Texas boots

Okay, we’re going to take a break and consider the cowboy boot.  If you don’t like ‘em, don’t read on.  I happen to collect them (I won’t divulge the number), because I like the way they look and consider them an indigenous American art form: one of the few items of clothing—besides jeans—that’s uniquely American.  A well-made boot is a thing of beauty, a joy to wear, and the product of a lot of labor.  While off-the-shelf boots are churned out by the thousands by firms like Justin, Lucchese, and Tony Lama, the craft survives in a resilient band of custom bootmakers (many in Texas), who either make the whole boot themselves or supervise a small workshop.  (There aren’t any online videos of the custom process, which is said to involve 370-odd steps, but you can see the making of a high quality factory boot here.)

Custom boots are not cheap: a basic calf or kangaroo boot with simple stitching from a custom maker begins at about $1200.  Fancy stitching, inlay, or tooling can take prices to the stratosphere.  Tres Outlaws, an outfit in El Paso, has made some boots selling for upwards of $25,000!

When I was in Texas I sought out a few bootmakers and boot collectors, for fellow fanatics are thin on the ground in the chilly Midwest.

And, in Austin, I found Lee Miller, Vermont expatriate and bootmaker extraordinaire.  Lee and his wife Carrlyn run a small shop in Austin, Texas Traditions, where they turn out some of the country’s prettiest boots.  Here’s Lee with his latest project:

Lee isn’t taking new customers, because he has a huge backlog.  Even if you were to order a pair today, you wouldn’t get it for three and a half years!

Here are some of Lee’s boots.  The inlay and stitching are lovely, and take a ton of skill and work, but what makes Lee’s boots stand out is their purity of line.  Even without fancy decoration on the shafts (the tube-like tops; the foot part is called the “vamp”), they’re eye-catchingly graceful.  Have a look at the boot that Lee is holding above.

Lee took over the shop from the famous Charlie Dunn, who worked as a bootmaker in Austin’s Capitol Saddlery for many years and then, after retirement, started his own shop in South Austin.  Lee moved there to apprentice with Charlie, and took over the business when Charlie passed away.  (Lee makes the boots, Carrlyn does the business side and helps design).  Here’s a lovely “pinched rose” design—the yellow rose of Texas, of course—made famous by Dunn and produced by Miller (note the initials, which most custom makers will add to your boot for a small fee):


Here’s Charlie Dunn in his later years, an elfin man with a hot temper and a fierce passion for making good boots:

Charlie was the subject of a song by Jerry Jeff Walker, probably the only bootmaker to be so immortalized.  Here’s a pair that he made for himself, incorporating a unique mirror-signature design.  Charlie had a bunion on his right foot, and you can see where it’s worn through the ostrich vamp:

Lee has saved all of Charlie’s designs.  Here’s Charlie’s famous “marijuana pattern”, used on the shafts when the counterculture took up cowboy boots in the 60s.  Apparently Charlie had no idea what marijuana looked like, and so a customer brought him a sample.

Here are the ingredients of a good cowboy boot: leather, a steel shank to support the arch, lemonwood pegs to peg the sole, and thread to stitch the tops and soles.  That’s it.  No glue, no paper, no plastic.

Here’s the “hide room,” where they keep all the different leathers on hand to make the latest batch of orders.  Some of the hides commonly used in boots are calf, kangaroo, ostrich, lizard, alligator, crocodile, shark, water buffalo, and snakeskin.  I even have a pair of camel boots (camel is a very rare hide because they don’t kill the beasts to make leather: hides are taken from camels who die of old age).

The making of a custom boot begins with a complicated process of measuring your foot.  This can take up to an hour, and can involve all kinds of tape measures, calipers, and even inkpads (Lee has people step on one and then make a foot impression).  From those measurements a wood or (more commonly) fiberglass model of the foot—the “last” is made.  Around this is built the bottom of the boot. Here are some of Lee’s lasts with the names of celebrity customers:

Here’s a boot that Lee made for Lauren Bacall (note the “LB” initials inside the pull).  They didn’t fit at first so they were replaced:

I also visited John Tongate, retired librarian at the University of Texas and famous boot collector.  John’s specialty is tracking down vintage boot designs and having them reproduced by custom bootmakers.  Here’s John with a small part of his collection:

Boots with elaborate inlay.  Left to right:  Model Boot Co./Morado Bros, Houston, date unknown; James Morado, Houston, 1995; Bo Riddle, Nashville, 1994; James Morado, Houston, 1994.

Tooled boots (very expensive!), and a lovely purple pair with vamp stitching.  Starting with single boot on extreme left: Jack Reed, Burnet, TX, 1998; Jack Reed (Bob Dellis, tooler), Burnet, TX 1993; James Morado, Houson, 1999.

If you want to see more, there are some good books, including The Cowboy Boot Book and Art of the Boot, both by Tyler Beard and Jim Arndt.

35 Comments

  1. Sili
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    If you make a boot for yourself and have a bunion, why not make something that doesn’t irritate the thing?

  2. orangejuice
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    How can they wear these things in a hot place like Texas and not have massive, massive, foot odour issues?

    • Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      It helps that Texas is pretty spread out.

      • orangejuice
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        That hardly helps at home, though, which is where presumably even Texans take their boots off.

      • Artikcat
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        Dr Scholls?. An evolutionary fashionista among us!! Good move Dr Coyne. I will wear my fuchsia rattlesbnakes waiting for the LHC black holes to obliterate us unto the origins, where we can have a discussion about things, including the orgins of the boots themselves. A comanche old tale tells about the foot odour of cavalry horsemen, which had to do with their military defeat-the comanches.

    • Grandpa
      Posted July 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      The boots you are talking about are 100% leather. Sports shoes have rubber and plastic in them. They make you smell strong enough that anyone can track you.

  3. Ian
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I think I’ve gotten used to it by now, but when I first came to Oklahoma and saw 250 lb men in shoes with pointy toes and high heels, it seemed far more evocative of drag queens, rather than the Old West. And seeing how pretty these are… Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against drag queens, I just think that some of these guys would be happier if they came out of the closet.

  4. Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    And I thought Fryes were the holy grail. Ho hum.

  5. litchik
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I love the boot I ordered when I was in Austin. Only have the one pair, but my kids still have a college fund, so I reconcile myself.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Nope, I won’t say a thing about men wearing girlie footwear. Nope, not me.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      This is homophobic! Men have been wearing cowboy boots in the US for 150 years, and I hardly need point out that those boots served a practical purpose for cowboys. No more dumb suggestions that they’re only for gays, please.

      • Artikcat
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Right on Dr Coyne. neb: watch: “Kinky boots” with great Chiwetel Eijofor, say, twice??

  7. orangejuice
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I almost feel a tinge of bad conscience now, given that we haven’t been awfully appreciative of Professor Coyne’s sharing his thoughts and pictures of cowboy boots with us. On a more constructive note, let me make a meagre attempt to initiate a thread with names of well-known scientists and philosophers known to wear cowboy boots:

    – Jerry Coyne
    – John Searle (Philosopher, UC Berkeley)
    – Christof Koch (Neuroscientist, Caltech)

    • Artikcat
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      From a S. Pinker interview-08- where he analzes the relationship between neuronal recordings, axons so forth-i suspect thats what one the things he is talking about-and cowboy boots and long hair….: Q: Why is it surprising that scientists might have long hair and wear cowboy boots? A!!!:’In fields like neuroscience where the events you are recording are so minute I suspect scientists cultivate a boring, reliable image. A scientist with a reputation for flamboyance might be suspect”…Sacre bleu!! It ranks high in bewildering answers, considering the dissonance between Q&A.
      I remember Eric Davidson-seaurchin fame-talks-seminars-in boots? and cowboy hats?I may be dead wrong.

      • Artikcat
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Remembered Steven Semken (MIT geologist, now geoscience education at Arizona). Well know for me…

        • Artikcat
          Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Fred Alt (Harvard, immuno). Used to wear the stinkiest Fryes while an undergrad at Brandeis.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Also my literary editor at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, wears Pablo Jass boots.

      And don’t forget Eric Davidson, CalTech, and David Hillis, UT Austin

      • Artikcat
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        leon wieseltier? wow.. no wonder his smoking gun approach to excellent thinking and the “moral obligation to be intelligent”..

  8. Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I’m from the next state over from Texas, and I tried to like cowboy boots. I failed, possibly because I only had cheap ones, which were slippery on wet ground and not very comfortable for any serious walking.

    I suppose they are designed more for riding, not walking.

    Still, they look pretty good.

    • Artikcat
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      We can provide info to excellent NAFTA boots at affordable prices for tight wads, we woud miss you if you fell. This (these?) boots are made for walking..

  9. pete
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for the Austin boot news. I’d been wondering what happened after hearing Charlie Dunn passed away. Looks like the business is in capable hands (only wish I could afford a pair).

    One thing though: Lee and Carrlyn are really gonna mess up the lyrics! What’ll replace “Charlie done the boots that are on my feet” not to mention that now Carrlyn’s up front countin’ up the gold. I think JJW needs to work up a new song.

  10. SoreLoser
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    When I was going to the University of Texas in 1970+, Charlie Dunn was on all the jukeboxes and got a lot of play. I never cared for cowboy hats or boots but that song really takes me back! I still live in Austin and have been playing the song too loud at work.

    Thanks!

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Some yrs back there was a fine western bootmaker named Foley, improbably located in Maine. By the time I got interested in boots, Foleys could only be had used. More than one of us has hunted for information about Foley and come up empty. Please post anything you might know about Foley.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I have two pairs of Foleys, and they’re fine boots. I’ve tried like the dickens to find information about him, but have always drawn a blank.

  12. scotth
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    I have some photos of some quite amazing hand made boots, if you are interested.

    These we made for a (real) cowgirl to wear on her wedding day in Fort Worth. I was one of the wedding photographers.

    Speaking of her being a “real” cowgirl, getting photos of her with her horse was MANDATORY. She was actually sliding her horse around, bareback, in her wedding dress. (true story)

    I would be surprised if they paid less than $5k for the boots. It was *some* wedding. Actually, it was the best wedding I’ve ever attended in any capacity.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      SEND THEM!!!!!!!

      • scotth
        Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        I posted a zip file of four photos at full resolution. You’ll be able to scroll around in these….

        You can see them in all their high-res glory. Feel free then to crop and/or resize as you see fit.

        http://www.hurstphoto.biz/weit/boots.zip

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Fantastic boots! Thanks. Now THAT’S what I call a wedding! Wish I’d been there.

          • scotth
            Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

            You should have seen when the bride’s father rode a long horn steer onto the “dance floor”… The dance floor was in a large pole barn, but still.

            It was an amazing event. Wish I was could have just enjoyed rather than doing the photography.

            • Nicolas Keller
              Posted March 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              This thread is getting epic :DDD !! it has all the ingredients:
              true passion, heart-warming anecdotes,joyous insider talk and of course the object of all the love and affection that the comments are bubbling over with: colorful leather boots.
              I may not sound like it, but I love it!! I also have some fairly eccentric hobbies,so please dont stop posting these kinds of things. :D

  13. Chris Bonds
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Times have changed. In 1959 or 1960 my dad (who had a shoe store) ordered me a pair of custom Hyer boots (in the “Hyer pattern”) with kangaroo vamp and blue kid uppers. Cost: $50.00. I wish I still had them.

  14. tk
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Is it true (as you see in movies all the time) that cowboys pull their boots on over their barefeet? is this the source of the foot odour issues?

    incidentally, there are thousands of wild camels running all over the australian outback… at 25K for a pair of boots, helicopter fuel and ammo might be a worthy investment?

  15. Allen
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great article and nice pictures! I am a bootnut, and was glad to see current pictures of Lee Miller!

  16. Darrell E
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    *Sigh* If only I had the money. Alas, the best pair of boots that I’ve ever had were a pair of Lucchese. Almost missed my plane, and spent every dime I had on me (and then put the rest on a credit card), to get those boots. They were fantastic for a factory made boot, but nothing like what you are showing here.

    And to the doubters, a good quality boot is very comfortable and can certainly be worn without socks. It can be quite difficult to get them off though if you have worked up a sweat. Also, I have never had an odor problem with boots, not even the ones I have worn daily for years. And I live in a hot and humid environment.

  17. bill harris
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    lee miller is simply the BEST bookmaker in the whole country! bill harris


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