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Old West boots, vests
have well-ridden history

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Among the myriad of changes occurring in the Old West let us examine the common boot. Originally built on one last to fit either foot, the foot gear had wide, flat heels and "stovepipe tops" reaching almost to the knees. Made for walking or marching the design was utilitarian.

As the emigration reached the vast expanses of the Great Plains, riding horses was a must, so boots changed. The tops became shorter because chaps and leather leggings now protected the rider's legs. Without the constraints of war, tops were decorated and stitched to prevent wrinkling.

Heels were made smaller, more narrow and taller to keep a rider's foot from sliding on through the stirrup. Long-distance rides were made easier by allowing the rider to rest his arch on the stirrup instead of the ball of the foot.

H.J. "Joe" Justin was working near the Red River Crossing during trail-drive days when a cowboy asked him if he could make a pair of riding boots. Joe's success in the venture led him to design a "paper order blank" on which a customer could draw the outline of each foot, measure the circumferences at different points, list all measurements with his preferences for kind and color of leather thus inventing the term "custom-made" footwear.

Joe and Alice Justin had seven children, six sons and one daughter, who all went into the boot business. In 1908, all combined into the H.J. Justin and Sons Inc. Daughter Enid established the extremely successful Nocona Boot Co. She divorced and remarried twice, each time her ex-husbands starting boot companies of their own. The rest of the Justin family begged her not to marry again to cut down on competition. The company eventually owned Justin, Nocona and Tony Lama boot-making companies in America.

H
ow and why did the cowboy vest come about? It was a common sense invention. Most cowboys rode bronc horses a lot of the time. Those mounts did not like any unusual motions or activity made by the rider. Most wore tight Levis, topped with chaps, making trouser pockets difficult to access.

The answer, a cowhide or wool vest provided easy-to-reach pockets. A vest provided warmth if buttoned and allowed cool air to enter if left unbuttoned. Few sizes were offered, as each vest had little straps and buckles in the back to make it fit. There was no collar to chaff the neck.

Best of all, a vest had lots of big pockets, both high and low. Among the articles that could now be carried were a pocket watch with fob laced through a button hole so it could not drop out and be lost, a button-down pocket to hold the blessedly important "tally book" holding all the information about numbers of livestock, list of local brands, dates to remember, debts, income and a few addresses of relatives.

Finally, pockets to hold Bull Durham tobacco and cigarette papers, chewing tobacco or a can of snuff depending on what was your favorite sin. Also most vest pockets contained some strike-anywhere kitchen matches, a hand-whittled toothpick and a few folds of waste paper for the emergencies. What more could any self-respecting cowboy want?


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
February 2, 2011 column
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.

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