Marathon Shoe Company Part 2: The Shoe Industry in Wausau, Wisconsin

The Marathon Shoe Company East Side Plant, located in Wausau, Wisconsin, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in January of 2017. PVN worked with a developer and the City of Wausau to determine that the building is historically significant under National Register of Historic Places Criterion A for its representation of the Marathon Shoe Company, a leading industry in the City of Wausau in the first half of the twentieth century.   

This is the second of a two post series about the history of the Marathon Shoe Company and its “East Side Plant.” In case you missed it, the first post, "Marathon Shoe Company Part 1: History of the Shoe Industry in the United States" can be read here.

The Marathon Shoe Company

By 1922, the Marathon Shoe Company had several lines, including “Pied Piper infants’, children’s, misses’ and growing girls’ shoes, Dr. Sommer’s New Dawn men’s and women’s shoes and Marathon Guaranteed Non-Rip Stitchdowns children’s shoes.”[1] In December of 1922, two separate announcements regarding expansion of the Marathon Shoe Company appeared in the December issue of the Boot and Shoe Recorder: The Magazine of Fashion Footwear. J.E. Everston, the Sales Manager for Marathon Shoe Company, stated “that his business has been splendid and that they [Marathon Shoe Company] are now planning to double the output of their factory with the addition of a new building…[which] will give the company additional capacity of two thousands pairs of shoes daily.”[2]

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Pentler and his leadership team had reason to speak confidently of their company’s future. According to another article in the industry journal, “the factory of the Marathon Shoe Company is one of the very few shoe factories in the United States that has been in operation continuously since its organization, over eight years ago.”[3] The company had also grown to dominate the Wausau economy; shoe production was the fifth largest industry in Wausau, and Marathon Shoe Company was the only shoe company in town.[4]  Additionally, the company’s line of high-end Pied Piper Children’s Shoes were well-regarded and had a high degree of brand recognition, thanks to a nationwide advertising campaign in which an employee of Marathon Shoe Company dressed as the Pied Piper and visited shoe stores around the country, leading a parade, meeting with children, giving out “gay-colored cap[s], Pied Piper horns, and a story book containing the famous poem of the Pied Piper” of Hamlin Town.[5] 

Wausau Shoe Manufacturing Company

Based on the continued success of Marathon Shoe Company, and the increased demand for shoes produced with Pentler and Short’s patented construction, Pentler sought to expand his empire further and, in 1923, purchased a factory building located on the east side of the Wisconsin River at 1414-1424 1st Street in Wausau. The factory, which was constructed three years earlier for the Badger Bag and Paper manufacturing company, was two stories and was located “on the right of way of the C.M. and St. Paul railroad…”[6] According to an article in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Pentler planned to “lease or transfer the property to a new company that will manufacture shoes by the Pentler-Short process.”[7] Wausau city directories show that Pentler did incorporate a new company, the Wausau Shoe Manufacturing Company, which was located at 1414-1424 1st Street. There was overlap between the leadership of the Wausau Shoe Manufacturing Company and the Marathon Shoe Company, with Pentler serving as president, Short serving as vice president, and Charles Dodge serving as a director of both companies from 1925 to 1928.[8] 

The Wausau Shoe Manufacturing Company grew quickly, and a second factory, the former Tomahawk Shoe factory in Merrill, Wisconsin, was purchased in 1926.[9]  However, in 1928, the company was liquidated and its stock and manufacturing facilities were acquired by Marathon Shoe Company; Wausau City Directories for 1929 and the early 1930s listed two business addresses for the Marathon Shoe Company—325 1st Street and 1414-1424 1st Street. Marathon Shoe operated the Merrill factory, then called Plant 3, until 1930; it operated the factory at 1418 1st Street (also known as “plant 2” or the “east side plant”) until 1932.

Closing of the Marathon Shoe Company

Marathon Shoe Company sales began to decline in 1930; Pentler and Short had taken less active roles in the organization and the onset of the Depression resulted in the loss “of Pied Piper dealers due to credit difficulties, competition, improper selling, and lower quality of the shoes and by loss of a great number of Pied Piper consumers due to competitive prices, lowered quality, [and] loss of dealer representation.”[10] The company’s wholesale prices dropped from a high of $2.78/pair in 1929 to $1.85/pair in 1933, a price that was $.63 lower than the wholesale price of Pied Piper Shoes during their debut year of 1922. The Marathon Shoe Company ceased operation in 1934.[11] 

Marathon Shoe Company was liquidated in 1934. The east side plant (1418 1st Street) was sold to the City of Wausau and the west side plant to the Pied Piper Shoe Company, a concern created in May of 1934 “to acquire plant No. 1 [the west side plant] and certain other assets of the Marathon Shoe Company, and to manufacture infants’, children’s, misses’, and growing girls’ shoes under the trade name of ‘Pied Piper’ and other trade names theretofore used by the Marathon Shoe Company.”[12] The newly organized Pied Piper Shoe Company was managed by the Huth James Shoe Company of Milwaukee, which ran Pied Piper shoes until 1935. Business continued to decline, in part because Huth James discontinued using the Pentler-Short method, which had been a key component of Marathon Shoe Company’s success. In 1935, a small group of former Marathon employees, with financial support from the City of Wausau, joined together to refinance and reorganize the company, which continued to operate as the Pied Piper Shoe Company.[13] 

[1] “Hendry Travels Coast for Marathon,” The Boot and Shoe Recorder: The Magazine of Fashion Footwear (October 1922), 129.

[2] “Marathon Executive Visits Cincinnati,” The Boot and Shoe Recorder: The Magazine of Fashion Footwear 85 (December, 1922), 85.

[3] “Marathon Shoe Company Will Double Capacity,” Boot and Shoe Recorder: The Magazine of Fashion Footwear 82 (December, 1922), 90.

[4] “Five Leading Industries of Wausau Do Over $40,000,000 Business During 1920,” Industrial and Historical Edition of the Wausau Pilot, January, 1921

[5] According to 1957 bankruptcy documents filed by the Pied Piper Shoe Company, a successor to the Marathon Shoe Company, between 1925 and 1957, “…in the United States, infants’, children’s, misses’, and growing girls shoes in the high-quality and –priced range have been produced and sold by a comparatively small group of manufacturers, which were competitors, embracing about eight or ten in number at any one time. Such group included…Simplex Shoe Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Herbst Shoe Company, Milwaukee Wisconsin; Gilbert Shoe Company, Thiensville, Wisconsin; Waterbury Shoe Company, Brooklyn New York; J. Altschul Shoe Company, Brooklyn, New York; Marathon Shoe Company, Wausau, Wisconsin…”; “Pied Piper Shoe Company, Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent, May 28, 1957” in Tax Court of United States Reports (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957), 499; “Pied Piper Makes Visit to E.E. Rabe Shoe Store,” Van Nuys News, February 26, 1926.

[6] “New Shoe Factory Will Soon Start at Wausau,” Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, December 28, 1923.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wright’s Wausau City Directory, 1925 (Milwaukee: Wright Publishing Company, 1925), 103; Wright’s Wausau City Directory, 1927 (Milwaukee: Wright Publishing Company, 1927), 30; Wright’s Wausau City Directory, 1929 (Milwaukee: Wright Publishing Company, 1929).

[9] “Shoe Factory for Merrill,” Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, December 2, 1926, 2.

[10] Pied Piper Shoe Company, Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent, May 28, 1957” in Tax Court of United States Reports ((Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957), 499;

[11] “Take First Steps in Reorganization of Shoe Concern,” La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, April 27, 1934.

[12] “Pied Piper Shoe Company, Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent, May 28, 1957” in Tax Court of United States Reports (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957), 499; “City to Pay 5000 Down on Shoe Factory,” La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, April 26, 1936.

[13] “City to Pay 5000 Down on Shoe Factory,” La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, April 26, 1936