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Saga of a shoe and a City

by Whitney Kenerly & Jeff Sykes

Nettleton, once the most prestigious brand of shoe in the U.S., put Greensboro on the map with one of its loafers. Now the brand and that loafer are back.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. The Nettleton Shoe Co., creator of highquality footwear, including perhaps the most iconic shoe model in the history of Greensboro, is, in fact, very much alive. It spent some time in hibernation and was even on life support, but the brand has returned. Now, through a series of intriguing circumstances, Nettleton’s style of loafer, eventually known as the Greensboro, is also back.

COMPANY HISTORY

The Nettleton story began in 1879.

Actually, it goes back farther than that because sometime around 1837, Edward Nettleton opened one of the original boot-and-shoe stores in Fulton, N.Y. Following Nettleton’s death, his fourth son, Albert eventually took over the boot-and-shoe store and soon acquired more. The younger Nettleton moved to Syracuse, N.Y., in 1879 after purchasing a boot-and-shoe factory and founded A.E. Nettleton & Co. Within 10 years, his factory employed 600. Henry Cook, who was hired as Nettleton’s plant superintendant in 1904, purchased the company in 1916 and retained ownership for more than a half century.

Nettleton established a reputation for being a high-quality shoe manufacturer. Wealthy celebrities like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and Wilbur and Orville Wright, backed that up by owning Nettletons themselves. To give an idea of how important the brand was to the shoe industry, it was Nettleton that came out with the first loafer. On Feb. 1, 1937, Nettleton paid for Patent No.353854, which allowed the company the exclusive right to use the word “loafer” in describing a slip-on type of shoe.

Nettleton had introduced the Savannah, a loafer it still sells, and figured correctly that other brands would be introducing their own styles of shoes that don’t have to be laced. Other brands were forced to come up with their own creative terms to describe slip-on shoes for more than half a century.

THE GREENSBORO

So how did Greensboro get involved with the Nettleton story? In those days, many major shoe companies, including Nettleton, leased out shoe departments of haberdasheries. For Nettleton, Younts-DeBoe Co., the gentlemen’s clothing store at 106 N. Elm St., was a perfect fit because of the store’s reputation of being a high-end retailer. Nettleton leased the space at the back of the first floor in the two-story men’s clothing shop. Norman Hayworth, manager of the Nettleton Shop, was doing well in the four-chair shop, selling the high-quality shoes to Greensboro’s affluent citizens, such as Howard Holderness, president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co., and Philip Weaver, superintendent of Greensboro City Schools, but he thought he could do better. He noticed a loafer in the Nettleton catalog called the Nassau, which he thought looked attractive with its tassels, split toe and other unique features.

It had already been around for a few years, but had never caught on. In 1959, Hayworth had a part-time employee named Jim Fesmire, who was a student at Page High School, a member of the Syitt (pronounced swit) Club and the son of the vice president and part owner of Coble Sporting Goods “Fesmire was a guy, who could charm the horns off a Billy goat,” Hayworth, now 88, remembered, at his house in southern Guilford County. “He and his social-club buddies thought they were the best bunch in the world. They had the right clothes and everything. I thought to myself, the whole time, ‘What a bunch of nut-heads,’ but he was just what I was looking for.”

Fesmire knew a thing or two about shoes himself.

“Coble Sporting Goods sold more Chuck Taylor tennis shoes than anybody in three states,” he remembered.

But in the late 1950s, sneakers weren’t allowed in Greensboro Public Schools on students beyond the sixth grade. For that matter, T-shirts, jeans, shorts and, for girls, pants were banned; skirts or dresses for them. In those days, school really was a place to dress to impress.

Hayworth gave Fesmire a pair of these unusual Nassau tassel loafers and watched events unfold just the way he had planned. The popular, affable student began wearing his new unusual shoes to Syitt Club functions.

“I just liked the shoe. It was really distinctive,” Fesmire recalled. “It was like when you monogrammed your Gant shirt.”

After noticing them on Fesmire’s feet, the other Syitt Club members felt the same way. They bought some themselves and wore them to school. Other boys at Page and Greensboro (later called Grimsley) high schools, observing Syitt Club studs wearing these unique tassel loafers, wanted some for themselves. They weren’t cheap; Nettletons never have been. By the early 1960s, the Nassau was selling for just under $30. Students with part-time jobs were able to get a pair, and other pleaded with their parents, saved allowance funds, mowed yards and did whatever they could to scrape up enough money to cover the expense.

“I about got fired over it when I started ordering them,” Hayworth remembered. “The first order I sent in, Mr. Cook called and said, ‘You realize how much money this is?’ I said, ‘While you’re talking to me, you better double the order.’ He said, ‘You’d better have a lot of salt and pepper down there because you’re going to have to eat them.’” Instead of eating those Nassaus, Hayworth sold them out and continued to order more, setting company sales records.

“With only four chairs at Younts- DeBoe, we did more business than all their big stores,” Hayworth added with a smile.

At first, the Nassau was only available in black, but that soon changed. Hayworth persuaded Nettleton to include the model in tan.

“The tan Nettletons went well with the green blazers we wore at our meetings,” Fesmire said. “I eventually had them in black, tan, corduroy, brown and alligator. The alligator Nettletons cost $92.75. That was back when you could get a damned good car for $250.”

These Nettletons also became available in navy blue, two-tone colors and, in 1976 during the bicentennial, they were available in red, white and blue.

By this time, employees at Nettleton’s Syracuse factory weren’t calling the shoe the Nassau any more. It was referred to as “the Greensboro,” because that’s where well over 95 percent of the orders for that style went.

“Fesmire worked just right for me,” Hayworth said. “I sold a slew of them things. I reckon I had a real good run.”

DEMISE OF THE OLD COMPANY AND ARRIVAL OF THE NEW PRESIDENT

Eventually Cook was forced to sell the Nettleton company because his sisters were partners, and his brothers-in-law were ready to part with it. The Cooks sold Nettleton to Endicott-Johnson Shoe Co. in 1968.

That led to a second career for Hayworth.

“I always wanted to work with gamecocks,” he said. “I had about 500 roosters here and made a lot of money.”

Ed Tognoni (pronounced tone-YOnee) was in charge of the Trimfoot Co., a maker of children’s shoes, which was acquired by Endicott-Johnson (E-J) about the same time. E-J brass put him at the head of not only Trimfoot, but also Nettleton.

“I had been in the shoe business ever since I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis,” said Tognoni, who hails from that city. “I’ve always been very curious about the shoe industry and fell in love with Nettleton. After a few years, when Endicott-Johnson approached me about helping them sell the Nettleton company, I asked them if I could buy it.”

E-J said yes, and Tognoni rounded up the dough and moved to Syracuse.

“Syracuse was a great town and its craftsmen knew what they were doing,” Tognoni recalled. “When U.S. Shoe Corp. asked to buy the company, I had to offer the deal to our shareholders.”

The shareholders accepted, and U.S.Shoe took over and closed the factory in 1984. Today, at that location, the factory still stands. It has been converted into an apartment building and is called Nettleton Commons.

“It was a shame to see fourth- and fifth-generation, quality-shoe craftsmen lose their source of livelihood,” said Jim Tognoni, Ed’s brother and advertising manager of Nettleton.

Meanwhile, owning Nettleton did not work out for U.S. Shoe. As a result, the company offered Nettleton back to Ed Tognoni. Tognoni repurchased the company, but shut it down. He even gave up the patent for the word, “loafer.”

“There was a lot of turbulence going on in the shoe market at that time,” he said. “It was difficult to start a factory from scratch here in the United States, so we held it.”

As the Nettleton company lay dormant, it was missed. Here in Greensboro, Perry Calhoun, owner of the Shoe Market, at 4624 W. Market St., rented a shoe factory for a day to make a shoe designed to look just like the Nettleton Greensboro (or Nassau) model.

He returned with 1,200 pairs of these shoes to sell at his Market Street store. Originally, they sold for less than $100. A recent visit to the Shoe Market showed the shoe, designed with that look under the Robert Zur brand, marked at $275. Calhoun said he was about to leave for Spain, where he was planning on having more of this style shoe made.

THE BRAND RETURNS

In recent years, Tognoni has revived the Nettleton brand. Times have changed, however, and inflation, among other factors, has the cheapest pair of Nettletons selling for $795. Unable to find craftsmen with the skills of those in Syracuse in the United States, Tognoni now uses a factory of trained quality shoemakers in Belgium to hand-make Nettletons.

The revival of Nettleton shoes, as well as a nostalgic column on the Nettleton tassel loafer that became known as the Greensboro, inspired Gordon Turner, owner of Gordon’s Menswear Ltd., at 3712 Lawndale Drive, to persuade Tognoni to also revive that style. Turner was manager of the Bostonian Shop at the Hub, when it had a downtown Greensboro store in the 1960s.

“Jim Dodson, publisher of Pinestraw Magazine in Southern Pines, came to me in 2012, because he had been referred to me as he was writing an article about the old Nettleton loafers,” Turner remembered. “I knew that Ed was doing Nettletons again, but at the time, he was not doing the Greensboro split-toe, tassel loafer.”

Tognoni continued the story. “About 18 months ago, we came to Greensboro, after reading Dodson’s article in Pinestraw,” the Nettleton president said. “We had become very excited about the potential for what the Greensboro could do in this particular market. “ Dodson later published a similar column in O.Henry, another of his magazines, but there was a problem. The lasts, the physical forms of feet over which leather is pulled to make the shoes, had been destroyed. Turner remembered his late friend Jim Garrison, a newsprint salesman who was working at The Rhinoceros Times, when he died of cancer.

“Jim loved Nettletons as much as anyone I knew and had told me he was going to leave them to his son,” Turner remembered. “I called Martha Anne, his widow, and asked her if I could borrow a pair.”

Now remarried, Martha Anne Buffaloe remembers how proud she was to let Turner borrow Garrison’s tan Nettletons, to make the lasts for a new generation of the shoe.

“Jim was so particular about those shoes that I knew I had to do something special with them,” she said. “He had black Nettletons that he wore all the time, but he would only wear his tan ones for special occasions.”

With the Garrison’s special shoes, Tognoni headed to Belgium.

“We have the same fine leather, the original Goodyear Welt soles, leather lining and other features of Nettleton quality,” Turner said. “We had to get the stitching exactly right. The tassel had to be a certain size, a certain width and a certain number of wraps to be like the original. We went back and forth over these details for about 12-13 months.”

Three months ago, the new generation of the Nettleton Greensboro tassel loafer went to production. This style was featured by Tognoni and his son, Dean Tognoni, who serves as Nettleton’s sales manger, visited Gordon’s store on March 6. They were planning to be there the next day, but a storm caused a massive power failure, which affected the store. A date has not yet been set, but Turner expects the Tognonis to return to his store some time in late April.

The shoes are selling for $595 because of an introductory offer, but soon will be raised to the minimum price of Nettletons, $795. The colors for the Greensboro are black, and two shades of tan, called brick and whiskey. Crocodile is also available for $2,500.

“They used to be available in alligator, but there was a moratorium on them years ago,” Tognoni explained. “The crocs are from South America and their hides are tanned in Italy.”

Since the original trunk show earlier this month, men have been dropping by Turner’s haberdashery showing off their old Nettletons and telling stories about them. Calls have come from Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Georgia and other sites around the country from men who used to live in Greensboro and wanted to talk about the shoe.

“We would always get out Nettletons shined at Sam & Mack’s, a store downtown on South Elm Street, every Saturday,” remembered Wes Buffaloe, the current husband of Garrison’s widow. “During the week, I shined my own shoes, but it was a ritual to go to Sam & Mack’s on Saturday.”

Hayworth also made it to Gordon’s and tried on a pair.

“Yes, they’re Nettletons,” he said. Hayworth remembered one particular boy whose feet were still growing, and his mother would not allow him to buy a pair until his foot size had maxed out.

“One day this boy came in with three pairs of socks on,” Hayworth remembered. “My son was waiting on him and said, ‘My daddy would whoop me if I let you have a pair of shoes that wouldn’t fit.’” Hayworth didn’t buy a pair, but Buffaloe did. So have many other men, and orders for the Greensboro continue to steam to Belgium.

Will they sell like they did back in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Probably not. High school kids are more into sneakers that they can now wear to school. Dress codes in offices are not what they used to be. A pair of stylish loafers by Stacy Adams, can be had for $34.95 at Burlington Coat Factory, and other name brands are available for low prices at other discount stores.

As for Fesmire, he operates his longtime company with a business partner.

Owner of a fashionable home in old Irving Park, he is currently remodeling his kitchen.

When it comes to footwear, he proudly holds up his stylish Cole Haan tassel loafers.

“I bought these at Goodwill for $3.75,” he said. “That’s where I by all my clothes.” !

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