What inspired you to become a bootmaker?
I cannot say that I was really inspired to become a boot maker, as my Dad had always been in the shoe repair business. At age 12, he brought me in to learn repair. I worked after school and on Saturdays. At around 18 years of age, he put me over on the boot making side of the business, which he started in 1960. It was at this point that I began bootmaking, then I left for college for 2 years, then returned to bootmaking. I briefly tried radio for a time, but kept working in the shop.
Who were your teachers? What was it like to learn from them?
Of course my Dad was the one who got me going. In the beginning he taught me about construction and fitting, working side by side for a number of years. At one point, he old me to go sit with our top man, Dario Canizales, who was an absolute master of the trade. I watched him cut patterns and leather, putting pieces together and stitching. I spoke enough Spanish to communicate with him. He was awesome, very patient, and a great mentor. My Dad was too, but there are always complications when working with family. My Dad was extremely demanding of me and as time went on I learned to deal with it. Like my Dad, I did not like the idea of working for someone else, and decided I would someday be the boss.
What were some of your early struggles and successes as a young bootmaker?
My struggles were few and far between because by age 24 or so my Dad told me to go create! He allowed me a lot of time to dream up designs and patterns, and I loved it. He put many of my ideas on the rack out front, and I was amazed how many people ordered these samples! As I was becoming more proficient, we butted heads more often. I was learning more and more about bootmaking and running a business.
What advice would you give to bootmakers just starting out?
I am very negative as far as anyone wanting to be a boot maker. The difficulty in making a high quality boot has become a real problem in recent years. Finding qualified help being number 1, with quality materials being close second. In the 70’s there was plenty of both, but as time goes on it is a big challenge to keep going. Anyone wanting to begin this life must be ready to deal with these frustrations, plus staying on a delivery schedule and to keep money flowing. Lots of long hours and hard work!
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the craft?
Every bookmaker should have at least one competent assistant. I hope more bookmakers will be realistic and charge for what they do! After nearly 50 years of this profession my question is always” will there be any bootmakers left in 50 years?”
Wheeler Boot Company • Dave Wheeler
The Cowboy Bootmakers. Memories and photos collected by Dana Perrotti, 2019.