After the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers
headed West where land was cheap and plentiful. Millions of
wild cattle roamed the Texas plains and the cattle industry
and the legendary cowboy were born. The early cowboys wore
their military issued Wellington type boots. Over a period
of years, these were replaced with boots more suited to the
daily life of the cowboy. Many of the features of cowboy boots,
so admired today, had a specific purpose.
The tight fitting vamps and high arches allowed more support
to the foot, the leather soles made it easier to slide the
foot in and out of the stirrup. The slung back heel allowed
a better grip for the foot on the stirrup and the tall shafts
protected against cactus and brush and kept rocks and dirt
from falling inside the boots. As the Longhorn cattle drives
increased in the decades from 1870-1900, boot makers set up
shop in small towns along the main cattle trails, such as
Joe Justin's place in Spanish Fort, Texas, a stopping off
place on the Chisolm Trail.
Early cowboy boots were usually plain with 2 to 3 inch heels
and 17 inch tight fitting shafts. Long mule ear pulls were
favored. Many cowboys would visit a boot maker's shop and
order a pair of boots, then pick them up the next time they
came through town. Some traced their feet on a piece of paper
and mailed it the boot maker. For a cowboy, the price of a
pair of boots took a big chunk of his wages and he expected
to get years of wear in return. A boot maker had to make a
pair of well-constructed and long lasting boots. Many small
boot shops grew into major boot manufacturing companies, like
the Justin and Tony Lama brands which are still in business.
It was not until the 1920's with the popularity of cowboy
movies and dude ranches that the more colorful and decorative
boots became popular. The bright stubby or peewee boots of
the 1940's and 50's are popular with boot collectors today.
It is not unusual to find a pair of fifty or sixty year old
boots still in wearable condition. Custom boot makers still
abound offering well made and mostly exotic skin boots which
are also avidly sought by collectors. Any cowboy boot lover
will tell you there's nothing as comfortable as a pair of
well fitted western boots.