The Shoe Factory: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

One of the first major steps to bring new industry to Conway occurred at the end of World War II when the Conway Chamber of Commerce realized that a large number of people in Conway and the surrounding area would need employment. The war was ending
and war plants were closing. Veterans would be returning home and be in need of jobs.

The Chamber unanimously voted to ask International Shoe Company to establish a manufacturing plant in Conway. A committee of local businessmen was selected to go to St. Louis and visit with International executives. Shoe factory representatives visited Conway and a financial arrangement was put together.

International Shoe Company was the world’s largest shoe manufacturer, combining several shoe companies around 1911. By 1921, there were 24 factories and ten more were added that year. A rubber heel factory was set up in Hannibal, Missouri in 1924 and a textile mill was established in Malvern, Arkansas in 1929 to supply linings for the shoes. The shoes were sold through 13 sales branches. There were 50 factories by the time the Conway factory opened in 1947.

Conway Corporation, which had helped prevent the removal of Hendrix College from Conway and the closing of Central College in 1928, would shoulder the financial burden of this new factory. This gave Conway a major advantage because other cities vying for an International Shoe factory at the time were forced to raise the money through more challenging fund-raising campaigns.

Conway Corporation purchased $110,000 of bonds plus agreed to provide about $5,000 annually in power over a 10-year period. International Shoe purchased a five and one-half acre site on Hairston Street for $2,500. The Conway Realty Company was organized to erect the building and borrow the funds for its cost.

Construction began in late 1945 but bad weather delayed the completion of the foundation until April, 1946. Meanwhile, a training school for factory workers was set up at U-Drive-Em, an old automotive rental business on Chestnut and Main. There were 40 women and six men trained as fitting room and cutting room operators.

The formal opening of the factory would be in May 10, 1947. The factory had an open house with free buses running between the business district and the shoe factory all afternoon. The Conway High School band played during the first hour of the open house.

Four hundred employees would be employed when the production of shoes began. It was estimated that some 7,000 pairs of shoes a day were produced during peak production. In its first year, International Shoe produced 83,000 pairs of shoes. By 1952, the company employed 550 employees.

The Conway factory, which was the first International Shoe Factory to open in Arkansas, would produce five different styles of shoes. They included shoes for toddlers, children, misses and ladies.

Brand names included Naida, Kamay, Cecille, Gilda and Olive. The shoes made here were stamped on the insole with CY for Conway. Most of the Conway shoes were boxed and shipped to a St. Louis warehouse after production.

International Shoe operated the plant for about 30 years before R.G. Barry, another shoe company, took over the plant. Barry operated the plant for about five years and then it closed. San Antonio Shoe (SAS) began production at the plant in 1983. It operated the plant for 26 years before closing in 2009. The building was purchased by Conway Public Schools in 2009.

Many local people found jobs at the shoe factory after they finished school or military training. Some worked there for decades and became very close to their co-workers. As a result, International Shoe Factory workers still gather for reunions to reminisce and catch up with old friends.

This successful bid to bring industry and jobs to Conway would be the first of many campaigns by the Chamber of Commerce and Conway Corporation. Business leaders with vision would go on to bring even more industries to Conway in the 1950s and 1960s.