HATS OFF TO THE COWBOY BOOT
Texas designated the cowboy boot as the official state footwear in May, 2007 thanks to the efforts of Social Studies teacher Kay Pechacek and her 7th grade students at Bleyl Middle School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston.
My question: Why did it take so long?
Legends and lore surrounding the unique footwear are as richly tooled as the history of Texas. If you grew up in the 1950s, it's likely your cowboy boots were among your most prized possessions.
When I was about six and living in Lakeview, my uncle Albert Payne came to visit from Reno, Nevada. He and Uncle Joe had moved out there a few years before in search of gold. Well, he didn’t find gold but came back with enough money to buy my sister June and me a special present. June wanted a pair of high-heels, me, I wanted cowboy boots and couldn’t understand why June didn’t.
Legend has it that cowboy boots can be traced back to Genghis Khan, who wore distinctive red boots with wooden heels. In 17th and 18th century England, riding boots had high tops and stacked heels. Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 -- and gave his name to a calf-length boot with a low heel. The Wellington's four-piece construction, the same used for modern cowboy boots, made it easy to mass produce. Wellingtons were preferred by soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, soldiers took their boots home with them.
From 1865 to 1890, cowboys drove cattle from Texas to Kansas. They wore Wellingtons and variations. The tall tops of the boots protected their legs; the underslung heels kept their feet in the stirrups. The cowboy boots original design were suited to the horseback rider, including the rounded or pointed toe that made it easy to insert the foot into a stirrup and the slick sole made it easy for the boot to slip free when dismounting.
Early boot makers set up shop along the cattle trails. With a $35 Grubstake from a long-forgotten barber, “Big Daddy” Joe Justin moved to Spanish Fort on the Chisholm Trail in 1878 and opened a one-room boot shop. For the next 10 years, Justin took orders from cowboys who drove longhorns to the Kansas railheads. When the cowhands returned, they would pay Justin and pick up their boots. In 1889, Justin and new wife Annie moved to Nocona. His business grew, helped immensely when Annie developed a “fit kit” in the early 1890s which allowed cowboys to measure their feet and order boots by mail.
Joe Justin began a boot making empire, daughter Enid Justin went out on her own and formed the Nocona Boot Company in 1925. Olsen-Stelzer is another old name in boots that grew out of the Justin family. They had catalogs early on and would do mail order to ranches and other places. Justin Boots eventually moved to Ft. Worth where the company remains today.
There were numerous other boot companies and boot makers in Texas. Charlie Dunn became the best known boot maker in the world, thanks in part to the popular namesake country song Jerry Jeff Walker wrote about him in 1972. Dunn had customers ranging from common folks to the rich and famous. Among his famous customers were singers Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte, Rusty Weir, Carole King, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ernest Tubb; also writer J. Frank Dobie, football great Bobby Lane; and actor Peter Fonda.
The Panhandle had its own famous boot maker back in the early days. He may not have had a song written about him but he was known far and wide. Merton McLoughlin was born in Kilkee, County Claire, Ireland on August 20, 1854. He came to America with his parents when he was fifteen. The family settled in Chicago, but he soon left for Dayton, Ohio where he learned the boot making trade. He also worked in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and elsewhere before going to Fort Worth in 1882.
He soon left Fort Worth for the Matador Ranch in Motley County where he began to establish himself as a quality boot maker. Some cowboys would travel as far as 300 miles to have McLoughlin make boots for them. It was at the Matador Ranch that he first began stitching the tops of the boots with a distinctive red and white cross-stitch that came to be a trademark of his.
In 1886 he left the Matador Ranch and went to the town of Tascosa in Oldham County. While there he began a practice of sending a wagon out to large ranch headquarters throughout the Panhandle area and beyond to take orders for boots. The wagon stayed at the ranch headquarters until everyone in the surrounding area had a chance to place an order. He became known as a "circuit riding boot maker."
From Tascosa, McLoughlin went to Channing and then around 1892 he left for Amarillo. Upon arriving in Amarillo, he rented a corner room in the old Amarillo Hotel. After the management raised his rent a little too quickly, he leased a small lot near the hotel. Soon after that he moved his business to 510 Polk Street. On May 22, 1901 his building, stock, and tools were destroyed by a fire that took out a large part of the business district of early Amarillo.
He rebuilt his business in the same location and stayed there for 26 years. His last shop was at 114 East 4th Avenue.
Besides making boots for the cowboys and other citizens of the Panhandle, McLoughlin also counted among his customers, early western movie stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart and movie star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. He also made boots for the western artist Charles Russell and for Russell protégé, Joe DeYoung; another western writer and illustrator. Other customers were Will Rogers and a famous lawman of Old Tascosa, Jim East. Mr. McLoughlin retired in 1932. He died in Amarillo on September 15, 1936, and is buried in Llano Cemetery.
The last part of the resolution (H.C.R. No. 151) making the Cowboy boot the official State Footwear of Texas reads:
WHEREAS, While they hew to a basic form, cowboy boots have evolved into an amazingly versatile article; fashioned with a variety of toe and heel styles, types of leather, and embellishment, they can be worn today on virtually any occasion; so remarkable has been their diversity that they have been the subject of several coffee-table books and at least two exhibitions: "These Boots Are Made for Gawking," at the Grace Museum in Abilene, and "Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art," at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon; and
WHEREAS, An integral part of cowboy gear, cowboy boots played a valued role in one of the defining chapters in Texas history and continue to figure in the mythic romance of the Lone Star State; now, therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the 80th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby designate the cowboy boot as the official State Footwear of Texas.
To that I say, it's about time.