When you drive into the town of Nocona, Texas, the welcome sign proclaims it as the “Leather Goods Center of the Southwest.” The town enjoys a fine reputation as an expert and quality boot-making center, and Fenoglio Boot Company is one company helping to carry on that tradition.
We invited Fenoglio Boot Company to present a bootmaking demonstration at the State Fair of Texas a couple months ago, and while his compatriots and co-workers hammered, stretched and stapled pieces of leather over anvils, Caiden Fenoglio privately shared several boot-making details with us on the side. This tight-knit company loves the art of making Cowboy boots, and it shows in their craftsmanship.
We decided to ask Caiden Fenoglio, purchasing officer for the company, a series of questions to get a better understanding of the history of bootmaking, what to look for in buying a pair of Cowboy boots and a how-to care guide.
What is a quick history of bootmaking in Texas and how did the area in and around Nocona get the reputation as being like the bootmaking capital of Texas?
In 1878 H.J. ‘Daddy Joe’ Justin started making boots in Spanish Fort, Texas. Cowboys driving cattle up into Kansas and Nebraska would stop on their way through, get measured and pick their boots up when they made it back down to Texas after the drive.
Near the turn of the century Justin made his way into Nocona, where he set up shop on Cooke Street; working alongside his two sons, his daughter and a handful of locals. Their business slowly grew through the next two decades and even produced lace-up boots for the U.S. military during World War I.
Daddy Joe passed away in the early ‘20s and his sons made the decision to take the company to Fort Worth, where the material and laborers were plentiful. The daughter, Enid, refused to leave Nocona and in 1924 started her own boot company, Nocona Boot.
In the mid-40s, Miss Enid, as she became known to the locals, built a new factory in Nocona on Highway 82. In the years following, she expanded her factory multiple times and in its heyday Nocona Boot employed close to 500 people and produced over 1,400 pairs of boots a day. Near the end of her life Miss Enid chose to leave her company to her brothers and shortly after her death they moved all operations out of Nocona to Fort Worth and eventually to El Paso and Mexico. Nocona Boot is now part of Justin industries, which also includes Justin, Justin Work boots, and Tony Lama. Berkshire Hathaway now owns it.
After Nocona Boot left in 1999, David Hellinger (the former plant superintendent at Nocona Boot) started a small operation in his garage outside the Nocona city limits called The Itty Bitty Boot Company. A little more than a year later, The Williams brothers of Dallas, who sold exotic leather for a number of years, started the Montague Boot Company in Nocona. With the guidance of Mr. Hellinger and knowledge of a few former Nocona Boot employees, they started producing lines such as the Larry Mahan Boot Collection, Cattle Baron, and others for the western retail chain Cavender’s.
In 2013, the Fenoglio Family purchased the assets of Montague Boot Company and reestablished terms with Cavender’s. They are now the makers of the Cavender’s Boot Collection, Fenoglio Boot Collection and James Montague Boots. So, all in all, Cowboy boots have been made in Nocona, Texas, practically as long as the modern cowboy has existed.
Aside from boots, Nocona was once the home of the Nocona Belt Company, and has been the home of Nokona Athletic Goods (spelled with a “k”) since its opening in 1934.
Please also share other details of the process. How long it takes, how many people work on one pair of boots, etc.
There are more than 100 individual steps that go into making a boot. We have anywhere from 50-60 employees pushing through 200 to 250 pairs on any given workday. Our production boots normally take three to four weeks from the time they are scheduled until they go into the box. They move much quicker than special order boots because all of their material we keep on hand and they are normally boots that the employees have seen and built before.
How important is a custom fit for a pair of cowboy boots?
Obviously, a custom fit pair of boots is the best way to go, but in order to have that, someone has to make all those measurements and build a last with those exact specifications. A last is the form or mold that the boot is built around.
We don’t offer a custom fit. But we do offer “personalized” boots, which is just the next best thing.
As for the fit in general, certain people claim that certain brands fit them better than others, and that may be true, but I personally have worn many different brands and styles of boots and it’s comparable to buying any shoe. Get the size that fits, wear them for a while and more often than not you’ll end up being just fine with them.
What are the signs of a quality pair of boots?
Material, more times than not, gets overlooked, but is one of the biggest signs of a well-made boot. Most well-made boots will have either a cowhide or goat upper with some kind of full grain leather vamp – whether it be cowhide, bullhide or some kind of exotic. Many people will understand the importance of quality outer materials, but more importantly you should be aware of the more non-obvious parts of the boot, like the lining. This is the part of the boot that comes in the most contact with the foot and lower part of the leg. Traditionally, you would use a full grain cowhide or pig for the lining that gives it the breathability and comfort you come to expect.
More and more companies are skipping this step and going with some kind of synthetic lining that feels more like a cushion and doesn’t have a break-in process, but over time will come apart and start to give way to a very bad smell coming out of the boot. If you get deep into the anatomy of a boot, you want to look at the material of the shank. The shank is what goes in the arch of the foot to give it good form and support at the arch of the foot. Larger companies will use a steel shank that is much cheaper than the option we stick with, and that would be a fiberglass shank. If you ever heard a boot squeak, often you are hearing something going wrong with the shank. You can flip the boot over and look at the leather sole toward the heel, where there should be some sort of line of nails. Lemon wood pegs are preferred over brass nails, but either can be used in good quality boot.
What should people look for in buying a pair of boots?
People should be aware of what they are buying when it comes to boots. One of the biggest misconceptions or questions asked in the boot industry is “What kind of skin is this?” or “How are boots supposed to fit?” It’s sad to say there are a lot of prints being used in the boot industry. This means some cowhide leathers are stamped to look like ostrich, alligator or something exotic and more expensive. When looking to buy boots, pay attention to where they are made, what kind of leathers are being used, as well as the overall look of a boot. Everything – as far as colors, toes, heels and tops – can all be narrowed down to personal preference.
You will want to make sure you getting a full leather cowboy boot that is made with quality. People should also look for a good fit with a boot. The fitting process of a pair of boots is what can make or break someone’s experience with boots. You will want the boot to be overall pretty snug to your foot. Do not look for something that your foot will get in and out of very easily. When you walk and feel your heel slip up just a tad, that’s okay. It will more or less go away as the outsole unstiffens. Boots will stretch; some more than others, depending on the type of leather they are made from. Take that into account when you decide how they fit and when you try them on. They will only get better as you break them in.
What are some of the popular trends in style?
The square toe trend has made its comeback from when it was used on most of the first modern cowboy boots. It is somewhat different now; as today’s square toes are significantly wider than those of the past. However, you can still find a narrow square toe similar to some of the originals. The wide square toe style coupled with a walking heel, bright colors and exotic skins are popular amongst the younger crowd. Ropers and round toe designs are still fan favorites among the older generation, pairing with tone on tone colors and very classy designs. These can still be found on most shelves of western wear stores, as they grew more and more popular in the mid to late 1900s. Today you will see square toe with a colorful top and decorative stitch design on most people’s feet.
What about the different types of toes – pointed, square, etc.?
We have a toe to accommodate practically every style in the cowboy boot industry. I will list our style number designations and a brief description below.
4 Toe: Widest of our square toes and most popular in the current market.
5 Toe: Square toe, slightly narrower than the 4 Toe.
0 Toe: Our newest toe, crescent on top of the toe and square at the bottom. Its width is similar to a 5 Toe.
8 Toe: Round toe, commonly referred to as a “U toe.”
20 Toe: Round toe, slightly sharper than the 8 toe.
17 Toe: Round toe, even sharper than a 20 toe. It is commonly referred to as an “R toe.”
6 Toe: Sharp pointed toe with a round end. A common slang term for it is “cockroach killer.” The joke being that it’s so pointed you can stick the toe into places you normally couldn’t reach and squash bugs.
7 Toe: Similar to the 6 Toe, but with a flat or blunt end. Referred to as a “snip toe,” because it looks like a 6 Toe that had the end snipped off.
Roper Toe: Round toe similar to the 20 Toe, but flatter to accommodate a very short flat heel.
What about the heels? What are the differences? What do you recommend?
Heels are also a matter of preference. There are “walking” heels or “roper” heels that are around one inch to one and a half inches in height and are not under slung at all. These are more common in today’s market. There are also more traditional slanted heels that are taller and were intended originally to keep a cowboy’s foot from slipping through a stirrup while on horseback. But as most people these days don’t spend much time horseback, boots have adapted away from those particular styles.
What is the average price to pay for a pair of personalized boots?
Personalized boots are different than truly custom boots. This means that, once you decide what size fits you best, you choose the leathers, toe, heel, size of top, stitching and more.
Non-exotics are normally around $200
Smooth ostrich – $225
Full quill ostrich – $400
Caiman – $500
Elephant – $350
Arapaima – $550
Raw material value plays a lot into the pricing of these.
How long does it take if I order a personalized pair – from order date to delivery?
The time frame for personalized boots varies pretty significantly, depending on the time of year. Our busiest times are the holiday season (late October to December) and rodeo season (mid-May and April). If the order goes in during the summer or late spring, we quote 8 to 12 weeks delivery, but if it is during one of these times that I stated previously, it could be 3 months or so.
Tell me about hides? What are the logistics for a bootmaker in buying the raw hides?
Due to the fact that leather tanneries are so scarce in the U.S., we, along with most everyone in the industry, buy most of our non-exotic leathers and some other components from Mexico. Mexico is a dominant producer of footwear. Only 20 percent of the footwear in Mexico is imported. A non-exotic leather would be cowhide, bullhide, pig, goat or bison. Obviously, these are things that are native to the U.S.
I acquire exotic leathers for our company mostly through dealers in the U.S. who warehouse said materials to save me the import and shipping costs. These would consist of ostrich, caiman, alligator, teju lizard, stingray, arapaima, elephant, python and rattlesnake. Some of these I may also get straight from the source. The python we get from Singapore; the ostrich from South Africa.
In terms of hides, what are better? What are more durable?
What’s “better” can really only be contributed to personal preference. That being said, there are certainly particular leathers that last longer and are much easier to deal with in regards to the break-in process and long-term care.
Ostrich is one of the best leathers for having a quick and easy break-in. It has a durable finish that polishes well and is good as a dress boot as well as a functioning, day-to-day kind of boot. As ostrich boots are on the higher end of the price spectrum, a more affordable option would be any full-grain cowhide or bullhide. They are relatively heavy and most traditional cowboy boots will use these as the main components.
Reptile leathers (alligator, lizard, snake) are bony and can be very brittle over time. They do look good when new, but if not cared for and well-conditioned, will not last nearly as long.
Tell me about the price increase for ostrich boots.
Price of leather is contributed most to availability. Most of us have probably seen plenty of cows, which is what your most affordable boot will be made out of, but how often do you see an ostrich or an alligator or an eight foot long fish from the Amazon?
Ostrich is one of the most affordable of the exotic leathers. There are a handful of good tanneries supplying it, which keeps the market price in check, and it is also used in industries other than bootmaking – like upholstery, handbags and accessories, for example.
What about accessories – like matching belts?
A very common accessory for men is a belt, which is the same color and leather as the boots that he wears. You can also find hatbands for cowboy hats that are made out of similar leathers. Although they are not often seen, some people even carry wallets made out of similar leathers to their boots. For ladies, purses that match boots are sought after, but there are not really any style standards to follow there.
Tell me some tips in upkeep and boot care?
Quality leathers can take a lot of exposure to the elements and still stay in pretty great shape if you just pay attention to them. There are a number of different styles and brands of boot care products. There are paste polishes, wax polishes, conditioners, cleaner/conditioners, polishing clothes, polishing sponges, dyes, edge finishes and many others. It can be overwhelming. I like to keep it simple. To clean the leather I use a washcloth to mildly scrub the boot with mildly soapy water. If this doesn’t work, there are more complex cleaning formulas, but I try to avoid any potential damage to the leather’s color and finish.
After cleaning I use a basic leather conditioner that returns some of the moisture to the leather that it requires to stay supple. Conditioner dries fairly quickly and doesn’t affect the color or finish of the leather.
If it is a more work-oriented boot that I’m dealing with, I will apply mink after cleaning, which adds a water resisting factor to the leather, but more often than not it will darken the leather, also. That is about as deep as my boot care arsenal goes.
What about boot ear pulls? How beneficial are they? Why? How?
From my personal experience, many people are wearing the wrong size boot. Obviously, a boot has no laces and no way to be tightened once it is on your foot. A boot should be pretty snug across your foot, especially in the instep area. When putting a pair on there is a well-known indicator of a snug fit and that is the initial tug which leads to the “pop” of your heel hitting the bottom of the boot after you make it all the way down the shaft.
All that being said, a boot that fits requires a bit of pulling to get on. Pull holes and pull straps are essential to this. There are a few different styles, one being the common pull strap, which makes a loop at the top of the shaft big enough to get one or two fingers in on each side. There is a very traditional, “old school” option, which are “mule ears.” Mule ears are rather long wide straps that taper at the ends (resembling that of a mule’s ears). They are sewn into the inside of the shaft and are folded over to the outside of the boot like a regular pull strap. But unlike regular straps, which are sewn to the outside of the shaft to make a loop, mule ears are left unsewn to dangle. Mule ears are also significantly longer than regular pull straps.
Special thanks to Caiden Fenoglio and the Fenoglio Boot Company for the thorough and educational information. For more information, visit their website. Read about the bootmaking process in our Go Local. GO TEXAN. December issue e-zine cover story here.