Justine Kerfoot never intended to stay in Minnesota. But the Great Depression led her to the lodge on the Gunflint Trail and the wild spaces that would become her life. Britt Aamodt remembers the Woman of the Boundary Waters.
Sven’s Comfort Shoes in Chisago City, Minnesota, is a destination for clog enthusiasts. Marie Rivers, owner and chief clog maker, works with about eight employees to handcraft each pair of Sven clogs and clog boots. The wood-soled clogs are coveted by Hollywood stars, surgeons and chefs. And they can be made custom for any foot.
Narrator: Hear that sound? That’s the sound of high fashion coming not from Paris or Milan, Antwerp or LA. Nope, that sound comes from Chisago City, a burg about 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities. It’s the sound of every new pair of clogs that walks out of Sven Comfort Shoes.
Marie Rivers: My name is Marie Rivers and I am a clogmaker.
Narrator: Marie makes the clogs that Hollywood stars wear. Her company is one of only two clog manufacturers in the country.
Marie: It’s called Sven Comfort Shoes. We not only make clogs here, but we have a big retail store that only carries real comfortable shoes. And we can make clogs that fit right for your foot.
Narrator: Marie has been making clogs for over 30 years. She was once married to Sven, a Swede who started the business. Today, she sells 20,000 pairs of clogs and clog boots a year to 300 stores nationwide. She and her nine employees are kind of like cobbler elves.
Diane: Who wears your clogs?
Marie: Anywhere from nurses, doctors that stand a lot in surgery. They’re very good for your back, good arch support. Chefs, and a lot of movie stars. A lot of celebrities out in New York.
Narrator: Marie charts the rise and fall of clogs in ten-year cycles. In the 70s, it was hippies. Then nurses and chefs. Now…
Marie: We are high fashion. If you look on the Internet, you’ll see a lot of celebrities, like Julianne Moore has many clogs of ours. Angelina Jolie has a pair boots of ours. Michelle Williams has some. It’s funny to watch “The Devil Wears Prada” and see our shoes there on the movie screen. It’s really neat.
Narrator: A fashionista would have a fit down here in Marie’s basement. Leather skins are draped everywhere. Wooden soles are lined up like soldiers. Marie shows me the steps.
SFX Leather shaver maching
Marie: Right now I’m going to be shaving leather down. Because when you put two pieces of leather together it gets to be too thick. So we have to sometimes shave it. What we have here is a machine with a giant roller that’s a razor blade, so when you put this through, it shaves off some of the leather.
Narrator: Marie walks over to a huge machine. It exerts two tons of force to cut the leather hides.
SFX Die-cutting machine
Marie: We put the die right down on it, punch the buttons, and that makes like a giant cookie cutter.
Narrator: She takes the upper to another machine.
SFX Sewing machine
Marie: We’re in the sewing department. These are the shafts for the little five-inch boots that we were working on. This is a double-needle machine. It’s decorative and makes the boots a lot stronger too.
Diane: It’s shooting out two parallel lines of stitchery.
Diane: How often do you make mistakes?
Marie: Laughs. On a daily basis. You mean, just on sewing? Then over here, when I’m done, Tracy takes it over here. She whipstitches the back to put it together and then she’s putting on the heel caps and the back straps there. When that’s done, they have to go over here and have rivets and buckles and everything put on and that’s what Dawn does.
Diane: This is all by hand.
Marie: It’s all handwork.
Narrator: The wooden soles come from Sweden, Austria and Italy. Marie staples them to the leather. It’s one of the last steps.
Diane: How many people will have touched a particular clog by the time it leaves here?
Marie: Uh, a lot. I mean, there might be four of us working, but we can touch that clog 25 times before it goes out the door. Sometimes even more. It’s amazing how many different steps there are. For the boots especially, with the sheepskin ones I showed you. It’s got leather on the inside, eyelets, it’s got to be shaved and glued and other pieces glued. The bottom glued. Grooved out. Stapled. Lested. Bring it back. Staple the back. It’s just so much. Buffing it. Checking to make sure that the sheepskin didn’t shrink anywhere. Putting in shoelaces. Getting the boxes. Melting the threads. It’s just a lot of work. I’m tired just thinking about it.
Diane: I had no idea.
Marie: Yes, it gives you a better appreciation when you walk into a store and look at a shoe. It really does.
Narrator: To find out more about Sven clogs, go to svensclogs.com. Or take a drive to Chisago City. You can’t miss it.
Marsh Muirhead is a writer, a dentist, and a flight instructor. He is a winner and twice a finalist of The Great American Think Off. And he is the author of “Key West Explained: A Guide for the Traveler.” The Beat is a daily reminder that, in Minnesota poetry matters, and Minnesota poets prove that every day.