Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a series about businesses being inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Monday night at the Blair County Convention Center.
Thousands of women's shoes were manufactured at Altoona Shoe Co. and shipped throughout the United States.
Altoona Shoe, which operated here from 1951 to 1978, is one of four businesses being inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Monday night at the Blair County Convention Center.
Workers at the Altoona Shoe Co. produced thousands of women's shoes between 1951 and 1978. Altoona Shoe is one of four businesses being inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame on Monday night at the Blair County Convention Center.
It is being inducted in the Heritage category.
Altoona Shoe was founded in 1951 as Evy Footwear's third factory. The parent company was created by Max and Binnie Billig in 1942, soon after they arrived in America from war-torn Europe.
"We just made women's and girl's shoes. We sold them to the large retail stores such as National Shoes, Baker's Shoes and A.S. Beck in the large cities," said the couple's daughter, Evelyn Kenvin, who moved to Altoona in 1964 with her husband, Howard, to work for the company. "Our shoes were not a branded item. That made it hard to compete. You could charge more if you had a brand name."
Max and Binnie Billig's son, Peter, and daughter-in-law, Gail, came to Altoona in 1967.
After operating in a temporary facility, Altoona Shoe moved into a new building at 201 Cayuga Ave.
The company, which employed about 300 workers when it opened at that location, continued to grow.
"With five building expansions and a work force that grew to over 500, Altoona Shoe had a significant impact on the quality of life in Altoona. That impact reached into Martinsburg and as far as Bedford and Johnstown," said Hall of Fame Committee Chairwoman Claudia Montero Pequignot of Allegheny Ridge Corp. "At one point, Altoona Shoe was the world's largest privately- held shoe manufacturer in the country and was an early pioneer in the factory outlet concept."
Evy Footwear - named after Evelyn - later opened facilities in Martinsburg, Bedford and Johnstown.
Kenvin, who served as company vice president, remembers her days working at the shoe factory.
"I remember walking through the factory and the hum of the machines. I remember trying to move around things and trying to get the orders out," Kenvin said. "People seemed happy to be there and worked with you."
Louise Gioiosa, who served as office manager from 1957 to 1978, said the Billigs were a good family for which to work.
"They were great. They were very, very humanitarian and very family conscious. They were very understanding. You couldn't have asked for better people," Gioiosa said.
"They yearly had a family picnic for all employees and had Christmas parties and gave bonuses not only to the staff, but to the factory employees," Gioiosa said.
The advent of low-cost imports led to the business's liquidation in 1978.
"We started thinking about it several years before that. We recognized that the writing was on the wall," Kenvin said. "My father was no longer living but before he died, he recognized that was going to happen."
"That was sad. There were a lot of tears. People would say, 'Now what is going to happen?' We had been losing orders. We worked on an order basis," Gioiosa said. "When the imports first started, the Billigs said that was going to effect us. Evelyn told us we had to keep up the quality of the work."
The building was sold to the Saf-T-Bak Co. and is now the home of Fiore Furniture.
Kenvin said her family is pleased about the Hall of Fame induction.
"We became very attached to the business and the workers. We felt bad we couldn't continue to provide employment and are inviting some of our employees to the banquet," Kenvin said. "We felt very attached to the town as New Yorkers and appreciated the opportunity to be part of the community. We have some lasting friendships in the Altoona area, and we did make a lot of shoes."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.