Photo copyright and courtesy of Small Earth Vintage
I’ve known about Wellco for a long time. The factory used to be located just up the road a bit in Waynesville, North Carolina. I guess I’d never considered doing a post about the company because in my mind they are makers of combat boots for the US military. But there is a very interesting story behind Wellco, and some very pretty slippers.
The story revolves around Heinz Rollman who was a third generation shoemaker in Cologne, Germany. In the 1930s he and his brother Ernst and two cousins, Walter and Curt Kaufman, were working on ways to mold and attach rubber soles to leather uppers. Because they were Jewish, in 1935 the family shoe factory was confiscated by the Nazi regime and was “aryanized.” They then left the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Germany and settled in Brussels, Belgium where they formed a corporation to protect their patents and try and grow their business.
But by 1939, Germany was at war, and Belgium was being threatened. The partners chose Heinz to go to the US to see if it was reasonable for them to relocate there.
In the US Heinz Rollman got in touch with rubber manufacturers, and found an ally in A.F. Friedlander, the owner of Dayton Tire and Rubber. Together they scouted out for a location for a new rubber processing factory, and found the idea spot in Western North Carolina. Friedlander built a factory, which became Dayco, and Rollman’s shoe operation was located in a wing of the factory. Ernst Rollman was able to get to the US in 1943, and after the war they were joined by the Kaufmans who spent much of the war in Switzerland.
Over the years the company was involved not only in making shoes and slippers, but also in research. They held many patents on the vulcanization of rubber and its application in shoe manufacturing. In the 1960s they developed a combat boot for the US military that was suitable for the wet conditions of Vietnam, and ironically, many years later they developed a boot for the desert conditions of Iraq.
The most interesting part of this story is the man, Heinz Rollman. He was known for his generosity and helpfulness, and many credit him with the original idea for the Peace Corps. He wrote two books, My Plan for World Construction in 1952, and The Observer Corps, a Practical Basis for Peaceful Coexistence in 1957 that outlined how people from various countries interacting and helping one another might be beneficial for world peace.
I was pretty amazed at all the information there is on the internet concerning Heinz Rollman. I found stories about his generosity on various local chat boards. One told how he would visit a local store and spend $5000 a time on gifts for employees. When the factory burned in the 1960s, Rollman paid the workers for the days they missed, and very quickly found a new building and machinery to get people back to work. When people today lament the loss of American jobs, they are remembering businesses like Wellco and men like Heinz Rollman.
Wellco passed out of family hands several years ago, and the community was upset when the new owners abruptly moved the operation to Tennessee. The slipper division was sold in the 1980s, but Wellco continues to make boots in Tennessee and elsewhere.
I want to thank Jan Schochet for alerting me to the Wellco story. Jan co-wrote The Family Store, a book based on her research of Jewish businesses in Asheville. Her family owned a store called The Bootery. They sold Wellco shoes, mainly because Jan’s father was so impressed and moved by Heinz Rollman who personally traveled around the area with his suitcase of samples.
Correction: I have corrected the name of Jan Schochet’s family store where Wellco shoes were sold. It was the Bootery. They also owned A Dancer’s Place.