Daytrips

The Nokona factory
The Nokona factory (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Nokona ball gloves carry on the proud tradition of fine leather goods produced by the skilled hands of the residents in the small North Texas town of Nocona. The 75-year-old, family-owned business is one of the last American factories still making softball and baseball gloves.

The Texas-made gloves are a work of art that promise to give the owner many years of service. "People tend to get sentimental about their gloves," says Robby Storey, great-grandson of the company's founder and currently the president of the Nocona Athletic Goods Company.

The company makes 40 basic models of gloves ranging from catcher's mitts to a 14-inch softball glove. Each is made with high-quality leather that is picked for its durability and softness, says Kelly Davis, the firm's chief financial officer who often gives tours of the red brick building.

Cowhide is the most popular choice for gloves. The company also uses buffalo and kangaroo leathers. The entire production from a South Dakota buffalo ranch goes into making gloves that are lightweight as well as extremely durable. The Australian kangaroo leather is equally tough, but a little lighter.

With the exception of a few stamping and sewing machines, the entire manufacturing process is done by hand. Prentice Burkhart peels back three pieces of leather to expose the inner lacing of a glove. "Those lacings have to be just right or the pocket doesn't close properly," he says. A saddle maker with more than 30 years experience, Burkhart can weave the pieces of leather into a finished product in about 35 minutes. Storey says it takes about five hours from start to finish to make a glove.

The company began in 1927 as the Nocona Leather Goods Company. At the time, Justin and Nocona boot companies each had a factory in town. With the availability of materials and skilled labor, Storey's great-grandfather, the local banker, invested in the small factory on Walnut Street that is still being used today.

"That first year they nearly went out of business," Storey says. Part of the building burned and the market for billfolds, wallets, and other "leather novelties" was slowing down with the economy. In 1931, Bob Storey came to town with the Pure Oil Company. A former ball player for Rice University in Houston, he was soon working at the factory.

"They were looking for anything to make that would sell during the Depression," Robby Storey says. The Nocona plant made their first baseball mitt in 1934 and first football in 1945. The name was spelled with a "k" because the office of patents wouldn't let them register the name of a town. The footballs were discontinued in the Sixties.

During World War II the company made ball gloves for the military. The Fifties were the peak of the popularity for the gloves named after an Indian chief. Nolan Ryan had a Nokona on when he pitched for the Alvin (Texas) All-Stars as a Little Leaguer.

The Sixties nearly doomed the company like it did many other small American factories. Store shelves were filled with cheap imports. "We decided to put our money and efforts into making a high-quality glove," Storey says, "Lots of players are willing to spend a little more for a high-end glove that will give them years of service." Nokona gloves range from $120 to $250.

Every week the mailman brings boxes of well-worn gloves back to the factory for repairs and re-stringing. For $30, the craftsmen make the glove almost new except with the broken-in feel left in. "With a little TLC, new padding, and piece of leather here and there, we can make a glove better than when it was new," Storey says with a proud smile.

In addition to the gloves, Nokona makes protective sports equipment. The Nokona name is available at more than 1,500 quality sporting goods stores around the country and on the Internet. Sales are not done directly from the factory, but you can buy the gloves at the Nocona Boot Company Factory Outlet Store in Nocona and Gainesville. Factory tours are offered during business hours at 208 Walnut in Nocona and include a museum of the history of the baseball glove and the company.

For information, call the factory at 940/825-3326 or visit their Web site at www.nokona.com.

Justin Industries of Fort Worth makes their Justin, Tony Lama, and Nocona brands of boots in El Paso. There is still a Nocona belt factory in the town that was once the leather capital of Texas. The old Nocona boot factory building makes Justin's new line of Diamond blue jeans. A new boot maker has come to town to revive the leather crafting industry by making cowboy boots for exclusive labels.

559th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Nokona, ball gloves, Nocona, Robby Storey, Nocona Athletic Goods Company, Kelly Davis, Prentice Burkhart, Nocona Leather Goods Company, Bob Storey, Nolan Ryan, Alvin, Nocona Boot Company Factory Outlet Store, Justin Industries, Justin, Diamond blue jeans, Tony Lama

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