Like so much else in Texas these days, apparel—the kind that proudly proclaims our Western heritage—ain’t what it used to be. Jeans were co-opted 25 years ago, when Gloria Vanderbilt designer-labeled them, and all hope of taking them back is lost now that Wranglers and Levi’s, those icons of the cowboy way, are made out of the country by workers who wouldn’t know a Santa Gertrudis from a milk cow. Cowboy hats? Gimme caps supplanted Stetsons and Hi-Rollers long before Bum Phillips coached the Oilers. Spurs and chaps? Appropriated by the alternative-lifestyle crowd (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Shirts with pearl snaps? Hell, folks are more likely to wear running shorts with the Texas flag on the backside.
Cowboy boots, on the other hand, are inviolable. They’ve been with us forever and still look damn sweet on a pair of feet today. And they don’t have to be Texas feet; anyone who dons a pair (well, the right pair) can pass for a native. Boots directly connect us to our storied past—they were the footwear favored by the Spanish conquistadores who brought the horse to North America, although there’s still some dispute as to whether the first cowboy boots arrived in Texas from Kansas via the cattle drovers or from northern Mexico by way of the vaqueros. Their shining moment came in the early eighties, when the Urban Cowboy craze transformed them into a pop culture artifact embraced around the world. But by the early nineties, sales were back down and the industry began to consolidate. More recently, venerable Texas bootmakers like Tony Lama and Lucchese have followed jeans makers in shipping some of their manufacturing operations across the border and overseas. Several lines of Justins, once the pride of my hometown of Fort Worth, are today made in Mexico.
This, I would argue, is not necessarily a bad thing. With the decline of the big boys, the small bootmakers—the ones who custom-make them by hand—are on the rise. Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and even the occasional Mexican wrestler, along with regular folks all across the state, regard made-to-measure boots as one of the last remaining status symbols connected to the Western myth. Mind you, they’re expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a single pair, and assuming you can find someone willing to take you on as a customer, it can be weeks or months before they’re ready to wear. But price and patience have their rewards, because custom boots are more comfortable than a pair of slippers and last for a minimum of ten years. The way I figure it, they’re a far better value than the new pair of $200 Air Jordans you have to buy every year—plus they look cooler and are versatile enough to be worn in the saddle or propped up on your desk.
The place to buy custom boots is Texas, which is home to more than one hundred of the best bootmakers on earth—though you’d never know it; most custom bootmakers don’t advertise, as word of mouth brings in all the business they can handle. Aesthetically speaking, their shops are like barbecue joints: The funkier the place, the better the product. Some have a fancy showroom out front, but the actual work is done in environments charitably described as messy, dank, and musty, and the air is redolent with the sweet, mellow aroma of tanned hides. Piles of leather scraps are scattered in every nook and cranny, as are such tools of the trade as awls, hammers, and ancient sewing machines (the model 3115 Singer is particularly revered).
Yes, bootmaking is an art form—literally. Over the past twelve years, custom boots have been the subject of three coffee-table books—100 Years of Western Wear, The Cowboy Boot Book, and Art of the Boot—by Tyler Beard, a writer and collector of Western memorabilia living in Lampasas, and Jim Arndt, a photographer from that upper Midwestern hub of bootmania, Minneapolis (Arndt also publishes boot calendars). At the moment there are two major boot-themed exhibits in Texas: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, which features the works of Texas’ best modern bootmakers, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, including boots worn by Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.
With an eye to all this, I spent a few weeks traveling around the state this spring, visiting some of the state’s best bootmakers. I was sorry to be reminded that so many of the veterans are no longer with us: Charlie Dunn, of Austin, Ray Jones, of Lampasas, Charlie Garrison, of Llano, Dan Trujillio, of Comanche, Willie Lusk (the only African American to distinguish himself in the trade), of Lubbock, and Genaro Hector Uribe, of San Antonio, the last in a family line that stretched back 150 years to bootmakers who shod soldiers in Emperor Maximilian’s army. Yet I discovered some old masters still at it, such as 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, of Mercedes, 73-year-old Ignacio Martinez, of Raymondville, and 65-year-old James Leddy, of Abilene.
From these and other Michelangelos of leather, I learned that getting the new generation to follow in their bootsteps is no easy task. “I’ve got two sons and a daughter who didn’t go into the boot business but live in nice houses with all the finer things in life,” says seventy-year-old Dave Little, whose family’s boots, hecho en San Antonio since 1915, favorably compare with ones the Luccheses once made in the Alamo City. Thankfully, another of Little’s daughters is getting ready to take over the business. An additional problem is finding good craftsmen—the only dependable talents are Mexican nationals, the occasional Mexican American kid from the border region, and the handful of graduates (never enough) from the bootmaking school at the technical branch of Oklahoma State University, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
Custom bootmakers, I was told, are divided into two camps. Solo operators insist that you can’t turn out really great handmade boots if even two people are involved in the process. Ideally, the person who does the measuring should be the person who makes the last, cuts the patterns, and cuts the leather. “Those four steps are so critical that you’re asking for trouble if more than one person does it,” says Houston bootmaker Dave Wheeler. Shops with two or more bootmakers hoot at Wheeler’s premise, pointing out that specialists who focus on stitching, stretching vamps, or putting together boot bottoms make for a better overall boot. Besides, going it alone is akin to taking a vow of poverty, says Little, who makes the sale, does the measuring, and collaborates on the design but leaves the actual assembly to six workers in the shop out back. “The fellow who makes boots one at a time, from fit to finish, can’t make any money,” he says.
There are regional differences in Texas as well. Small bootmakers who make real cowboy boots for real cowboys—durable footwear that’s nothing fancy—are easily found wherever big ranches are nearby, with two significant clusters around Abilene and San Angelo. Custom bootmakers in El Paso, the undisputed Cowboy Boot Capital of the World, tend to be larger operations and focus on sales not to individuals as much as to retailers in Texas and elsewhere, who measure their customers and then send for the boots to be made. Not surprisingly, boots tend to cost more the farther you travel from the border. The least expensive boots are made in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley towns of Mercedes and Raymondville, where many makers were trained in the Mercedes factory of revered bootmaker Zeferino Rios, whose family was in the business for nearly 150 years.
Whatever you pay for them, wherever you get them, get them. This is an industry worth supporting. “It’s not going to die,” insists Lee Miller, of Austin, one of the nation’s finest young bootmakers. (Miller is doing his part: He was taught by Charlie Dunn and eventually took over Dunn’s business, and he is now teaching a Japanese man named Atsuki Sumi, who aims to open up the second custom-made-boot shop in his home country.) “The boot boom may have ended in 1983,” says Scott Emmerich, who co-owns Tres Outlaws bootmakers in El Paso, “but the serious boot buyer has never gone away. It always has been and always will be, because Texas is Texas and Texas is boots.”