The Boots Were Made for Riding

Legendary figures of the Old West, from Sam Houston to Charles Goodnight, loom large in Texas mythology. But there’s something more that puts the Lone Star State—El Paso and Mercedes, in particular—on the global map. Cowboy boots.
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Legendary figures of the Old West, from Sam Houston to Charles Goodnight, loom large in Texas mythology. But there’s something more that puts the Lone Star State—El Paso and Mercedes, in particular—on the global map. Cowboy boots.
boots

Cowboy boots, as we know them, are synonymous with Texas, where 19th-century bootmakers adapted the classical riding boots, Northern European in origin, worn by both sides of the cavalry during the American Civil War. Cattle ranching was big business in Texas, and the need for a specific type of boot emerged. Cavalry boots lacked as higher heels (two inches or more) for anchoring the foot in the stirrup and minimizing the chances of getting hung up. Bootmakers responded, and an entire industry was born. Today, boot companies are often owned, run, and staffed by longtime or multi-generational employees dedicated to upholding the tradition of American bootmaking.

“I got into this business 40 years ago,” says Trainor Evans of Rios of Mercedes, Texas’ oldest boot company, established in 1853 by the Rios family. “The Evans family has been cattle ranching for five generations in Texas and New Mexico. And the people I work with, their other joy and passion are horses and cattle. This is reflected in the boots we make.”

More than 150 years later, Texas remains the epicenter of cowboy culture, and El Paso and Mercedes are the beating hearts of American bootmaking. El Paso is home to independent manufacturers such as J.B. Hill, Lucchese, and Rocketbuster, plus the massive Justin Brands factory. And the iconic Rios of Mercedes are made in Mercedes, Texas, along with sister brands Olathe Boot Company and Anderson Bean Boot Company. To augment this issue’s “Made in America” theme, American Cowboy made a pilgrimage to Texas to visit these legendary companies.

The scope and commitment required to produce modern versions of these heritage products draws on American ingenuity and loyalty. Today’s cowboy boots are a form of heirloom footwear—a classic design, largely produced by hand, aided by both modern and vintage tools, machines, and materials. It’s a tradition that spans three centuries, which should make us all proud.

Making boots by hand is a dying art, but happily, there are companies dedicated to preserving this essential piece of American heritage. Thanks to them, working cowboys (and aficionados) continue to walk tall, literally and figuratively.

Although low-heeled cavalry boots were the initial style introduced to the United States, low-heeled vaquero boots became commonplace throughout the Southwest by the mid-19th century. They were brought by colonists, soldiers, and vaqueros, who traveled up the El Camino Real and established towns and ranchos throughout the region. Vaqueros also brought with them a tradition of branding and roping cattle. Because neither cavalry nor vaquero boots were ideally suited to the needs of the newly-minted American cowboy, the demand for specialized bootmakers grew. And when German immigrants, some of whom were skilled cobblers, settled in Texas, the result was an all-American product—a melting pot of influences.

These new cowboy boots possessed tall, rigid “uppers,” to protect the legs from chafing, brush, and snakebites; the decorative stitching and piping strengthened the leather and kept it from sagging. Smooth outsoles made for faster dismounts, while steel or stiff leather shanks in the insole provided reinforced arches, making it easier to stand up in the stirrups. By the early 20th century, underslung boot heels came into use, further preventing the foot from slipping too far in the stirrup. This style prevailed until the early 1960s, when changes in horsemanship (a softer approach to starting animals, and the emphasis on ground versus saddle training green horses) began to alter boot styles. Today, the number of different styles can be daunting to navigate—including round or square toes (with single- or double-stitched welts), slightly elevated heels similar to those found on English boots, and rubber outsoles with comfortable midsoles for extended walking or standing. Just remember: decide on what you’re going to use them for, then buy accordingly.

Cowboy boots are also a fashion statement, as function often informs style. Modern stitching is elaborate, and inlays and overlays, conchas, and other decorative arts inform bootmakers’ styles. Working cowboys love custom leatherwork, and the Western wear-hungry public has embraced it as well. As a result, bootmakers have increasingly turned to exotic leathers, not just cowhide, to construct the vamps, counters, and decorative touches (see Glossary of Terms sidebar, p. 79). Most boots, however, are still lined with calf or pigskin and make use of cowhide for the stovepipe. Buffalo, goat, horse, elephant, hippopotamus, kangaroo, lizard, alligator, crocodile, python, anaconda, rattler, stingray, shark, and ostrich have all been used for exteriors by modern bootmakers, often in a kaleidoscope of colors.

While high-quality boots are also manufactured in other parts of Texas, including Austin (Texas Traditions), San Angelo (James Leddy Custom Boots), Amarillo (Beck Cowboy Boots), and Mercedes, El Paso remains the state’s boot capital, despite stricter border regulations than in the past. And the anchor of the boot capital? Justin Brands. Even tenderfoots have heard of Justin, arguably the planet’s most widely-known brand of cowboy boot. Justins are available in 37 countries, and the company’s 147,000-square-foot El Paso factory produces 6,000 pairs a week. There are 230 workers on the floor, many of whom are multi-generational (mostly Hispanic) and have worked for Justin Brands for more than 25 years.

Says plant manager Robert Torrez, who’s been with the company for 36 years, “This is an art. You have to love your job, or you won’t be able to do it.”

Justin Brands’ president, Jamie Morgan, himself a 19-year bootmaking veteran, says, “You can’t have the kind of tenure we do without there being pride and passion, as well as a good work environment and benefits. If we relocated the company to Leon [Mexico, where many boot companies produce], we wouldn’t be a manufacturer. We’d be a marketing company. We have a heritage to uphold.”

This heritage began back in 1879, when H.J. Justin of Lafayette, Ind., relocated to Spanish Fork, Texas. Trained as a cobbler, H.J. started his own company in his home before moving his family and business to Nocona. His sons came to work for him in 1908 and eventually relocated the headquarters to Fort Worth in 1925. John Justin, Jr. purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1948 and expanded the brand to include Acme Brick (thus forming Justin Industries), Nocona Boot Company, and Chippewa Shoe Company. In 1990, the company even bought longtime competitor Tony Lama Boots, itself established by a former cavalryman, cobbler, and son of Italian immigrants in El Paso in 1911. All of these brands are produced in three U.S.-based factories (the other two are in Missouri).

For the last couple of decades, however, factories have been moving overseas or south of the border, and it’s become increasingly difficult for domestic companies to compete. For a time, Justin Brands struggled to stay afloat.

“When boots started being manufactured in China, it cost us two factories [the facilities in Fort Worth and Nocona],” says Morgan. “But ‘Handcrafted USA’ is our slogan and heritage. It’s who we are, and what we do. As stewards of the brand, Randy [Watson, chairman and CEO] and I want to be sure we’re doing the right thing, not the popular thing. For what this industry has given me, I feel I owe it to the industry.”

Justin’s factory floor is a hive of activity, marked by the whir of sewing, cutting, and stitching machines, and the sharp, earthy scent of leather. There’s the audible clank of nails and pegs being pounded into soles and the rasp of hand files smoothing away rough edges on heels and insoles. The “top” men (and women, for there are many in the industry) are responsible for all of the cutting and assembly, while “bottom” men shape the heels and soles. Depending on the boot, the decorative stitching may be done by hand (for custom products) or by using standard or digitized sewing machines with up to 12 heads. It can take up to 136 different steps to make one pair of boots, with custom versions taking nine days to complete. There’s a full staff of engineers who do nothing but fix and calibrate machinery, and in the custom section, an inspector evaluates the leather, which arrives daily from all over the world.

“So much these days can be automated, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done by hand, like gluing on heel counters or attaching shanks,” says Plant Manager Torez. “And every nail and piece of leather needs to be on-spec.”

Perhaps the most important key to fit is the last. Justin Brands’ boot lasts are proprietary and made of fiberglass. Says Morgan, “It’s our standard, and we don’t allow anyone to mess with our patterns or lasts.”

While Justin will also produce custom lasts, it’s not their focus as a large manufacturer. When a customer buys a Justin Brands boot, he or she is paying for a dependable product, starting at just $99. “From there, it’s all about style, comfort, and fit,” explains Morgan.

Further south, Rios of Mercedes has been producing handcrafted, American-made boots in the Rio Grande Valley, 39 miles from Brownsville, since 1853. The Rios family ran the company until the 1960s, when Zeferino Rios retired and sold the business. Today’s Rios of Mercedes—including sister brands Anderson Bean Boot Company and Olathe Boot Company—are owned by Trainor Evans, J.P. Moody, and Ryan Vaughan. What hasn’t changed is the company’s exacting standards, exquisite craftsmanship (they were the first domestic bootmaker to use a double-welt stitch and wide toe, for example), and employment ideals.

For Rios of Mercedes brands, “American Made” means exactly that. Every worker lives locally, and most are drawn from a legacy of generational bootmakers. In fact, many are related. Both factories are small by industry standards, with the separate, smaller (15,000 square-feet) Rios of Mercedes building employing about 35 workers. The company’s dedication to sourcing materials domestically (whenever possible) is impressive, as is its reliance on the best-quality leather.

“Leather is key to creating a good boot,” explains co-owner Trainor Evans. “It wicks away moisture and conforms to the shape of the foot, unlike synthetic materials. Synthetics also return to their original shape.”

At a time when outsourcing and supplying foreign markets has become routine and when boots are often too expensive for their intended audience, Rios of Mercedes prices all of their brands according to the monthly salaries of working cowboys in the area, a tradition that’s been followed since the company was founded. They want real cowboys in their boots, which they describe as “working tack.”

Prices start at $400 for a pair of handcrafted Rios of Mercedes, with Olathe and Anderson Bean starting at $300. That’s three times more than a mass-produced $99 boot, but all three brands offer custom “re-crafting.” When a Rios of Mercedes boot succumbs to the inevitable wear-and-tear and is re-crafted, it will likely last three times as long. It’s a policy that, along with overall quality, inspires loyal repeat customers.

J.B. Hill a newcomer by industry standards. This small El Paso-based company has been producing handcrafted boots since 1996 (though all modern “handcrafted” boots effectively require some automated machinery during the manufacturing process). A retired equine veterinarian and former racehorse owner, James Hill was financing a floundering boot operation; exasperated yet intrigued, he took over the business, despite a complete lack of experience in retail or bootmaking.

“When I started, I thought, ‘It can’t be rocket science,’” Hill says, “But it’s unbelievably complex.”

Today, J.B. Hill produces just 10 pairs of boots a day, 99 percent of which are custom orders (a pair will set you back a minimum of $825 and takes six to 10 weeks on average, to construct). Says Hill, “I’m a horse nut [and former co-owner of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner], so I especially love to build boots for cowboys and clinicians.”

The 14,000-square-foot factory has just 22 employees, many of whom are older, multi-generational Hispanic bootmakers. Many of these men and women or their families are originally from Leon, Guanajuato, where bootmaking has a long and distinguished history.

“It’s difficult to find young people who know bootmaking, because the tradition isn’t being passed on,” explains Hill. “Their parents want them to go to school and get higher-paying jobs, so they’re not invested in learning the craft.” Too, the days of illegally crossing the border from Juarez to work in El Paso’s boot factories are gone. “All of my employees are U.S. citizens or day workers with green cards,” he adds.

Because it’s a small company, each boot at J.B. Hill is crafted by “maestros,” or master bootmakers, who oversee each step of the progress. Although the tooling and silverwork (for the signature concha pull-straps) are outsourced to local specialists, the rest of the boots are made onsite, using leather supplied from a couple of El Paso-based companies. Boot leather is sourced all over the globe, but quality varies widely.

Explains Hill, “Today, most of the leather suppliers who were once based here are now in places like Mexico, Brazil, and Japan. [The U.S.] tanneries have had to move offshore because of EPA regulations. Our leather comes primarily from Australia, Italy, France, and the U.K… When you’re a small company, you’re not in a position to buy the thousands of feet most suppliers insist upon, so we try to hands-on source, with quality our main objective.”

Kangaroo, for instance, is one of the company’s signature leathers. Hill loves it for its suppleness and strength, though all of the boots are lined with French calfskin (an industry misnomer, as the animals are slaughtered at 18–24 months of age). “They’re raised in paddocks with good insect control and no branding, so the leather is in top condition,” elaborates Hill. Some customers even provide their own hides from animals they’ve hunted, including one guy who had shot an elephant—legally, of course.

With the exception of the leather and Mexican lemonwood pegs (favored for being less absorbent and effectively used by all custom bootmakers to secure the insole to the shank), everything else about a J.B. Hill boot is American. Vintage dies and stamps cut the leather, and retro Singer sewing machines are used for stitching.

“Everything’s vintage here,” cracks Hill. “The machines, me...”

Sam Lucchese Sr. immigrated to America from Italy in 1880 at age 17 with his brothers. He already had aspirations of becoming a bootmaker, and in 1883, Sam launched Lucchese Boot Company in San Antonio. In 1961, his grandson, Sam Jr., took over, and began a redesign of the boots that resulted in Lucchese’s worldwide recognition for extraordinary construction and fit. Sam Jr. had an exceptional understanding of the human foot and designed Lucchese’s custom “twisted cone” hardwood lasts, which are more true to shape. Our feet aren’t flat, regardless of how imperceptible the arch is. Lucchese developed lasts that mimicked this physiological characteristic, basically creating custom lasts for production boots, which made for better fit. The resulting comfort has made a legion of loyal customers. Everyone from working cowboys to Johnny Cash, John Wayne, George Bush Sr., Michael Jordan, the Texas Senate, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders have worn Lucchese boots (in 2009, the state of Texas recognized the company’s place in history, incorporating Lucchese into its legislature under House Concurrent Resolution 226).

In 1989, the company relocated to El Paso for the more accessible workforce, and today, 300 Lucchese workers produce 700 pairs of boots daily in the buzzing, 100,000-square-foot factory. (There are also factories in Mexico and Brazil, which produce other Lucchese lines.) Each boot passes through more than 100 pairs of hands before it is shipped out; for a company of its size, Lucchese has impressive measures for tracking quality control, ensuring that each boot is as flawless as it can be throughout each step of its production. Every Lucchese boot is finished by hand, as well: the heels and outsoles are dyed and polished, necessary touch-ups completed, top spray added for protection and shine. A pair of custom boots start at $750, production styles at $500.

Despite the industrial manufacturing process, there’s an impressive amount of hand-crafting that takes place. Says Production Manager Anthony Martinez, “All of our lines get hand-sanded leather counters. This makes them thinner, so they better mold to the foot…If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.”

he legacy of craftsmanship behind the Texas cowboy boot industry is downright inspiring—and integral to the history of American manufacturing. People worldwide are drawn to own a piece of this authenticity. These boots just feel American. So much so that they inspired Nevena Christi, of El Paso’s Rocketbuster, to make a major career change. A native Californian, graduate of the Parsons School of Design, and former designer for Tiffany & Co. and clothing designers Adrienne Vittadini and Nicole Miller, she was sourcing cowboy boots for a Manhattan fashion show in 1994 when she met Rocketbuster owner Marty Snortum. Christi fell in love—with both boot design and Snortum, who handed over the reins to Christi in 1997.

While her official title is “Boss Lady,” Christi does all of the designs, assists with carving, staining, and cutting, and sees each pair of boots out the door. She has just 10 employees to help her craft Rocketbuster’s custom, vintage-style cowboy boots, which run between $800 and $4,500, and are nothing short of wearable works of art.

“Our boots are our children,” she laughs.

And she’s a renegade in an industry that relies almost exclusively on middle-aged (or downright elderly) employees. “I want young people,” she explains. “I can train them to do things my way, if they display an aptitude [most of her staff have an arts background, be it comic book illustration or graphic design]. I want to be the inspiration for the next generations to keep the heritage of leather art alive.”

She does, however, employ Durango, Mexico-born, “Master Laster” Pedro Sarmiento, who’s in his 70s. There is something to be said for experience, after all.

Says Christi, “I think of Rocketbuster as the epitome of a handmade American product, because everything we do is in the tradition of the unbelievably labor-intensive cowboy boot.”

Despite having worn cowboy boots from the time I learned to walk on my parents’ ranch, I had no idea just how much love, labor, and legacy goes into their creation. And in Texas, it’s not just about how boots are made, but who makes them that counts. And whether those cowboy boots end up covered in manure or on a fashionista’s foot, the ideal bootpair results from a melting pot of knowledge and passion. Craftsmanship means something—from a maestro’s hands to your feet, these are more than mere shoes. Slip on a pair of cowboy boots, and you’re honoring one of the true products that make America American.

Glossary of Terms

Counter: The reinforcing leather or plastic piece inside the back of the boot in the heel area.

Heel: Traditionally made of stacked leather, although some industrial manufacturers now use composite materials, such as rubber.

Insole: The interior of the boot, on the footbed. Traditionally made of steerhide know as “bends.” Industrial producers also use foam, Texon board, and other non-leather materials.

Last: A fiberglass or hardwood model of a human foot; custom fitters will construct these for each customer, and store them for future use.

Side-piping (or side-welt): The seam where the uppers are glued together and reinforced with leather or plastic-encased cord that helps prevent wrinkling or sagging. The tops are also reinforced in this way.

Shank: A steel, fiberglass, or stiff leather insert that provides reinforcement of the arch.

Upper: Constructed of a front and back piece, this is the leather that covers the leg portion of the boot.

Vamp: The leather that covers the front and sides of the foot.

Welt: A strip of stiff leather that attaches the top of the boot to the sole. Welts are either “3/4” (stitched three-quarters of the way around the outsole) or “full” welt, which extends to the heel (roper style).