DILLON – Bob Bugeaud had never worn a pair of custom handmade cowboy boots, let alone made a pair.
Yet there the Canadian leather craftsman was with eight boot orders already in hand.
“There’s more to it than I thought,” said Bugeaud, one of four students attending the two-week-long Schwarz Custom Boots class. “It’s a lot of attention to detail.”
Detail is what makes Schwarz Custom Boots stand out from the footwear you’d find at any local Western retailer. At $1,550 for the basic cowboy boot, the small, family-owned business prides itself in the 60 or so pairs of handmade cowboy boots turned out custom each year. When the Schwarz family first started out in the boot-making business about a decade
ago, their clients were, not surprisingly, actual cowboys. Anymore, most are out-of-state business executives and the waiting time today for a pair of cowboy boots is 12 months.
“I had no idea there’d be such a demand,” said Dan Schwarz. “(Customers) have to want us to come find us.”
You’ll find Schwarz on a dusty dirt road on the outskirts of town. A two-car garage attached to the house is ground zero for stretching, sewing and sizing leather to make boots.
It’s relatively tight quarters for Dan and Julia Schwarz and their 29-year-old daughter Keni Crane. But on this particular day, it’s even a little more snug.
That’s because it’s class week.
Four weeks out of each year, Schwarz Custom Boots holds classes to share the craft of boot making with anyone with the stamina, fortitude and the $3,000 tuition cost.
Some come with hopes of returning home to produce custom-made cowboy boots. Others see it as a two-week working vacation. Some are legitimate cowboys and cowgirls. Others just fancy the Western lifestyle.
This week, there’s a rodeo cowboy from North Dakota and a brick layer from Anaconda. A cowgirl from southern Utah and Bugeaud, a leather craftsman from British Columbia.
It won’t be tomorrow, but Dan Schwarz envisions a day when the family will no longer take boot orders.
“If it were up to me, I’d do a full-time school,” he said. “I love to teach. I mean there are some students you’d prefer not to have. Any kindergarten teacher could tell ya that. But I love the look on their faces when they see what they’ve just made.”
The Schwarz family fell into the boot-making business by falling out of a pair of cowboy boots in the late 1990s. Cattle prices were low. Schwarz was leasing a small ranch in the area when he brought a pair of cowboy boots into the local shoe repair shop. The owner suggested Schwarz buy the business when he dropped his boots off, and he mentioned the idea again to him when he returned to pick them up.
That was October. Following a six-month apprenticeship, Schwarz was the new owner of Dillon’s shoe repair shop. Quickly, Schwarz and daughter Keni, a teenager then, realized it was increasingly difficult to fix some of the cowboy boots coming into their shop.
“You can only do so much” for foreign-manufactured cowboy boots made of plastic materials and glued together, said Crane, who today is married with twins. They are the kind of boots that aren’t meant to be repaired, throwaways.
“You felt limited by what you could do,” she said.
Both Crane and Schwarz decided that in order to better repair boots, they ought to learn to make them.
They turned to well-known Billings’ cobbler Mike Ives, who at age 81 turned them down flat.
“Girls aren’t strong enough to build boots,” he told Schwarz.
So, when Schwarz and Crane were traveling through Billings a short time later, Schwarz told his daughter: “You offer him your hand and you squeeze it with all your might.”
Show the man you mean business.
“I know I probably went red in the face,” Crane recalled of the handshake.
Ives replied, “Maybe she is strong enough.”
For 10 days at $100 a day, Ives taught Crane how to build cowboy boots. She took careful notes and shot photographs of each step. The satisfaction of building a pair of cowboy boot for the first time is indescribable, Crane said.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked Ives on the 10th day.
“Looks pretty good from across town,” he replied.
“That’s as sweet as Mr. Ives got,” Crane said, “but I knew what he meant.”
She took what she learned back to Dillon, where Schwarz and Crane tried to replicate the lessons handed down by Ives.
The outcome was less than desirable, so the two signed up for a two-week class in Texas with another boot master.
“Should we hang a shingle out as boot makers?” Schwarz asked his daughter upon completing the course.
Since 2001, the family has been making cowboy boots, slowly at first, trying to maintain both a repair shop and a boot-making business. Back then, a basic pair of handmade boots went for $425, and most of the clientele actually worked in the boots.
Within six months of opening their doors as boot makers, Schwarz and Crane were six months behind in orders.
By 2005, 80 percent of the business was custom boot making. Only one week a month would the family take the time to repair shoes.
On average, it takes 40 hours spread out over two weeks to make a pair of boots. Keni and Julia Schwarz, Dan’s wife, are the “top men,” which means they work on the part of the boot around the calves. That includes the stitching and colors. It’s the aesthetic part. Dan is the “bottom man,” who makes sure the boot fits perfectly right.
They don’t use nails, which will rot an insole. Schwarz Custom Boots uses traditional boot-making methods, using only wood pegs to hold the sole to the boot, a rubber heel cap and a steel shank under the sole. Otherwise, the entire boot is leather.
Schwarz and Crane measure every customer in person. They take nine measurements on each foot.
“The measurements don’t lie,” Crane said.
Most of the customers these days live out of state, so either the boot maker needs to go to the customer or the customer comes to Dillon. Schwarz and Crane have traveled at clients’ expense to New York, Washington, Utah, California, Colorado and Arizona to size up feet.
One client from Germany flew into Bozeman, rented a vehicle, and drove to Dillon to have his foot measured before making the return trip home. He spent less than 24 hours in the United States.
Then there was the time when Schwarz and Crane flew to New York City to perform a fitting for six Goldman Sachs executives. Word spread through the office building and by the time the father-daughter team returned to Montana, they had 20 orders.
The Schwarzes never really planned to go into the teaching business – their first student simply showed up on the family’s doorstep unannounced.
Her name was Petra Molenaar, a 49-year-old woman from Holland. For a month Molenaar lived with the Dillon family learning the craft of boot making.
“After that we had requests for classes,” Crane said. “There are not that many custom boot makers anymore. Western artisans have such a commitment to tradition. Boot making is dying out and we’re happy to pass it on. It’s never been a closed shop. It’s always been out in the open.”
On this particular Wednesday, local cowboys from down the road stopped in for a cup of coffee as the students concentrated on sewing leather along the toe of their boots.
Most of the students in the March class signed up with intentions of learning how to build boots in order to perform repairs. However, most will return home and invest in the equipment needed to craft custom boots.
Nicol Hatch, a cowgirl from southern Utah, owns a Western leather shop, where she makes and fixes saddles, chaps and bridles. She’s always wanted to learn how to make cowboy boots.
The closest boot repair shop to her small town is 75 miles away, she said. Hatch figured she would expand her business to include boot repair. But once word spread that Hatch was taking a boot-making class, the orders started rolling in.
“It’s a small town down there and there’re a lot of cowboys,” she said.
When Hatch went online to look for cowboy boot-making classes, she found a few in New Mexico and California. There was one in Colorado and another in Utah, but when she called the Schwarzes, “they sounded like my kind of people,” Hatch said.
Schwarz Custom Boots offers four two-week classes each year and often they fill up quickly. It hosts classes in March, January, August and October. The upcoming August class still has openings. For more information on Schwarz Custom Boots’ classes, check out its website at www.schwarzcustomboots.com.