By Danna Burns-Shaw
White’s Boots opened around 1850 in the bustling state of Virginia. New industries were emerging in Virginia’s cities. By the late 1850’s, Virginia could claim 4,841 manufacturing establishments, making it fifth among the states in this category.
Canals and railroads connected farmers, rural flour mills, iron furnaces, coal mines and loggers.
In the new found industrial age, the White family saw a need for well-made industrial work boots and knew they had to withstand the harsh environments of the working man.
The White’s Boot business began to build work boots, primarily for members of the forestry industry.
In 1902, the company headed west and relocated to St. Maries, Idaho. After servicing the small Idaho area for 13 years, they decided to move to a more bustling lumber town; they chose Spokane, Washington.
Spokane was rich with opportunity, not only in the logging and industrial communities, but they found another group in desperate need of a utility boot – the Wildland firefighters.
White’s connection to the U.S. Forest Service’s smoke jumpers goes clear back to the 1850’s. Building a boot for firefighters requires fire-resistant soles and leathers sealed with fire retardant.
There is a phrase among smokejumpers –“hanging up your White’s.” When a jumper retires and ends his career of parachuting out of airplanes to fight forest fires in remote locations, he or she hangs up their White’s.
White’s boots provided great support for the jumping; they stood up in the fire environment with the high heat and hot ash. They were excellent for hiking out of remote locations.
Word got around that the best way to break in a new pair of heavy duty White’s Boots was to immediately jump in a creek, get them soaking wet, then wear them in the heat while they broke-in, that way they would form fit.
White’s was also known as the boot company that would trace an outline of each of your feet when you placed an order, and then they would customize your boot to the needs of your feet based on those measurements.
For the lifetime of the boot, White’s would refurbish your boot. Folks would be astonished with the results, swearing that they had thrown away the old boots and built them a new pair. Later in its history, a website was set up where folks would share their photos and stories of their restored White’s.
White’s business continued to grow as the West became more populated; more lumber was needed, which meant more workers needed quality custom-made boots, and more firefighters were hired as the demand grew to protect the structures that were popping up throughout the mountainsides.
After third-generation owner Otto White died in 1972 at the age of 91, the company went through a succession of ownership changes.
In the 1980s, brothers Skip and Gary March bought the business from the remaining White family owners. They focused on reconnecting the brand with footwear dealers around the country. Sales increased, with the boots available through the Spokane retail outlet, and 500 dealers were opened throughout the West.
“A visit to White’s boot-making factory is in many ways a step back in time. Workers are grouped into sections, with some cutting leather and others sewing and adding heels, all with a focus on quality over speed. The factory turns out boots without a single power tool.”
Gary and Skip March had their own challenges to overcome, such as the rising costs of the leathers they used and the ever-increasing cost of doing business in the United States – as the footwear industry was making a mass exodus to Asian countries – in addition to ongoing recessions.
The brothers continued to focus on producing high-quality boots and were determined not to have White’s Boots produced overseas. They knew a White’s Boot wearer wasn’t buying their boots for the price, they were buying them for the quality.
Gary and Skip Marsh were growing closer to retirement age and their desire was that White’s Boots legacy would continue in Spokane, where it had been since 1915.
As one of the West’s premier producers of rugged outdoor work boots, they knew they were in a niche market…a small niche market in the overall shoe/boot world.
However, it had become increasingly difficult to grow the company organically. They felt the answer to sustaining the growth and maintaining the 100+ employees was to find a bigger partner.
In July 2014, the Marsh brothers sold White’s Boots to LaCrosse Footwear in neighboring Portland, Oregon, which also owns Danner Boots. The brothers made the deal in large part to preserve the then 118 jobs in the Spokane Valley.
“In the end it was a good decision to sell to LaCrosse,” Gary said. “LaCrosse has the same culture – a focus on making quality boots in the USA, and they had a lot more resources to take this company to the next level.” LaCrosse and White’s were well-known to each other, officers from both companies often met at trade shows, Marsh said.
The Portland company was also making the Danner Boot line of products originally made in Minnesota and dated back to 1932…that gave them the experience of scaling a luxury boot line.
LaCrosse had gone through a similar circumstance two years prior. In 2012, they were sold to a Tokyo-based shoe retailer ABC-Mart, giving LaCrosse guidance on how to improve boot sales in Japan and other Asian countries. The White’s Boots brand had earned widespread loyalty; LaCrosse had no intention of changing how, or where, they made their boots.
Expanding the market
The new owners, ABC-Mart, have nearly 1000 retail stores in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
One market where both Danner’s and White’s boots have been extremely successful is Japan. Authentic, quality U.S.-made products sell for a premium price in Japan. American boots have become a fashion statement in Japan. That trend has led LaCrosse and White’s to introduce more fashionable boots versus functional boots.
When White’s Boots opened its Spokane operation over 100 years ago, little did Otto know that his brand would expand internationally and be owned by a major Asian corporation.
Expanding the market from hardworking laborers to folks that want to look like they work hard. But in the U.S., White’s is still known for their quality utilitarian boot; farmers, ranchers, loggers, firefighters and construction workers can count on White’s boots to withstand the rough journey of an outdoor working life.