What inspired you to become a bootmaker?
I didn’t really have any aspirations per se of being a custom boot maker. I didn’t even really know anything about the fact that there was such a thing as custom boots. I was just in high school and got into work program class and I needed a job, so I accidentally stumbled into a repair shop.
I got out of school half a day at lunch, so I ended up going to work there my Junior and Senior year of high school. I liked it–I didn’t dislike it–but it was just a job. I literally never ever went home for lunch, and I happen to go home for lunch one day and NBC was was doing a story on Clyde and Joe Vasquez, the two Mexican Brothers that made boots upstairs at Leddy’s. And I happen to see that while I was sitting there eating lunch, and the way the TV story went, it made it sound like they needed an apprentice. So I called over there the following Monday, because we were closed on Mondays at the repair shop, and the guy that I talked to was Jim Martin, he was the store manager at the time. I told him I had seen the story that NBC did, and that I’d been doing boot repair for a couple of years, and the way the story went, it sounded like they needed an apprentice. He said, “Well I don’t generally do this, but I want you to call back tomorrow and talk to Wilson Franklin, he’s the the man that actually owns Leddy’s.” And so I did, and Wilson said, “Come over and show me what you know. I’m not going to hire anybody over the telephone.” So the following Monday, I went over there when I got out of school, and Joe, the younger of the two brothers, came downstairs and he took me upstairs and walked me through the shop asking me a lot of questions on how I was taught to do things. We went back downstairs to Wilson’s office, and Joe told Wilson, “I think this kid will do. He knows enough to earn his keep, anyway.” And so Wilson said, “I’ll take it from here.” To this day Wilson still has the deepest voice of any man I’ve ever talked to my life, and he told me, “I swore I’d never hire another kid as long as I live, because all they do is eff things up.” Then he pointed at me and said, “Now, the first time you eff up a pair of high-dollar boots here, the door swings out just like it does in, you understand that?” I said, “Yes Sir,” and then he got a big ol’ grin on his face and said, “Okay, when you want to start?”
Who were your teachers? What was it like to learn from them?
Well the two I learned from first where in the boot repair shop, and that was Jack Bramhall and his son, Jeff. Those are the two I worked for my Junior and Senior year of high school. When I went to work for Leddy’s, Clyde and Joe are the two that taught me to make boots. Clyde…the only way that I can describe him is that Indian guy that played on The Outlaw Josey Wales. If you were to put Clyde and him both behind the door, they would sound identical. They were both quiet and soft-spoken. Joe, his younger brother, was loud and cussing, just a jokester all the time. Clyde was real quiet and you never heard a cuss word come out of his mouth. They were both good teachers, but they had completely different ways of teaching. Clyde would have you sitting there next to him, and the whole time he was explaining to you and he’d be asking you, “Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention?” And I’d say, “Yes, Sir.” So he would show you something one time, and then he’d walk off and he’d say, “There you go, go do it.” Joe would be sitting there and he’d say, “Clyde you can’t teach him like that! You’ve got to sit there and kind of help him through some of the stuff,” and Clyde told Joe, “Well he told me he was paying attention.” So that was the difference in the way that they taught. But ironically enough, if we would go to lunch with them, if we rode with Clyde, he was a 70-year old man and he drove like a NASCAR race driver. He’s send your head all over the seat, taking off and bobbing and going so fast. If you drove with Joe, he drove sure enough like an old man, real cautious. They were a hoot to be around.
What were some of your early struggles and successes as a young bootmaker?
I honestly did not have a lot of trouble learning to make boots. From the very beginning, they would show me something and I was like, “Okay,” and I could just do it. I may not have understood the whole concept of it, but when they would show me something I could do it and put it where I was told to put it, and it all worked. But I just had nine kinds of Hell learning how to sharpen knives. I just kept practicing at it, but I ruined a lot of knives finally getting to where I could get them as sharp as Clyde could. Clyde could take a knife and sharpen it, and he would hold that knife between his knees and he would drop a piece of newspaper. And if it if that knife didn’t slice that newspaper just by the weight of the paper falling, it wasn’t sharp to him. He’s the only one that I ever had seen that could do that with a rock, not with any of these newfangled bench polishers, he did everything with a rock.
Just being able to make a living at it, I mean it was hard at first. I started doing this when I was 15 years old. When I went out on my own I was 23, and I’d been doing it eight years, but if I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, “Boy you ain’t old enough to know how to make boots.” But you know, I had a lot of older people that would order boots from me and they’d say, “I’m going to give you a chance because when I was young someone gave me a chance. And if these boots fit and I like them, I’ll order some more and I’ll tell everybody I know. If they don’t, I won’t order any more and I’ll tell everybody I know.” It didn’t bother me that people had that attitude, I knew what I could do. Every time somebody reordered another pair of boots, that was just proof positive that they were happy with their boots. Upstairs at Leddy’s, all those guys were in their sixties to late 70s and they called me “The kid that screwed up the 70-year average.” Because I was seventeen when I went to work there and the average age of everybody upstairs when I went to work there was 70.
What advice would you give to bootmakers just starting out?
If it all possible, apprentice with somebody for a long time because you never, ever, ever quit learning, ever. In my eyes, it takes a long time to learn it, and the more you see, the more stuff you retain, and the better you get at all of it as a whole. Some people are great top stitchers, and some people ain’t. Some people are good at bottoming, and some people ain’t. It just takes a long time to be well-rounded and what I would call pretty darn good at all of it.
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of the craft?
For more people to get into it, because of the good bootmakers that I know, who have done it most of their lives, most of them are getting way up there in age. I mean of the good ones I know who done it most of their lives, I’m probably one of the younger ones, and I’m 53. And so there need to be quite a few more young ones getting in it before the older ones are all gone and they don’t have anybody to teach them the old traditional, good ways of doing things. And that just takes somebody who wants to stay hooked. Because the sad thing about young people in this day and age they all want instant gratification. They want to be able to do it right now, and it just doesn’t work that way in custom boots. I have a guy that’s here now he’s a fireman in Fort Worth, and so he comes on his days off. He’s been here about nine months now, and he’s been here long enough now he’s starting to be some decent help, so that’s been a blessing.
The Cowboy Bootmakers. Memories and photos collected by Dana Perrotti, 2019.