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Worcester horseshoe company still in the game

If your Fourth of July plans include a game of horseshoes, chances are you’ll be throwing a St. Pierre-made model.
If your Fourth of July plans include a game of horseshoes, chances are you’ll be throwing a St. Pierre-made model.

WORCESTER — There is nothing hot these days about horseshoes. Unless you’re here, far back in the factory of the St. Pierre Manufacturing Corporation, where workers still heat steel to a glowing 2,500 degrees and stamp out tons of iconic pitching horseshoes that are as much a part of Americana as backyard barbecues and Fourth of July fireworks.

According to Peter St. Pierre, the family-owned company remains as the last-standing mass manufacturer of pitching horseshoes in the United States.

“It’s a business that has evolved, but slowly,’’ said St. Pierre, the company’s vice president of finance, whose grandfather Henry moved from Vermont to Worcester to make a business in tire chains and horseshoes in the 1920s. “Here we are, 90 years later, and we’re still making horseshoes.’’


The St. Pierre Manufacturing Corporation in Worcester is the only company remaining in the country that produces horseshoes. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Chances are you’ll be throwing a St. Pierre-made model if your Fourth of July weekend plans include a game of horseshoes. In a state where manufacturing has all but surrendered to high tech, think tanks, and uberwhatever, the third-generation family operation remains the little factory that could, knocking out horseshoes much like the game is played, one shoe at a time.

A smattering of boutique shoe makers also exist in the United States and cater almost exclusively to upper-end tournament pitchers, including professional players. St. Pierre, though, stands alone in that it produces hundreds of thousands of shoes per year, the bulk of the business pegged around recreational players who throw in backyards, at company outings, family picnics, and, rumor has it, behind the odd barroom and firehouse.

When horseshoes had their US heyday, in the mid-20th century, players at Southie’s L Street bathhouse were said to be so big in number that they sometimes impeded the path of wannabe swimmers. Which way to the beach? Look, pal, just steer wide of the horseshoe stakes (standard setting, 40 feet apart), and don’t be stepping on Murph’s ringer!


In recent decades, St. Pierre shoes have been a staple on the racks of Dick’s Sporting Goods (the company’s No. 1 customer) and similar big-box stores throughout the country. Walmart once was a big St. Pierre customer, but these days, according to Peter St. Pierre, the mammoth retailer offers only Chinese-made shoes in its stores.

A touch of irony there, America’s No. 1 brick-and-mortar retailer relying on the People’s Republic of China for a game thought to be distinctly American.

“China’s our biggest competitor,’’ noted Peter St. Pierre, whose father (Edward) and uncle (Henry) co-own the company, while another uncle (Richard) is a vice president. “We like to think our shoe is better. We use forged steel. Chinese companies use a casting method that is less expensive, has air pockets, and is not nearly as strong. Our horseshoes don’t break.’’

Roots of the game trace back to ancient Greece and Rome, so the idea of our backyard recreation being uniquely American may not be entirely accurate. But hey, it’s horseshoes, and close counts — and probably has for millennia in the pitching game. The Greek game of quoits, many sports historians believe, was what ultimately gave us horseshoes.

President George H.W. Bush, a pretty good baseball player in his Yale days, has been a horseshoe devotee for much of his life. During his presidency, electronic and print media often showed images of the smiling Bush pitching shoes, be it at the White House, Kennebunkport, or wherever the spirit of slinging moved him.


“Bush’s Horseshoe Hobby Rings Up Sales,’’ read a Washington Post headline, Aug. 13, 1989. Indeed, the Pitcher in Chief was good for horseshoe biz. According to Ed St. Pierre, the Worcester company showed a bump in sales of some 20 percent during Bush’s stay on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We were getting constant calls from the media back then . . . newspapers, magazines, from everywhere,’’ recalled Ed St. Pierre. “Someone called nearly every day to do a story. It became exhausting.’’

Each machine has one operator and each shoe is produced one at a time, this one red-hot at Rudy Martinez’s workstation.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

St. Pierre produces three brands of shoes, including its original model, the “Royal,” which dates to the company’s founding days. It also makes a better “American” model as well as its top-of-the line “Eagle,” marketed more to the serious or tournament player.

Specifications vary, but pitching horseshoes generally are just under 8 inches long and weigh approximately 2 pounds, 10 ounces. By and large, they are significantly larger and heavier than the shoes worn by horses, be they of the racing or barnyard variety, although players often refer to the sport as barnyard golf. A set includes two stakes and four shoes, pairs separated by color.

“A simple game, and everyone can do it,’’ said Chuck White, 70, who has played the game for more than 20 years. “You can be young, old, middle-aged, it really doesn’t matter. You can be out there because you like to compete, or just for fun . . . whatever you make of it.’’


White, who often plays at the Shrewsbury Sportsmen’s Club, consulted with St. Pierre in the design of its “Eagle” model. Like many of his friends, including the likes of Ray Bedard, White squeezes in as many games as possible, travels with his wife to play in tournaments, and tries to play year-round. New England weather, especially in the winter, can make that a challenge. But some avid players seek shelter in indoor pits, such as those at the Valley Springs Sportsman’s Club in Thompson, Conn.

“Do you play golf?’’ Bedard asked a recent visitor to Thompson, where he and friends meet nearly every Thursday night to play inside Valley Springs’ cozy red barn for a couple of hours. “Horseshoes is the same kind of game . . . you know, self-abuse.’’

Bedard, 66, is one of the more accomplished players and horseshoe advocates in New England. He was crowned the men’s senior champion two years ago when the national championships were held in Hamburg, N.Y., just south of Buffalo. That’s another thing about horseshoes, its big events don’t make it to large cities.

The Valley Springs Sportsman Club in Thompson, Conn., hosts a horseshoes league, which keeps standings. Players take their craft seriously, comparing some of the frustrations of the sport to those found in golf.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“They play tournaments in places like Spearfish, S.D.,’’ said Ed St. Pierre, who journeyed on company business to Spearfish for a world championship in the 1980s. “Land at the airport and go 100 miles into the hills and you’re in Spearfish.’’

“Yep,’’ noted Peter St. Pierre, “it’s never going to be in downtown Manhattan.’’

In Thompson, which also has an outdoor throwing area, the barn houses three pits, players carefully watering and grooming the thick bed of clay that surrounds each of the six stakes. The lighting is minimal, the laughs many. On one recent night, the field included five men, one woman, with all scores dutifully recorded, yet no one much concerned about math or bragging rights.


“This place is a godsend for a lot of us,’’ said Bedard, who is from nearby Webster, Mass., looking around the homey but well-worn barn. “Not a lot of places you can play or practice, year-round.’’

“Come on, Joanne!’’ hollered Joanne Phillips, disgusted that one of her ringers hasn’t, well, rung. “You’ve got to be kidding me.’’

Joanne and husband Lee, who took up the game before her, both throw Imperial model shoes. Of the six players in Thompson on a recent evening, only Kevin Germain, 61 and a longtime employee of National Grid, used a St. Pierre-made (“American’’) shoe.

“No matter what the shoe,’’ said Germain, cautioning a spectator to stay alert in the barn, “you’ve got to keep your eyes open in here. I’ve seen shoes hit the pin, go 15 feet straight up in the air — not something you want to get hit with.’’

The shoe-making business hits its peak, according to Peter St. Pierre, at the start of the calendar year, when retailers want orders filled for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. It’s that time of year when the company’s aged, hulking forge presses are humming and clanking, punching out the shoes that ultimately will be flung across the Lower 48 and beyond.

Steel rods, cut to precise length, are first heated at the side of the press, sparks spitting out as the steel warms to a near-molten 2,500 degrees. The press operator, with hands protected, then moves the red-hot steel into position on the press and each rod is stamped twice — first to form the shape of the shoe, then to add the St. Pierre name and shoe brand.

It is all done one shoe at a time, fed from hand to machine. Still glowing red, the finished shoe drops unceremoniously to the factory floor, where it cools and eventually is ferried along to be finished and painted.

In the nearly a century that St. Pierre has knocked out millions upon millions of shoes, America’s recreational games have come and gone, with many of today’s games constructed with carbon and plastic.

But here in Central Mass., the honorable horseshoe, the master of our Fourth of July holiday, remains ever in the thick of the game.

Jim Bigelow (left) of Berkley, Mass., competed in a game of horseshoes during Thursday night league play at the Valley Springs Sportsman Club.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.