When you think of Texas, there are a few iconic images that come to mind: big cattle ranches, oil derricks, and of course, cowboys.
On a quiet street in Houston, Texas, two aging bootmakers, with over a century of bootmaking experience between them, are working to keep this venerated craft alive.
Master Western-style bootmakers Dave Wheeler and his Mexico-born peer, Jorge Amaro, are pounding, stretching, and sewing leather together for a client list that has included everyone from actor Robert Duvall to former body builder and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It was my dad who got me started when I was around 12,” remembers Wheeler. “He’d bring me around the shop, and I’d clean up.” The master bootmaker still works out of the shop his Missouri-born father established decades ago. “He was a cobbler who originally came to Texas from Missouri. He was working here when he realized there was demand for high-quality boots, so he switched gears.”
There are only about 200 custom bootmakers left in the US. Most of them, or just over a hundred, still call Texas home.
While US President Donald Trump may want to build a wall along the Rio Grande River Valley, or El Río Bravo, as the river is known in Mexico, border towns like El Paso rely on Mexican expertise to make the emblematic American cowboy footwear.
“This is a craft that relies on craftsmen from Mexico as well. Without them, there wouldn’t be the same industry,” says Wheeler. “That’s why people like me speak ‘bootmaker’ Spanish.”
When I ask Wheeler about his favorite part of the job, he nods to a low-ceiling room behind his work bench. “That’s my library,” he says with a grin. The cramped room holds thousands of boot lasts. Those are the foot-shaped forms that cobblers use to make footwear. “If you ask me, it is the most interesting part of the shop,” he says.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and non fiction have appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Synesthesia Literary Journal,and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas where he tells his children that he has done worse things for less money.
More work by this artist:
- Trinidad & Tobago: Listen to the Beat
- You Can’t Build a Wall on Common Ground
- Rebel with a Cause
- Kosher in Corsicana
- The Bookbinder of Bogota
- We Are Spectrum
- Manager’s Special
- Five Photographs by Tom Darin Liskey in Issue 2.1