Fashion trends seem to change as often as the weather. Time is the ultimate test, though, for those trends that outlast the fickle caprice of American taste. Blue jeans, flip flops and t-shirts all seem omnipresent in the pages of fashion’s history. Add to that list an ageless, versatile, and comfortable piece of footwear that’s endured: moccasins.
Here in Door County, Jim and Candy Yonker have been crafting moccasins by hand for more than 25 years at Fish Creek Moccasin Works, riding the wave of timelessness in our tiny corner of Wisconsin.
When they got their start in 1988, Jim and Candy were looking to do something unique and family run.
“I always loved moccasins,” Candy says. “Basically we were a young family and we wanted to be self-employed here in Door County.”
The Yonkers had spent time in the county as early as the ’60s, and they hoped they’d eventually call Door County home. After time spent in Colorado and Illinois, the family moved to Door County permanently, where Jim worked as a welder for Peterson Builders in Sturgeon Bay. After apprenticing with leather worker Russ Ferris, the Yonkers learned the trade and were ready to open their doors to offer their distinctive and stylish footwear to Door County’s visitors and locals.
The Yonkers got their start with their picturesque location at Founder’s Square in Fish Creek and then added their Baileys Harbor location six years later. Pushing through the front door of Fish Creek Moccasin Works is a sense-awakening experience: the resonant smell of leather permeates the shop space and the soft hides and rich colors on the shelves bespeak an era gone by, yet – somehow – still very present. Over it all, in the midst of the busy season, the sound of the enormous “clicker” can be heard hard at work in the Baileys Harbor location.
“The ‘clicker’ is a cutting machine [used for leather]. It has 20,000 pounds of cutting force. It gets its name from the guys that used to cut hides with knives,” explains Jim.
The machine itself is as beautiful as antique machinery goes – antique only in the sense that it was made in an era when things were built to last, and now, in 2014, it’s in no hurry to slow down. The process of creating a moccasin is a skill that takes patience and talent, and one the Yonkers have turned into an ideal collaboration of artistry.
“We start with whole hides; the hides that we use come from all over the world. Most of our deerskin and cowhide comes from Wisconsin tanneries. But we’ve also used everything from warthog to elephant,” Jim says.
The list of hides the Yonkers work with is impressive. In addition to regularly using deerskin and cowhide, they also use elk hide, pigskin, sheepskin, moose and bison, among others. One of the unique facets of their business is customers can send them whole hides from around the country, and even the world, to create a pair of moccasins.
“People will harvest their own hides hunting or even inherit a hide somehow and will bring it to us to work with,” Jim explains.
The result is a one-of-a-kind moccasin: simple and comfortable in its form, yet wholly unique. The moccasins the Yonkers create for keeping in stock are no less unique. Each pair is crafted by Jim and Candy, starting from a whole hide and ending with Candy’s lacing of each pair.
“From the whole hides we cut ‘blanks’ of an inner [the lining on the inside] and an outer [outer part of the shoe],” says Jim.
The “inner” blanks appear like the soft outline of a foot and Jim cements the inner and the outer together. The types of hide they’ll use for these parts vary, but Jim cites that often pigskin works well on the sole since it wears well, but is still quite supple since they use a pigskin that’s meant for glove-making. After sewing on a vamp and a collar on the back to hold it all together, the shoe is left to sit on a last (a form shaped like a foot) to give it shape. Candy finishes the process by lacing each shoe by hand, a task she can often be seen working at in the shop.
The lines of moccasins they create are beautiful and varied. They make everything from canoe soles (durable, leather bottom) and crepe soles (hard, rubber sole) to slippers and boots. Styles and sizes are created for men, women and children alike. Jim and Candy have also carried Minnetonka Moccasin products such as moccasins, hats and purses for more than 20 years. Currently, customers can choose from 170 different styles.
“Moccasins are hot, and manufacturers are trying to ride that wave,” says Jim.
But clearly, here in Door County, the simple beauty and attention to detail the Yonkers put into every moccasin is no flash in the pan. Fish Creek Moccasin Works, now a Door County fixture, is a family-run business whose cornerstone seems set on doing it well and skillfully, a model that never goes out of style.
Fish Creek Moccasin Works
ADDRESS: Founder’s Square, 4199 Main Street, Fish Creek and 8099 Highway 57, Baileys Harbor
PHONE: Fish Creek (920) 868-2100 & Baileys Harbor (920) 839-2500
Photography by Len Villano.