No one know for sure just who made the first pair of cowboy boots. There are some stories that indicate they made have been made by either a shoemaker in Kansas or in Texas. After visiting City Electric Shoe Shop in Gallup, New Mexico, I’m nearly convince they originated there. (Well, okay, maybe not originated, but the shop has certainly perfected and preserved the wonderful art of leather tooling – more on that later.)
In 1865, after the Civil War was over, the cowboys who were making cattle drives across wild and uncharted country, recognized a need for a different kind of footwear that could stand up to the elements and the environment. A boot was needed that was tough, as waterproof as possible, and comfortable for the long hours spent in the stirrups.
Sometime around the year 1870, a smart cowboy went to a shoemaker and asked for a boot with a pointy toe. He felt that this would make stepping into the stirrups in a hurry easier. He also asked for a taller shaft that would protect his legs from briers, thorns, snakes, barbed wire, and brambles. Next, he requested that the boot have a bigger, thicker heel that would prevent the foot from sliding out of the stirrup during a fast, rough ride.
(Or at least, that’s ideally the way it should have gone…)
The cowboy could also use the thick heel to “dig in his heels” and prevent a stubborn animal from pulling him down. There would need to be a long thing strap (known as mule-eared straps), attached to the top so that the boots could be pulled on quickly. The top of the boot also needed to be slightly larger than the rest of the shaft, so the boot could be removed quickly, if the cowboy got tangled up in his stirrup while falling from his horse. This could actually mean the difference between life and death in some situations.
If the boot was made from a tough leather, it could cushion and protect the cowboy’s ankles from bruising after a long day in the stirrups. Stitching on the outside would prevent the seams from rubbing the feet and legs and to prevent the leather from buckling over time.
One thing’s for certain – the first cowboy boots had little style and beauty. They were just another tool to help the cowboy do his job safely. And these boots quickly became a part of every cowboy’s life.
In the beginning, all cowboy boots were custom made by cobblers, just to fit the individual cowboy’s foot. Later, mail order companies began to sell the boots. This was at first considered the “poor cowboy’s” way of getting boots and was a little humbling.
Luck for us modern day folk, over time, the cowboy boot has become a fashion accessory. And honestly, City Electric Shoe Shop in Gallup, New Mexico is one of the best cowboy boot shops I’ve had the chance to explore in the West. Not only for their reasonably priced merchandise and modern cowboy boot styles, but for the great care they take in preserving their heritage in the “wild west.”
The first thing I loved about this shop is when I mentioned how great it was to find such great pricing on leather goods compared to the shops in Kentucky, the employee was surprised that we wear cowboy boots in good ol’ Ken-tuck. It truly made me smile and feel a bit sheepish. Not just because I (perhaps arrogantly) assumed that everyone outside our state knows Lexington, KY is the horse capital of the world… but more because despite this, our cowboy-ism doesn’t quite muster up to the high standards set by the originals in the West.
This is not to say that we Kentuckians can’t appreciate a fine piece of leather work and City Electric Shoe Shop has plenty! In the early 1900’s, City Electric Shoe Shop brought something cutting-edge to the area, the ability to quickly repair shoes (and cowboy boots) with electric equipment. Fast forward to 2019 and the shop is still being run by the direct descendants of the original owner.
In the basement of this historical shop, traditions are still preserved today with the crafting of belts and moccasins. Extraordinary care and pride goes into the crafting of each piece, preserving the heritage with hand dyeing and machine tooling.
Extraordinary care also went into my hand-selecting several belts and other accessories to take home to my Kentucky cowboys.
If you can’t make it to the shop (do be sure to add it to your bucket list travel stops,) you can find City Electric Shoe Shop belts and moccasins for purchase via their online store, too.