The last "Last" company fights to survive

By Keith Boles - bio | email feedback

WALNUT RIDGE, AR (KAIT) --It seems like everyday another manufacturing company moves from the U-S overseas including many shoe companies.

Every shoe must be made on a "last" which is the form the shoe is made on. The only last company in America is here in Region 8, and is struggling to survive.

Jones & Vining has been in the shoe last business for nearly 80 years, and the company has been in Walnut Ridge since 1959.

One of the really cool things about this plant is the amount of hands-on work required. You can make shoe lasts on an assembly line but getting that last hand touch is what makes for a really great shoe and you just don't get that from a machine. In a world of mass production lines, Jones & Vining feels like a throwback to a previous time.

Plant manager Spencer Bruce has been in the last business for over a quarter of a century. He told me that when this plant opened its doors in 1959 there were a hundred shoe companies within a hundred miles of Walnut Ridge. And, there were 64 last companies in America--all of which built lasts by hand. A good portion of their lasts are shipped to shoe assembly companies overseas.

"We make a lot for corporations that work overseas. Some of your big shoe companies but our primary work is for American manufacturers that are left." Bruce says at one time they had moving belts but it just didn't fit the work flow. "This is not like working on a line that you just keep pushing parts down a line. There's an art, a real art to it."

Every where you turn you can find boxes of patterns with cobwebs that are still used, models that can be years old yet still viable, and boxes of lasts waiting to be processed.

What is a shoe last?

Bruce says, "a shoe last is a solid plastic form that the leather is stretched around to form the shoe to make it fit."

Originally the models for lasts were carved from maple but since maple is no longer readily available, so bowling ball plastic is used for the models instead.

The lasts themselves are made in several steps.

Bruce, "We have a block machine that will make a large block. A set of rough lasts weighs about 15 pounds. Then we'll rough it down. Then we'll put a hinge in it, then we'll finish turning it. Then the toe and heel are finished by hand."

Only 11 full time and 3 part-time employees work at this plant, and during the 80's they had as many as 188 employees. The company would like to expand, and with the aid of Congressman Marion Berry's office, Jones & Vining are trying hard to get a last contract for military footwear.

"The boot has to be made here. The shoe laces, the eyelets, everything has to be made here. But, the shoe last can be bought from somewhere other than the United States like Mexico or China. We'd really love to get some of that business."

With luck and hard work, legislation may send work their way so the 200 years of combined talent at the factory won't go to waste.

According to Bruce, "It's an art that's been learned for several years and we're the last one in the United States."

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