A Dakota summer village stood at the base of Barn Bluff since at least 1805, the year Lieutenant Zebulon Pike came through to explore the new lands acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Half a century later the city was named for the chief that Pike met, Whoo-pa-doo-to (Wing of Scarlet), whose descendents resided in town through the middle of the 20th century.
The first European settlers were Swiss Protestant missionaries who established an outpost here in 1837. Though they left eight years later, Rev. John Aiton revived the mission in 1848, and an official post office was opened two years later.
The town didn’t really take off, however, until the U.S. Land Office opened here in 1855. Waves of settlers claiming property on the western prairies filtered through, and a busy trade center emerged to serve them. By the end of the decade the population exceeded 1,250.
Even with the Civil War raging to the south, the city thrived through the 1860s (the population more than tripled) with wheat leading the way, and soon Red Wing was the world’s largest wheat port. As farmers shifted to other crops and the steamboats lost most of their business to the railroads its importance as a wheat market soon declined, but Red Wing never experienced the predictable economic bust because so many other industries had sprung up here.
By the end of the century Red Wing had swapped superiorities by becoming one of the nation’s largest flour-milling centers. The innovative La Grange Mill, one of dozens in and around Red Wing, ground its first wheat in 1877, and their Gilt Edge and Old Glory brands earned such acclaim that the company exported half of their output to Europe.
Pottery also rose to prominence in the 1870s. The area’s first potter was German immigrant Joseph Pohl, who sold some of his creations to neighbors in 1861, though he only remained in the area for a couple of years. A few potters followed in his footsteps, but with very limited success. In 1878 the Red Wing Stoneware Company finally got the business model right, and five years later they were joined in the clay trade by the Minnesota Stoneware Company.
Eventually the companies merged and operated under the Red Wing United Stoneware and Red Wing Potteries names until the company folded in 1967. Their early crocks, water coolers, and butter jars are the most famous and desirable products with collectors, but as populations shifted to the cities the company diversified into flower pots, dinnerware, and even sewer pipe—if you live in the Midwest there’s a good chance that some still runs under your town. Today two small companies keep the Red Wing Pottery tradition alive.
The city’s first shoe factory opened in 1861. Red Wing Shoes, just “The Shoe” to locals, sewed its first pair of boots in 1905, and within a decade production reached 200,000 pairs a year. Though they now annually manufacture millions of shoes in over 150 styles at three plants (one here plus one each in Missouri and Kentucky), it remains a family-owned enterprise.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition