Spring 2018 Catalyst
During the Industrial Revolution, when nearly everything bought in America was American-made, the tiny Pennsylvania town of Orwigsburg — which today has a population of about 3,000 — was a major hub for shoe manufacturing. Deep in the heart of coal country, Orwigsburg, which is nestled in the area between Pottsville and Reading, was once the home of 11 shoe companies that manufactured more than 1.4 million shoes each year. It was in 1888 — at the peak of this time period — that the Kepner-Scott Shoe Company was founded.
The company was an offshoot of a previous shoemaking production, Haesler, Kepner and Co., by Alexander Scott and W.C. Kepner.
These entrepreneurial pioneers recognized early on the need for children to wear well-fitting, comfortable shoes from the time they took their first steps to when they began to run, skip and play. After all, as the Kepner-Scott website states, learning to walk is a key milestone in a child’s development, which is why parents should consider the fit, soling, design, breathability and comfort of the first pairs their little ones will wear. The company quickly mastered the science behind designing a shoe that hit on all of these points — and 130 years later, the oldest children’s shoe manufacturer in the United States is still making products that have withstood the test of time for their high quality, comfort and durability.
Today, the Kepner-Scott Shoe Company is still run in Orwigsburg by Steve Zimmerman and his sister, Susan Murphy. Their grandfather, Milo Zimmerman, purchased the factory in 1961. At that time, the market was dominated by stiff shoes that didn’t mold to a child’s foot. Milo and his son, Clair, moved forward with a mission of crafting soft, flexible, comfortable and “healthy” shoes for children. This mission carries on today with Clair’s children at the company helm.
Along with a staff of about 20 employees, Kepner-Scott produces a spectrum of infant and children’s shoes — everything from a baby’s first pair of walking shoes, to classic saddle oxfords and black lace-up boots. For more than 30 years, the company has also been offering its customers the option to customize shoes by selecting from various patterns, colors and styles — a unique shopping experience that is rarely seen in today’s world of mass production.
Kepner-Scott’s shoe sizes range from 0 (for newborns) all the way up to age 8, with widths ranging alphabetically from B to EEE. This sizing system boils down to a simple theory — comfort. From the time of its founding to the present day, Kepner-Scott’s leadership team has operated under the philosophy that each pair of feet is unique. They suggest that any parent looking for their child’s next pair of shoes allow for extra room for growth in the toe area, some extra room in the ball area (the widest part behind the toes) and a close fit at the heel. The shoes’ soling and insoling should be flexible and shock absorbent; upper and lining materials should be breathable; and the footwear should be available in widths with letters in the beginning of the alphabet (such as C, D, E, EE). In addition to looking for shoes that fit these criteria, it’s also important that children have their feet measured be a professional who will help them find a shoe that fits right, is breathable and flexible to achieve maximum comfort.
In addition to maintaining its long-held corporate philosophy, Kepner-Scott still operates in the same building it did well more than a century ago. In a three-story factory that showcases the original pressed-tin ceilings and wood floors, a team of highly skilled and experienced employees work to make about 200 pairs of shoes a day. The process starts by choosing and cutting the proper leather, after which they stitch the pieces together, line the shoes, sew on buckles and buttons, stamp the sizes inside the shoe and cement the soles and heels to the completed pair. The finishing touches are then put on as each pair is laced and packed into shoeboxes that are shipped to stores across the United States and Canada.
On these boxes are a variety of company names that Kepner-Scott produces shoes for, including Amilio, Self Starter, Carpenter and Sandals by Carpenter. Kepner-Scott also specializes in making corrective infant and children’s shoes for a Yonkers, N.Y.-based company that helps to address issues like clubfoot in little ones. And most recently, Audrey and Amelia Zimmerman — Milo Zimmerman’s great granddaughters — are proudly carrying on the family’s shoemaking heritage with a new children’s shoe line, Zimmerman Shoes, that features a cool, retro vibe with some of the original designs created by Milo and Clair Zimmerman in the 1960’s and 70’s.
In a world where there are so many technological changes that many industries have a hard time keeping up, it’s refreshing to recognize a ‘Made in PA’ company that is able to maintain its place in the market by sticking with a proven business model that has withstood the test of time — one where quality craftsmanship, word of mouth and decades of experience drives its success.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.