The cowboy boot wasn’t born in Texas, but as the saying goes, it got here as quickly as it could. Details of the journey are dusty at best, with some historians tracing early versions of the heels to legendary conquerors like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. It makes for an origin story that’s as grandiose and ambiguous as Texas itself, but the short version is that for as long as men have been mounting horses, they’ve needed shoes sturdy enough to come along for the ride.
The facts become clearer when Longhorns enter the picture. Historian Tyler Beard’s The Art of the Boot says cowboy culture began developing in Texas in 1867, which if the Hun accounts are true, means the cowboy boot already had roughly thirteen centuries to develop a rep for rugged individualism. Beard credits a young Kansas livestock trader’s generous cattle driving salaries for bringing the first cowboys to the Chisholm Trail. Forty dollars per head meant real money at the end of the 700-mile trek to Abilene, Kansas — and much of that money was spent on nice pair of new boots.
The first model of choice for these footwear pioneers was based on the Wellington boot. Named after the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the knee-length height protected riders calves, rounded toes slid easily into stirrups, and one-inch heels secured the rider’s feet in a manner similar to today’s clip-in bike pedals. Early on, the utilitarian nature meant a lack of decorative elements, but soon boot makers learned that stitching actually toughened the leather. It also didn’t hurt that Texans like to show off.
So soon enough the Wellington evolved into something with a little more swagger. Taking cues from more ornamented Hessian boots seen during the Civil War, a boot maker in Coffeyville, Kansas created his own hybrid style that incorporated contrasting leather colors and an optional five-point star on the front of the boot. It was one of the earliest incarnations of a toe bug, the type of elaborate stitching likely to catch a dance partner’s eye on the dance floor of the White Horse.
Flash forward to 2015 and the $15 mail order boots worn by the earliest Texans are long gone. The same level of hand craftsmanship and personalized details still exist thanks to obscure artisans and the higher-end lines at legacy companies like Justin and Lucchese, but nowadays an entry level pair should run you at least $200 according to Ulli Johnston, also known as the famed “Boot Whisperer of Wimberley.”
Available by appointment only, Johnston hosts customers at the Wild West Store, where with a quick view of the customer’s naked foot and a literal wiggling of her fingers, she divines a perfect fitting pair out of her stock of nearly 800 vintage choices. How she channels the spirits of the Chisholm Trail is unclear even to her, but it isn’t part of some smoke and mirrors Western wear fad.
“These boots were made before lasers, before computers. Real people cut the leathers and did the stitching,” says Johnston. “They’re not mass-produced.” The precision of hand-stitching and the comfort, fit and durability of expert leatherwork can’t be understated, but these marks of the human hand are as symbolic as they are functional.
More than any other type of footwear, a good cowboy boot has both a maker and a past. That connection is what draws jet setters to pay thousands of dollars for exotic leathers, turns tourist curiosity into bank-breaking impulse buys, and makes two-steppin’ at the Broken Spoke such a special event. It’s how one type of shoe can pair just as well with trailheads as they do sidewalks, with pearl snaps as designer suits, with backyard barbecues as charity galas. And it’s why even though Texas has ridden boldly into the new millennium, we’ll never hang up our boots.