Constructed in the early 1800s, this small building was the shoe shop of Henry Wilson, a senator from Massachusetts and later 18th Vice President under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Wilson was originally from New Hampshire and his birth name was Jeremiah Colbath until he settled in the Natick area and changed his name in 1833. At the time, shoemaking was very much a cottage industry with production taking place in “ten footer” shops, in reference to the internal dimensions being roughly 10 square feet.
The railroad arrived in Natick in 1837 and the shoemaking industry boomed. Wilson was able to relocate to a larger facility and in 1838 at age 26, he employed 18 workers and produced 18,000 pairs of shoes. In 1847, he employed 109 workers and made 122,000 pairs of shoes. Their primary product were stout leather boots called brogans with many customers located in the South.
Despite having many customers who were southern slaveholders, Wilson was a notable abolitionist and shifted his attention to military and politics in the 1840s and 1850s. He joined the Natick militia rising to the rank of brigadier general and was elected to the senate in 1855. As a Radical Republican, he was involved in many key moments leading up to the American Civil War and helped create the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the conflict.
After the war, he was a vocal proponent of civil rights and was picked as running mate by Grant in the 1872 election. He was sworn in the following year and would remain in office until his death in 1875.
The old shoe shop of Henry Wilson may not look like much, but it holds much history about one of the most prominent politicians of the mid-19th-century. There are several signs located along the property and a bell nearby. What’s most interesting is the fact that much of the original machinery used to make shoes is still preserved inside.
The building is something hundreds, maybe thousands of people drive by every day and probably don’t know the historical significance. It’s definitely a location worth stopping by if you are interested in U.S. or New England history.
Know Before You Go
A small parking lot is located shortly beyond the house on the right hand side and there are many stores where you can park and cross the street as well.