“Some people believe Texas is where the cowboy boot started,” says Lee Miller, reflecting on his craft in his South Austin bootmaking shop. Kansans might argue that point; nonetheless, the bootmaking tradition goes way back in Texas. H.J. “Joe” Justin opened a boot shop in Spanish Fort, Texas, on the Chisholm Trail, in 1879, and Sam Lucchese started making boots in San Antonio in 1883. Such major boot manufacturers as Lucchese, Tony Lama, Justin, and Nocona are all Texas-based, and in his 1999 book Art of the Boot, Tyler Beard lists 78 custom bootmakers in the state.
“People wear boots here,” adds Lee, “and where there’s a demand, there are bootmakers.”
Coming from Vermont, where cowboy culture is in short supply, Lee may seem an unlikely bootmaker, but even as a teenager, he knew he wanted to make cowboy boots. In 1974, a friend of his returned from Texas with a Jerry Jeff Walker cassette, and the two of them listened to Jerry Jeff singing about Austin bootmaker Charlie Dunn.
“I thought, ‘Man, that’s exactly what I want to do,’” recalls Lee.
Little did he realize that he’d eventually work for Charlie and in 1986 buy out his business, Texas Traditions. These days, Lee works with his wife, Carrlyn, and Ben Alvarado, their only employee, in a small, old-fashioned, tin-roofed shop within sight of the Capitol. Lee spends a half hour measuring a customer’s foot, then transferring an ink footprint to onion-skin paper and eventually to a wooden or polyurethane last to get the perfect fit.
Don’t expect the boots to be ready overnight—new customers are on a three-year waiting list.
“Some people like the wait because they have time to pay it out,” says Lee. “Others don’t like it because they’re not sure they’ll live that long. There are plenty of bootmakers around, so you can go down to the next one, where there’s only a two-month wait. There’s enough work for all of us.”
Bootmakers make all types of boots for all types of customers—from cowboys and ranchers to lawyers and doctors, to celebrity singers and city slickers who want something to wear while they two-step.
From the December 2001 issue.