Made in USA: Children’s Shoes

American Icons, Featured Article, Made in America, Traditions
on November 9, 2013
Brian Freed Three popular shoes — baby's first walking shoe, kid's saddle oxford, and Amish black lace up ankle boots — produced by the Kepner-Scott Shoe Co.

Keeping tiny feet comfortable while walking, running and skipping has kept Kepner-Scott Shoe Co. in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, on its toes since 1888.

“Grandpa thought all children deserved footwear that was flexible, breathable and comfortable,” says Steve Zimmerman, 61, president of the oldest children’s shoe manufacturer in the United States.

In 1961, his grandfather, Milo Zimmerman, bought the shoe factory, one of 11 that operated in the footwear-manufacturing hub of Orwigsburg during the early 1900s. Since its founding by W.C. Kepner and Alexander Scott, the company has distinguished itself by making children’s shoes.

Kepner-Scott’s original mission — along with its methods and machinery — remains largely unchanged. Zimmerman and his sister, Sue Murphy, 58, vice president, and 20 employees continue to produce leather shoes for toddlers and tykes, including babies’ first walking shoes, kids’ saddle oxfords, and black lace-up ankle boots for Amish children.

Made in sizes 0 to 3 for newborns to age 8, and in widths from B to EEE, the shoes’ uppers and lining are supple leather, which is flexible—and breathable—for tender young feet and toes.

In the three-story factory with pressed-tin ceilings and wooden plank floors, workers produce about 200 pairs of shoes each day, beginning with selection of soft cowhide from wooden cubbyholes filled with bundles of colorful leather.

After unrolling a tan-colored hide, Kirsten Vidzicki, 49, uses a machine to cut uppers for boys’ oxfords, stamping each piece with a metal die.

Nearby, other shoemakers stitch the pieces together, attach linings, sew on buckles and buttons, and stamp sizes inside each shoe. The completed uppers are fitted over wooden or plastic foot forms and cemented to soles and heels.

Barry Houser, 70, who has worked at the Kepner-Scott factory for 52 years, laces the shoes, assembles shoeboxes and packs the footwear for shipping to 1,200 stores throughout the United States and Canada. Marketed under the brand names Amilio, Self Starter, Carpenter, and Sandals by Carpenter, the shoes retail for about $50 a pair.

One of a handful of U.S. children’s shoe manufacturers, the family-owned business endures by catering to niche markets, such as making corrective infant and children’s shoes for Markell Shoe Co. in Yonkers, New York.

“They’re great to work with and it’s great to have a U.S. company to work with,” says company president Jonathan Markell, 57. Using Markell’s patterns, Kepner-Scott makes open-toed shoes that attach to a bar to hold growing feet in proper position to correct clubfoot.

Since the mid-1980s, Kepner-Scott has allowed retailers to order and customize shoes by color, pattern and style.

Terry Sher, 66, owner of Sammi’s Shoe Box in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, loves helping design shoes specifically for his customers. “Parents want colors and animal skins,” he says. “I worked with a leather factory and developed a leopard print with a special finish and delivered two hides to Steve (Zimmerman). We’re going to have a leopard baby high-top shoe.”

Sammi’s Shoe Box has sold Kepner-Scott shoes since opening in 1937 because of the “beautiful workmanship,” Sher says.

“The shoes are practically handmade,” he adds. “The company is a jewel.”