C. C. Filson Company

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 11/25/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11150

Clinton C. Filson (1850-1919) moved to Washington in 1890, opened a series of general stores, and within a few years was selling clothing and work gear to gold prospectors flocking to the mines of Monte Cristo in the mountains of eastern Snohomish County. In 1897, just as the Klondike Gold Rush touched off a business boom in the city, he relocated to downtown Seattle and founded what would become the C. C. Filson Company. Catering at the start to those traveling to Alaska and Canada in search of gold, the company made its reputation with a line of clothing, boots, blankets, sleeping bags, and similar goods that came to be seen as reliable in the worst environments, made with the finest-quality material and construction, and durable to a point of multi-generational use by customers. After Filson's death in 1919, his wife Winifred Filson (1865-1958) headed the company for another four decades. Family ownership ended a few years later, but more than a century after its founding the C. C. Filson Company continued producing quality garments and other products for outdoor use in its downtown Seattle manufacturing plants.

Midwest Origins, Northwest Business Ventures

Clinton Filson was born in Ohio on January 27, 1850, the oldest of seven children of George M. Filson (1826-1886) and Rebecca Harumer Filson (1829-1909). The family was among the earlier pioneers to Nebraska, settling in Humboldt in the 1870s. The elder Filson was accomplished in both politics and business ventures. In 1880 he was elected mayor of Humboldt and one year later opened the Filson House, which operated for many years as a successful public boarding house. By the time Clinton Filson was 30, he had worked primarily as a railway conductor for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad. He married Winifred C. Egbert in Clayton, Iowa, on April 27, 1887, before coming west to Washington, newly admitted as a state, in 1890.

By 1891 Filson had opened the Filson & Timmerman General Store in Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle, enlisting a family friend from Humboldt -- Albert T. Timmerman (1864-1949) -- as a partner. Brother Claude Filson (1870-1934) followed Clinton out west and worked in the store as a clerk until he left the area in 1892. The partnership was short-lived, with Timmerman also leaving in 1892, to become a customs inspector in Seattle.

Undaunted, Filson next partnered with Edward S. Howard (1854-1928) to open a store in Sauk City, on the Skagit River near the mouth of the Sauk River. The Filson Howard & Co. store sold clothing and work gear to the throng of gold seekers traveling up the Sauk to Monte Cristo, where a rush began following the discovery of gold there in 1889. The town of Sauk City found itself bypassed in 1893, with the completion of a new railway line from Everett to Monte Cristo, thereby diminishing the need for freight delivery and other businesses, such as Filson's hardware store. Filson left that year for more populated and prosperous areas.

Following a hiatus in commercial enterprise, Filson moved to Seattle with his wife in 1897 to begin his most ambitious commercial venture yet.

Alaska Outfitters

The discovery of gold in the Klondike ushered in a new business boom for Seattle and offered a ready-made market for the types of wares Clinton Filson sought to provide. In 1898 Filson operated stores at 1119 First Avenue and at the corner of Occidental and Yesler avenues. Called the Seattle Woolen Manufacturing Company, Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers, the operation not only sold but also manufactured "Mackinaw clothing, Mackinaw blankets and knit goods, as well as boots, shoes, moccasins and sleeping bags specially designed for the frigid North" ("Clinton C. Filson: ... "). From the outset Filson made sure that all of his wool fabric was made in his own mill, a company practice that continued for years afterward.

There was no lack of customers or money to be spent when it came to demand for supplies destined for use in the Klondike. Historian Clarence Bagley noted that in 1897 and 1898 "there was an immense increase in the deposits in all of the local banks," which brought prosperity to all sorts of local businesses and was largely the result of the rush to Alaska and the Klondike (History of Seattle ..., vol. 2, p. 481).

An advertisement that ran in the March 10, 1898, edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows a cartoonist's view of the Alaska wilderness: Frozen skeletons dot the pass trail on one side near a sign reading "Victims of Cheap Outfitters," while a string of hearty, well-equipped prospectors on the opposite side is labeled "Result of Proper Outfitting" ("Your Life May Depend ..."). Such visual drama only added to a growing word-of-mouth reputation the Filson clothing brand was building.

A testimony to the founder years later shows the mutual trust established between the company and its initial consumer base:

"Alaska sourdoughs told the tenderfeet that it was no need to question the bill of Filson, it was always right. 'Just write and tell Filson what you want and pay his bill when the goods come. He trusts you and you can bank on him!'" ("Seattle Man Dies in Oregon").

Besides having an eye for quality design and materials, Clinton Filson was both a savvy businessman and customer-oriented. He offered a "lifetime guarantee" for his products, offering to replace them if their seemingly indestructible nature was ever found wanting. Filson was also known for making goods to custom order, a process made possible by the manufacturing operations on site. Clothing patterns would remain the property of the company -- including the widely popular Cruiser shirt design -- even after sources for some garment materials changed years later in the 1960s. Besides the Cruiser shirt, jacket, and pants line first patented in 1914, other products that become mainstays for the company included the Tin Cloth jacket, the Feather Cloth shirt, and a wide variety of bags, luggage, and outdoor sporting vests.

C. C. Filson Company, Inc.

Following the end of the gold rush, Filson continued to cater to laborers in the timber, mining, and agriculture industries, as well as a growing number of customers with outdoor-sporting interests, including hunting, fishing, and travel abroad. The transition was also marked by a change in company brand identity, from identifying as "the firm of Alaska outfitters" to also asserting "Your satisfaction is the sole purpose of our transaction" (Frank).

The company also changed store locations and names several times in quick succession, but never ventured far from Seattle's First Avenue commercial district. In 1899 it was called the Seattle Woolen House, at 603 First Avenue; by 1900, it had moved to 903 First Avenue. The year 1902 saw the Filson business expanding to the new Globe Building at 1011 First Avenue, along with several other prominent merchants, including William Nottingham's Globe Navigation Company. At this location, the clothing company was renamed yet again, this time as the Clinton C. Filson Men's Furnishings & Manufacturer -- Miners' and Lumbermen's Clothing Store. The business would remain there until 1924, when it moved to 1005-7 First Avenue, where it would be located for the next seven years.

During this time, Filson's brother Claude assisted with the company's operations off and on, first in 1900 for a year, then again beginning in 1906. His professional role being a marginal one at best, Claude continued to live with Clinton and Winifred until 1919, the year the company finally became incorporated in Washington as the C. C. Filson Company.

Clinton Filson came to enjoy a measure of his company's status through invitations to join civic clubs such as the Masonic Order and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. He continued to manage the company as its president up to the time of his death in La Grande, Oregon, on December 21, 1919. His obituary reflects the identity of a man who many had known since his start in Seattle: "a merchandiser of the old school, who believed in his goods and vouched for their quality" ("Seattle Man Dies in Oregon").

Family Business

Following Clinton's death, his wife Winifred Filson took over as president of the company. Already working for the company, Clinton's only nephew, George Stroble (1895-1964), was named vice president, while longtime clerk Ulysses S. Dick (1868-1948) was named secretary-treasurer. For several years to follow, much of the company's continued success was attributed to Dick:

"Much of the burden of management devolves upon him, and the prosperity now enjoyed by the house is largely the outcome of the tireless efforts on his behalf. Mr. Dick has few outside interests, reserving his energies for the business in which he is engaged ... the business has progressed with Seattle's growth, and throughout its existence the firm has borne an unassailable reputation for integrity and reliability" (Bagley, History of King County, vol. 3, p. 294).

In 1927 C. C. Filson Co. filed a lawsuit to enforce protection of the Cruiser design first patented 13 years earlier. The Cruiser jacket had become such a popular and in-demand garment that other manufacturers tried to copy the design, making only slight modifications in an attempt to circumvent the law. The company eventually let the patent expire, due to the high costs of prolonged legal disputes and enforcement.

Amid rumors of embezzlement, Ulysses Dick left the company in 1935. Stroble had left two years previously to work as a manager for the cosmetics company Russian Duchess Laboratories, but returned in 1936 to become the new secretary-treasurer for C. C. Filson Co. The company moved three more times between 1931 and 1948, finally settling into the 205 Maritime Building located near the former Federal Building, where it would remain for the next 37 years.

Despite changes to the company hierarchy over the years, Filson's reputation for making garments of lasting quality continued to grow. Winifred Filson died in 1958 at the age of 94. With no Filson children as heirs, the company's operations continued under George Stroble, with a provision in place to have it run by a trust in the event of his death. Only six years later Stroble died, leaving the company temporarily controlled by its legal counsel and bank.

Changing Hands

Ted Reed (1915-2012), a purchasing agent for the Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, was contacted shortly after Stroble's death to see if he was interested in purchasing the business. Reed's background in filling orders for indigenous Alaskans was similar to the kind of business originally run by Clinton Filson and Reed was also very familiar with the Filson line of products. He took over the company in 1965 as secretary-treasurer with an option to buy in five years.

After purchasing the company in 1970, Reed refocused on the quality of its brand at the production level. No longer using wool fabric produced on site, he certified sources of wool from outside the company that were suitable for new products using old designs. Two mills in Oregon, the Paris Woolen Mill and the Jefferson Woolen Mill, were secured as suppliers. In 1968 Reed also started the first mail-order business for the company with the help of Jack Abercrombie (1921-2005).

Filson changed hands again in 1981, when Reed sold the business to Stan Kohls (b. 1948). Looking to expand and capitalize on the Filson name, Kohls is credited with expanding the product line from 35 to 250 items. Also, in 1985, he moved the company to a new location at 1246 First Avenue S. Local recognition was also prominent under the new owner, with Seattle Mayor Norman B. Rice (b. 1943) presenting an award to the Filson company in 1993 for its contributions to the community.

Making Way for a Stadium

Then in December 1994 representatives of Filson and other businesses located in the area south of the Kingdome met with staff from the city's Office of Economic Development (OED) over concerns that their businesses would be displaced by the construction of a planned new baseball stadium (which eventually became Safeco Field). Over the next two years, debate continued with members of the OED, the Seattle City Council, the mayor's office, and members of the impacted businesses, including the Filson store. In a letter to Joan Enticknap, Chair of the Public Facilities District, Stan Kohls outlined a defense should the company be impressed into undertaking relocation on short notice:

"Much of Filson's highly skilled workforce would be lost in the relocation process and the damage to its sales and marketing effort would, in all likelihood, be irreparable ... the company will participate in the environmental review process and will vigorously support selection of an alternate site for the new stadium. The company will not discuss or negotiate the issues of condemnation and relocation with King County until the final site selection has been made. C. C. Filson's goal is to avoid relocation. It is not interested in merely using this process to negotiate a better price for its property" (Kohls to Enticknap).

Letters of support from loyal Filson customers all over Washington poured in to the Seattle City Council, protesting plans to displace the company in building the new stadium. In 1998 the company lost the site battle with the city. It opened a new outlet store at 1555 Fourth Avenue S the following year.

The move did not dampen demand for the company brand, which increased on a national level even as prices for traditional items such as Feather Cloth shirts and Tin Cloth jackets rose substantially. In 2004 the company took in about $20 million in revenue, and by August 2006 had opened its first retail store outside of Seattle in Denver, Colorado.

Change and Tradition

Personal testimonies from customers of Filson products were many. One customer related how his duffel made more than a dozen trips to Africa. Another described the legacy of a garment handed down over several generations:

"My Dad purchased a Filson upland coat in 1945 upon his return from the war in Europe. It was handed down to me and I've handed it off to my eldest son, grouse blood and all. He still wears it. It's going on 70 and I just turn 70" (Hanson).

In another change in ownership, January 2005 saw Brentwood Associates and former Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation president Doug Williams acquiring the company, which under Kohls had become first Filson Holding Co. and then RS Kohls Holding Co., and renaming it again as Filson Holdings, Inc. A new company bearing the name C. C. Filson Co. was incorporated in Delaware in April 2008. By 2012 Brentwood had sold Filson Holdings Inc. to Bedrock Manufacturing of Dallas, Texas.

The makeup of Filson's labor force also changed in the years since the start of Stan Kohls's ownership. Between 1985 and 1994, the employee base increased from 40 to 140 people in production departments alone. In 1994 Filson had the only unionized sewing factory in Seattle, its workers represented by Garment Workers Union Local 17. The union membership eventually became merged with the Service Workers Union, representing more than 200 workers in the Filson luggage- and garment-manufacturing operations at two separate Seattle locations located a few blocks apart.

In operation since 2013, the company's remodeled, 65,000-square-foot manufacturing plant at 1741 First Avenue S also became home, in November 2015, to a new flagship store. Among the new features of the remodeled building were old-growth timber beams reclaimed from a former Boeing plant and glass doors where visitors could view the manufacturing of Filson luggage by workers on the main production floor. The majority of the sewing machines in use dated to the 1940s, owing to their reliability when compared to more modern machines.

While all luggage and other items such as totes, briefcases, and duffels were still produced in Seattle, an estimated 45 percent of total Filson retail sales as of 2015 were through the company's dealer network nationwide. With the company's identity historically and culturally tied to that of the sportsman, the prospector, and the outdoorsman, Filson continued its efforts to remain a Northwest company with a high-quality line of clothing to serve customers worldwide.

Sources: Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, vol. 2 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), p. 481; Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington, vol. 3 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929), 293-294; "Your Life May Depend on Your Outfit" (cartoon), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 10, 1898, p. 9; "Seattle Man Dies in Oregon," Ibid., December 24, 1919, p. 5; "Clinton C. Filson: January 27, 1850-December 21, 1919," C. C. Filson folder, Resource Management Records collection, Klondike Gold Rush -- Seattle Unit, National Park Service, Seattle, Washington; Michael Frank, "Made in America: C. C. Filson," December 17, 2012, Adventure Journal website accessed November 2, 2015 (http://adventure-journal.com/2012/12/made-in-america-c-c-filson/); Seattle City Directory (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1924), 591; Jonathan Hanson, "Et tu, Filson?" January 17, 2014, Exploring Overland website accessed November 11, 2015 (http://www.exploringoverland.com/overland-tech- travel/2014/1/17/et-tu-filson.html); "Services for Mrs. Filson, Pioneer," The Seattle Times, August 15, 1958, p. B-4; Angel Gonzalez, "'Lumbersexual' Chic: Filson Opening New Flagship Seattle Store," The Seattle Times, November 23, 2015 (www.seattletimes.com); Stan Kohls to Joan Enticknap, April 22, 1996, Folder 7, Box 25, Series 2100-2 (Office of Economic Development Director's Records, 1991-2002), Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Washington State Corporation Records -- RS Kohls Holding Co.-- Filson Holding Co.," Office of the Secretary of State, Corporations Division, 1855-2004, Washington State Archives -- Digital Archives website accessed November 2, 2015 (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/Record/View/4C1779F97C3085B17DFA8753FF65F885); "Ted Reed," Legacy.com website accessed July 26, 2016 (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=ted-reed&pid=155830825).
Note: This essay was revised on July 26, 2016.

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