They’re about as “Texas” as anything can be, engrained in the state’s history, its traditions and its identity. Cowboy boots, especially the custom, handmade kinds, are an important piece of our unique culture, but one that could be slowly fading. As Houston Public Radio’s Jack Williams found out, there are only a handful of custom boot makers left in our city, true craftsmen who create works of art that can be worn.
“I’m Dave Wheeler, I’m the president of Wheeler Boot Company. It’s a very personal thing to make someone a pair of boots. It’s kind of like making somebody a suit or something. It’s a very personal thing that we don’t have that much of anymore in the country.”
The smell of boot leather is the first thing that greats you at Wheeler’s store near the Willowbend neighborhood on the city’s southwest side. He’s been in the bootmaking business since his father let him put polish on new, custom boots back in 1962.
“He didn’t start me at the beginning of the process, he started me at the back-end and I went basically backwards through the process of how a boot’s made and before he died I had asked him, why did you do that anyway? His answer was, well if you start at the back-end, you always know what you want to end up with.”
“The first time they really start looking like a boot is when we sew the side seams together while they’re still inside and then when we turn the boots inside out, then they start looking like a pair of boots at that point.”
“We get a lot of people that want the state of Texas inlayed at the top, so once I cut their boot out all I’ve got to do is lay the die at the right spot and the beam comes down and cuts it out.”
Wheeler and one other bootmaker craft 250-300 pairs of custom boots a year, with prices starting at around $1200. During Houston’s oil boom, there were up to 7 or 8 bootmakers in the shop, but with the bust came a lot less business. Now, he says, there aren’t many custom bootmakers left.
“It’s a dying art and as time goes on, fewer and fewer people are interested in getting into it. There’s plenty of people you can find to do factory boots but a handmade, custom boot, people that can do it are few and far between now.”
“My name is James Morado and I’ve been doing this trade for 59 years.”
Morado is 78-years-old and the dean of custom bootmakers in Houston. He’s proud of the simple shop behind his house in the Lindale Park neighborhood on the city’s north side. Morado Custom Boots start at $750 and go up from there if you want extra stitching, inlays or other unusual designs.
“If you don’t have it within you, your soul and your blood, you’re never going to make it because you’ve got to enjoy and you got to like what you do. You’ve got to be interested in new things regardless of how much time it takes. The creativity I think has a lot to do with the success of the person.”
“We’re custom bootmakers so that is everything it says. Whatever they want is what they’re going to get.”
Morado’s son, James Jr. is sharpening a special knife he uses to cut leather that he crafts into intricate boot designs. He hopes to continue the family business, but says custom bootmaking is beginning to fade in Houston and across Texas.
“Like all things people who are salt-of-the-earth, blacksmiths and carpenters and people who basically work with their hands, if we can’t pass the baton the next generation, then that’s gone.”
There are approximately 40 custom bootmakers in Texas and 75 nationwide. You can see pictures of the people and places in this story on our website, KUHF.org.