By David Tarrant
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Young men and women are coming to Texas to learn the the art of bootmaking from 62 year old Lee Miller. As author David Tarrant points out, “Miller actually grew up in Rutland, Vt., an archetypal New England town known not so much for Western wear as for maple syrup, snowshoes and the Green Mountains.”
Lee Miller’s cluttered workspace in a small wooden structure behind his south Austin home could serve as a time capsule preserving the art and craft of his trade: custom-made cowboy boots.
Scraps of leather, old hand tools and glue pots compete for space on work tables with curls of thread, coffee cups and boots in various stages of progress. Wooden and plastic foot molds, or “lasts,” hang from the ceiling like roosting bats.
The scent of leather fills the room, along with the sound of a hammer tapping. From a speaker comes a medley of tunes by the likes of Neil Young and Lyle Lovett.
This is the life Miller has made for himself for four decades since hitching on with an old, itinerant bootmaker who agreed to pass along his craft. And now, at 62, Miller sees it as his turn, his duty, to do the same.
“This shop was started with the intention of training people to where (the craft) will continue,” Miller said. “And now I’ve been doing it for 42 years. And I need to pass it on.”
The man who makes cowboy boots for such quintessential Texans as Lovett, Tommy Lee Jones and Willie Nelson is actually a Yankee.
Lee Miller grew up in Rutland, Vt., an archetypal New England town known not so much for Western wear as for maple syrup, snowshoes and the Green Mountains.
His grandfather had a clothing store, and Miller started helping out in the shoe department. In school, he gravitated toward art classes. Outside of school, he liked rock ‘n’ roll and wearing cowboy boots. It was, after all, the ’60s. Boots and jeans were part of the counterculture look.
As a teenager, he took a job with a shoe and boot repair shop. He tried to make a pair of boots but kept failing. He finally concluded that he had to attend a bootmaking school.
His father, dubious about young Lee’s dreams of becoming a bootmaker, implored his son to look for a steady job in the shipyard in Groton, Conn. He also brought his son to speak with his boss, the general manager of a local ski area, to get his advice about working as a bootmaker.
The businessman didn’t mince words: “No one is ever going to want handmade cowboy boots. Nobody makes footwear. You just buy it from the store.”
Just to be clear, he added: “You’ll never have any work. No one will ever want what you do.”
Miller wasn’t deterred.
A search for a bootmaking school led him to a technical college in Tulsa, Okla., where he learned more than just how to make a pair of boots.
He found the cowboy culture irresistible.
“The more I saw, the more people I met, the more I was exposed to it, the deeper I fell in love with it,” he said. “And I kind of abandoned the thought of doing anything else other than cowboy boots.”
He worked for about a year at a shop in Utah, making boots and hiking shoes. But he lost that job after arguing with a pushy customer, who happened to be the local sheriff and a friend of the owner’s.
Just as he was beginning to despair about what to do next, he got a call from a friend he’d made in Tulsa who was working in Austin for an old bootmaker named Charlie Dunn.
A few years earlier, a Jerry Jeff Walker song called “Charlie Dunn” had brought national fame to the bootmaker, who’d been a local legend in Austin for many years while working for Capitol Saddlery.
Not long after the song came out, Dunn retired to Mesquite. But he was soon lured back to work by two local businessmen promising him his own shop if he would train a new generation of bootmakers.
Miller’s friend told him Charlie Dunn needed a new apprentice.
Charlie Dunn? The one from the song? Miller couldn’t believe his good fortune.
He wasn’t sure what to expect when he showed up in Austin in November 1977. He was a skinny, nervous 22-year-old with long hair and John Lennon-style, wire-frame glasses. He had a chance to work with one of the greatest living bootmakers and didn’t want to blow it.
Dunn was nearly 80 at the time.
Small in stature, with a wizened face, a full-body apron and an ever-present beret perched on his head, he looked like one of Santa’s elves. An elf with a short fuse, colorful vocabulary and mischievous sense of humor.
A World War I veteran, Dunn had attended art school, and then toiled through the Great Depression, chasing work from town to town, surviving by fierce determination. “He realized that if he was going to be an artist, his artistry was going to be in his boots, so he wouldn’t starve,” Miller said.
After settling down in Austin in the late 1940s, Dunn gradually established himself as one of the country’s best bootmakers, counting among his steady clients Hollywood stars willing to pay top dollar. It wasn’t just that he made good-looking boots.
They were also well-fitting.
With 26 individual bones held together with muscle, ligaments and joints, the human foot is easily the most complicated part of the human body. Charlie had studied the foot, first as an art student and later by taking correspondence courses with Dr. Scholl’s School of Podiatry.
“Most bootmakers didn’t do that,” Miller said. “Charlie taught me a lot of things, but probably the main thing was how to fit feet,” he said.
Working for the fiery Dunn had its challenges. He fired Miller routinely, for something as little as not laughing at one of his old jokes. “That made him angry. And what did he do when he was angry? He’d fire you.”
Every time he’d get a quick apology from his boss. “I knew that even though he’d get angry and fire me, he still wanted me here. I became his protege.”
Miller never thought of leaving. “Everything being done by Charlie and his crew was magnificent. The boots were pieces of art,” he said.
The old master taught Miller every aspect of making a cowboy boot. How to measure the foot, how to set up the last, how to draw the patterns, how to cut up the leather and trim it, how to do decorative stitching, how to do inlays, how to sew on the toe flower, on and on. Hundreds and hundreds of operations that go into making a boot.
“It was really a wonderful education,” Miller said. “Here was this man, my grandfather’s age, who was an artist. Truly an artist. Very gifted. I was in awe.”
In 1986, Dunn retired and Miller bought the shop. By that time he had married the office secretary, Carrlyn. She’s a partner in work and marriage, managing the business, which is so good they have a long backlog and are making boots only for old customers.
They start at $2,500 for a simple boot made out of non-exotic leathers and can go up to $10,000 or more. The more unusual the skin and the design, the higher the price.
“You’re paying for labor, a lot of labor goes into a handmade cowboy boot. That’s the main reason they cost what they do,” Miller said.
When Dunn died in 1993, Miller brought his guitar to the memorial service and played the old Jerry Jeff Walker song in tribute.
Nearly a quarter century later, Miller remains in awe of the old bootmaker. “He was a self-determined man right up to the end of his life,” he said.
Like his old boss, Miller has always taken in apprentices as long as they show a serious interest in learning the craft.
Sometimes they come under a formal arrangement, as with a young student who came to Miller as part of a German government’s apprenticeship program. Others arrive with little more than talent and desire, including a young man from Japan, who appeared one day at the door. “No phone call, no email, he just showed up and stayed here for five years,” Miller said.
He likes to learn from his apprentices, too. “We had a guy from France who stayed with us for nine months, a shoemaker. And I learned a lot from him,” Miller said. “There’s a real exchange of knowledge. I learn from them and they learn from me.”