A Bootmaking Legacy Continues at Texas Traditions
Cowboy Bootmakers event brings artisans from across the U.S. to town
By Gracie Awalt,
8:00AM, Sat. Apr. 20, 2019
Well, if you’re ever in Austin, Texas– “Charlie Dunn” by Jerry Jeff Walker, 1972
A little run down on your sole
I’m gonna tell you the name of a man to see
I’m gonna tell you right where to go
He’s working in Capitol Saddlery
And he’s sewing in the back of the place
He’s old Charlie Dunn, the little frail one
With the smilin’ leathery face
In 1972, Lee Miller was 19 years old sitting in a van in the driveway of his parents’ house in Vermont. His friend pulled out a cassette and started playing “Charlie Dunn” by Jerry Jeff Walker. Miller listened and dreamed about one day becoming a Western bootmaker like Charlie. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be famous, but he’s doing what I want to do,’” Miller says. “Never thinking that I would work for Charlie.”
After graduating high school, Miller explored his interest in drawing, sculpture, and painting. When people asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he said he wanted to make cowboy boots. “You’re 18 and you don’t know anything. That’s what I wanted to do,” Miller says.
Miller attended the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology’s Boot & Saddlemaking Program for two years, where he learned the basics. In November 1977, Miller got a call from Charlie Dunn, a fifth-generation bootmaker whose handmade goods were in high demand. At the time, Miller said he was living on a Native American reservation, working in a shop and playing in a jazz band. He took the job at Charlie’s shop, Texas Traditions, and was an apprentice under Dunn for nine years.
“You were working with somebody from history,” Miller says. “He was born in 1898, he had been making boots all his life, he had been all over the U.S. as a bootmaker, so if I wanted to know what was bootmaking like in 1920, I could just simply ask Charlie,” Miller says.
When Dunn retired in 1986, Miller bought Texas Traditions, and he continues the craft, like Dunn did, through bootmaking apprenticeships. “I have a four-year backlog of boots to make,” Miller says. “I need help, and you cannot find people who know how to do this. The only way to get people to do it is to train them.”
One of Miller’s apprentices of three years is Dana Perrotti, who was interested in metal sculpture before exploring the more functional artform of bootmaking. She taught herself how to make leather bags through “books, mistakes, and Youtube,” but eventually realized she needed to learn from someone experienced. “I honestly do not think you can teach yourself how to make boots,” Perrotti says. “There’s so much knowledge and so many mistakes to be made, and Lee has made so many of them.”
Leather is a complex material with unique properties. Perrotti says creating boots is like solving a complex puzzle, and she never stops learning. She says when she picks up a factory-made boot, she “feels very vapid and empty.”
There are around 300 bootmakers in the United States, but most of them are located in Texas. Miller says the mixture of Italian, German, and Mexican culture created a perfect combination of craftsmen skills to make Texas the best place for boots.
Within Texas, there are regional differences among boots. Miller’s favorite boot is the Central Texas boot, which he called more refined and “the perfect marriage of art and craft.” This is in contrast to a ranch boot, which is used for work. “Everything came together, just like the food here and the music,” Miller says. “Any bootmaker in Central Texas can make a ranch boot, but not any ranch-bootmaker can make a Central Texas boot.”
With three of his four current apprentices being women, Miller says one of the biggest changes in bootmaking he’s seen over the years is the increasing inclusion of women in a traditionally male-dominated craft.
“It was always really a man’s world, a man’s craft, and now women are doing it. My eyes were opened to the fact that I can’t be so … I couldn’t view it that way,” Miller says. “I had to be more open-minded. Now I think it’s amazing how women are doing it, and I want them all to succeed.”
Perrotti feels hopeful for the craft to continue. She says her love for boots motivates her to pass it on to another generation through teaching apprentices herself.
On Thursday, April 25, from 7-9pm, Texas Traditions will host an event called the Cowboy Bootmakers, bringing together bootmakers across the United States. The public is invited to Texas Folklife (1708 Houston St.), a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Texas culture. The McMercy Family Band will play gospel music, and The Cowboy Bootmakers zine – a compilation of pictures and experiences of current bootmakers – will be released.
Perrotti organized this event to celebrate bootmakers and give them a chance to be recognized. “A lot of people do come by the shop and are very curious about what we do here, so I thought this would be a cool way for people to come out and maybe get some of their questions answered or have a look into the world of bootmaking,” Perrotti says.
Miller is happy to see young people wanting to learn the craft of bootmaking. He says, “You spend your whole life doing something, and you realize it’s going to keep on going and getting better.”