to produce shoelace dispensing machines, which the company planned to stock with their own manufactured shoe laces. The laces were first bought by Excelsior and Selby, and other local factories, and were later marketed and sold to other shoe makers around the nation. In 1912, Mitchell moved their operations
In 1921, Charles Mitchell retired from the company and his younger brother D. D., or “Dave,” Mitchell became superintendent of the factory, while Mark W. Selby, George Selby’s son, became its president. The company was reorganized in the depths of the Great Depression and rechristened Mitchellace, Inc. In the 1950s, Mitchellace began selling laces on a large scale to the retail market, or what is known as the self-service trade. This shift in operations away from the shoe factory business coincided with the overall decline in the American shoe industry, enabling Mitchellace to grow at a time when the rest of Portsmouth’s shoe makers went under.
The key to Mitchellace’s success in the 60s and 70s was their development of the blister pack for marketing laces in the mass retail shoe and variety store markets. Sylvan Orloff of Des Moines, Iowa, is credited with the concept of putting one-to-three pairs of laces into a blister pack for sale and distribution. In 1959, Orloff pitched the concept to D. D. Mitchell and he embraced it, forming a partnership with Orloff’s Tye-Rite, Inc. Orloff and Mitchell then tasked Neville Trimble, a longtime machinist at Mitchellace to put the concept into practice. It was Trimble who designed and built the original blister shoelace packing machines. Mitchellace shoestrings would then be marketed under the brand name, “Tye-Rite Laces.” D. D. Mitchell would run the business until his death in 1962, when the presidency passed to Kerry Keating, the twenty-six year old husband of D. D. Mitchell’s grand-daughter, Vicky.
Keating formed a partnership with Orloff and by 1970, they had acquired control of the company through Keating’s purchase of the Selby and Williams families’ stock, whose issuing dated back to the earliest days of the company. Keating succeeded in buying back all but six shares, which were kept for sentimental purposes by two descendants of the Williams.
In the words of Dennis Breen, who wrote a piece on the company in 1999, “Under Keatings management, Tye-Rite and Mitchellace went on a buying spree, purchasing competitors in Los Angeles and Tarpon Springs, Fla., then moving their equipment and manufacturing capacity to Portsmouth.”
In 1976, Williams shut down and the last Portsmouth shoe factory fell silent. Two years later, Kerry Keating moved Mitchellace from its 8th Street factory north one block, thus bringing life back to the old floors of the Excelsior and Williams factory. A “booming national market in jogging and running shoes” in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought on “a corresponding surge in the demand for laces.” Yet competition for market share was stiff, as the factory trade for laces in the United States plummeted in 1980.
Orloff was fond of telling people, “We call them laces and say our competitors make shoestrings.” Call them what you will, product demand was all that really mattered. “About a year after the company moved to the larger facility,” noted Breen, “the bottom nearly dropped out from under Mitchellace. Shoe companies throughout the United States rapidly began moving production overseas, mainly to developing East Asian countries with cheaper labor. The industry’s sudden shift caused wild fluctuations in shoelace sales throughout the 80s. ‘Lets put it this way,’ Keating says, ‘85 percent of all shoes sold in the United States are imported, a reversal of the way it used to be.’ Mitchellace lost 700 to 800 customers (U.S. shoe manufacturers) in the process.”
“In the early Eighties, that’s when it all changed. People started sourcing overseas – Far East,” explained Keating. “There was a big adjustment for us because our customer-base was eroding. …. The Chinese came into the picture. They just take something, duplicate it for you, and ship you the product at their cheap prices.” According to Keating, “It snowballed in the 80s. Certain people became very adept in going over there, making the contacts, importing the shoes and American shoe manufacturers began dropping off like flies because they weren’t competitive.”
Keating bought out Sylvan Orloff in 1985 and took full ownership of Mitchellace. In 1991, he began to diversify its lines, introducing Shine Rite Shoe Polish and other shoe care products. Then, in 1997, Mitchellace acquired property in Honduras, where the company built a 37,000 square foot shoelace factory at Zip Bufalo, an Export Processing Zone (EPZ), or free trade industrial park. Located in Villanueva, Zip Bufalo markets itself and nearby Port Cortes as “the main gateway to the Atlantic side of Central America.” Its significance, their website points out, shown by the “permanent US Customs office” that has operated there “since the beginning of 2006.”
Eventually, Mitchellace would transfer most of their production to Honduras, with the Portsmouth factory focusing on packaging a portion of their Zip Bufalo-made laces. Thus, in one of those odd twists of modern international trade, the Honduran factory began shipping tipped and paired laces back to Murray Street, in Portsmouth, Ohio, where Neville Trimble’s machines blister-packed the shoestrings for sale in what remained of Mitchellace’s US market.
In further illustration of the globalization of the shoe industry, Mitchellace also began shipping laces manufactured at Zip Bufalo to China, where old American shoe companies, like Field & Flint of Brockton, Massachusetts (doing business as FootJoy) had outsourced their production. Before the economic crisis of 2008, FootJoy golf shoes, with Honduran-made Mitchellace shoestrings, were shipped across the Pacific and sold into the US market.
Mitchellace, like FootJoy, was a survivor. These two companies, whose origins can be traced back to the earliest days of America’s shoe industry, help tell the tale of deindustrialization. Their recent international business dealings in Honduras and China illustrates the perfect storm of the 1970s and 80s that wiped out American shoe manufacturing. Cheaper labor and production costs in Central America and Asia, fast and inexpensive shipping of product to ports on the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic coasts of North America, combined with low tariff barriers and, perhaps, the occasional bad management decision to wipe out thousands of good paying jobs in towns like Portsmouth.
The depiction of the city’s shoe industry in the murals of Robert Dafford and Clarence Carter capture the local factories at their zenith, when thousands of shoes and millions of shoelaces were manufactured monthly for shipment across the United States and abroad. Today, like a sun dial, the old Excelsior brick smokestack casts its shadow on a largely empty Sole Choice factory building, marking the time of day and the decline of American manufacturing.