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We are now over 40 years into this journey. I find it intriguing to look back and see how the pieces have fit together in such in interesting way. I started with a dream—but as we went along the dream expanded as new vistas and possibilities came into view. Who knows what the next years will bring, but in our eyes we have, in many ways, come full circle. I find huge contentment in the evolution of our journey.
The Evolution
When we started out, the possibilities for learning the craft seemed too limited. We lived in a part of the country that had no shoe or boot production. I knew of no craftsman with whom I could apprentice, so I chose the next obvious route: go to school. I attended shoemaking school in Massachusetts, and bootmaking school in Oklahoma, totaling several months of instruction. I assumed that I was “good to go.”

In the beginning my goal was to make nice custom boots. Given our location I assumed that meant nice Western boots. That is what a few of our clients wanted, but most of our clients were having difficulty with their feet in one way or another. Narrow feet, wide feet, high arches, a pronounced navicular, bunions, squished little toes, had been in an accident, and on and on. Foot pain, structural foot issues. I found it frustrating. I had not been trained to deal with these issues! (To my knowledge there was nobody in the U.S. training to deal with these challenges.) A double frustration was that due to the lack of my training to deal with this, I didn’t feel that I could charge for this kind of work.

A few years into this: one morning I was feeling particularly frustrated. I vividly remember, literally, throwing my arms into the air and saying aloud to myself: “all I wanted to do was build nice custom boots—and people keep bringing me problems!” That simmered in my heart for a time; then came a paradigm shift. I realized that if I would learn to successfully deal with the problems, the foot pain—and charge appropriately—we would all be happy. In my mind I was no longer a bootmaker but rather a “solver of foot and foot-related problems.” It was in that instant that the evolution began in earnest.

I had been dealing with “fit.” I had all sorts of extreme foot sizes come in and had been frustrated at the challenges that it presented. Now that I was looking through new eyes, the challenge became fun. A bootmaker starts his work with a last. A last is a wooden or plastic mold, more or less resembling a foot, around which he makes his patterns, and around which he shapes the leather to provide the fit of the boot for the foot at hand. For the boot to fit the foot right, the last needs to model the foot accurately. I became expert at measuring the foot, and assessing what was needed to fit it correctly. I learned dozens of ways to make modifications to existing lasts to fit the foot. In time I leaned methods of making “trial-shoes” to test the fit of the last.

The next challenge was to learn to make custom lasts. It is one thing to modify an existing last, and quite another to make a last from scratch. Last making is an entirely different craft than bootmaking. I had a German friend, Gerhard, who told me if he had the measurements of a foot, an ink imprint of the foot, a block of wood, a bandsaw, and a belt sander—that given thirty minutes he could “grind out” a last to fit that foot. I didn’t believe him. There came a time when I saw him do just that! I had to know how! It took years, and Gerhard was patient with me, but I can make lasts. In fact, I have various methods. Gerhard is still a better last maker than I.

At the same time there was the issue of patterns. Like last making, pattern making is a completely different craft than bootmaking. Most bootmakers are working from patterns that belonged to Granddad, or that came with the shop. I have only known a small percentage of bootmakers that were accomplished pattern makers. And—you can’t order them from a catalog. There was a time when there were pattern shops that you could send a last to, with a drawing of what you wanted and get patterns–I don’t believe that exists in the U.S. any more.

I had learned the rudiments in shoe school from Thom McKian, a professional pattern maker. My skill and knowledge were added to during my years at the Merrell Boot Company. I would go to Italy or Germany with a last and a drawing of what we wanted to have made, and their “modelist,” masters with generations of heritage, would go to work creating the patterns. Often patterns would be turning out other that what we had in mind, so I (dealing with a language barrier) would step in, take the tools in hand, and get them on track! That was awkward! Also, my years teaching our Bootmaking Seminars added immensely to my pattern skills. You can’t teach that which you don’t know—so I was forced to learn. However, the early mornings and late nights struggling over clients’ challenging foot problems brought me the most understanding of patterns. In time I became a skilled pattern maker.

An unexpected requirement of meeting clients’ needs were my machines, especially sewing machines. There was nobody in our area that knew how to repair industrial sewing machines, especially not shoe machines. I tried shipping machines to New England for repair—any many a time they were dropped by the shipping company and the cast iron body fractured. I needed to learn to repair machines myself. Again, it was a long road, but a skill I mastered.

The last hurdle to clear was to come to understand the bio-mechanics or better patho-mechanics of the foot. I will tell that story in another section of this site.

So, in 1975 Lou Ann and I started out making custom Western boots and then morphed to include hiking and backpacking boots. In 1982 there were two significant events that changed our lives: we started teaching two-week bootmaking seminars, and we were approached by John Schweitzer and Clark Matis. The Merrell Boot Company was formed and I took a five-year detour into the corporate world and international business. During that time I managed to keep our custom boot shop operating, along with the seminars, at a slowed pace. For several reasons we left Merrell Boot Company after five years and returned to our roots and our love of handmade boots.

After a few more years of dealing with clients and the symptoms and pain of their feet, the need for an understanding of the bio-mechanics of the feet began to tug at my mind. Actually a couple of friends that were way ahead of me threw a lariat around my neck and dragged me into it. After several years of step-by-step learning of how the foot was working inside the boot, and how to control the erroneous motions made by the foot, there was a gradual shift from a custom boot shop to a pedorthic lab. We taught our last bootmaking seminar in the summer of ‘05 as our pedorthic work took center stage.

In the fall of ‘08 we encountered an unexpected “speed bump.” I became infected with the West Nile Virus and developed what is called West Nile Meningitis. By all rights I should have been dead, and literally, were it not for Divine intervention I would have been. I was flat down for about three months and when I started back, a full week’s work was to see one pedorthic client. I would work standing at my bench for eight or ten minutes–then take a 45-minute rest to do it again. That event caused Lou Ann and I to carefully evaluate what was most important, and where to best spend our time and effort. Since I can help so many more, in more profound ways with pedorthics, bootmaking has been greatly reduced. That is the main reason we no longer conduct seminars. I typically spend two days a week seeing Pedorthic Clients, two days a week fabricating orthotics and making pedorthic modifications to shoes and boots, and a couple more days keeping up with everything that we do around here. This is the pace that I can sustain. Local folks assume that I am pretty laid back only seeing clients two days a week. Oh well. Actually we have been blessed with regard to West Nile—medical stats indicate that what you have after two years is what you will live with the rest of your life. After more than six years, I continue to gain stamina and energy. We vacation more than before; we hug more often; and I say “no” more often than I used to.

The evolution has gone from frustration to knowledge and skill, from one career-set to another. There was a time when I was fearful of what problem would walk through the door next. Today the feeling is “bring it on.” I look forward to something that I have not seen before so I can figure it out. Through the years I have collected a huge assortment of tools, materials, machines, knowledge, skills and ideas that I use to “Make Feet Happy,” and I have fun doing it.

The Beginnings

Bootmaking has always been more than a job to me, more than a career, more than a craft. The truth is it has been a challenge. I started at a time when many of the masters of the “old country” were retiring and dying. Quality instruction, accurate information, and even tools and materials were often difficult to obtain. Today they are all but extinct. Had it been easy, I would have been bored and lost interest. Many, many times I have been in the shop before five a.m. and frequently I awaken in the middle of the night with an answer to a perplexing question. When you are into your work that much, it can be a lot of fun.

My actual training as a bootmaker started as a boy on my father’s horse ranch, with the expectation that I do a man’s work. I built fences and barns, trimmed and shoed horses’ hooves, mucked stalls, hauled hay, irrigated, delivered foals, repaired the pump, and on and on. This jack-of-all-trades beginning provided an excellent foundation for what would become my career. I learned to fix most anything that needed fixing and I learned to do whatever I did the best way I knew because if it failed I would be the one to do it over. Typically that “do-over” occurred at midnight or at twenty below zero.

After three years at Utah State University in the pre-vet program, as well as two years in Brazil working as a missionary for my church, I came to an unusual career choice: I wanted to be a bootmaker. In Brazil I had come to know two artisans who made boots and I was intrigued by their craft. While there are no known bootmakers in my lineage, I come from a long line of pioneers that could turn their hand at most anything that needed to be done.

After my training at The Lynn Independent Industrial School of Shoemaking, and Oklahoma State Tech., Okmulgee, I commandeered a garage on my father’s ranch, borrowed five grand from my father-in-law-to-be and purchased a retiring shoe repairman’s shop in Salt Lake City. I had brought three sewing machines home from Massachusetts on the train, along with a little leather and thread, etc. In Oklahoma I had acquired a few pairs of lasts and a few more machines. So the shop was put together and work began.

I look back at those times with extreme mixed feelings. It was a great time because I was diving headfirst into something that was incredibly new and mentally delicious. I was young, and I knew it all. Now—forty years later—I look back and shake my head.

Lou Ann and I were incredibly fortunate. We worked together; overhead was minimal as we were neither paying rent on the shop nor our house on the ranch. We drove an old blue Chevy three-speed pickup, that had been paid for years earlier. Materials for boots were less than ten percent of what they cost now. Essentially we were only paying for utilities, groceries and shop improvement.

I went about perfecting my craft and building a business—line upon line, precept upon precept. I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to learn and would travel anywhere to pick up knowledge. There have been hundreds of those opportunities over the years, but most of my knowhow came from early mornings and late nights struggling over foot challenges brought in by clients, and working against deadlines. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

In addition to learning bootmaking, last making, pattern making, pedorthics and machine repair, we also had to learn how to run a business. I was fortunate to have been raised by an entrepreneur, so business was in my blood. However, by the book, we do it all wrong! We are not located in a city of significance, we are not even downtown Vernal, Utah. Most would expect a foot lab to be located in a medical complex, or at least in a strip mall. No, we are a “home-based business.” I have a great shop/lab about seven miles from downtown Vernal, up a beautiful canyon with a creek in the back yard! We don’t offer “sales” every few weeks. We don’t have a roster of employees.

In the beginning we had visions of growing. There was a time when it was Lou and I plus five employees—a difficult size. We realized that we either needed to grow or to remain a “mom-and-pop operation.” We choose small; attention to detail, little waste, investment in tools and equipment, quality work, low stress, treating people how we would want to be treated, and most of all, keeping our word. That is how we do business.

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