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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Cowboy Boots

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Dead tired and waiting to check in the last room the hotel had available, I watched an equally tired young man walk into the lobby.

This was Kingsville, so he could have been a King Ranch cowboy or someone who aspired to be. One thing for sure, he was not an aviator newly assigned to the naval air station there. More likely, given the wild Eagle Ford Shale boom, he was an oilfield worker.

If so, he must have been a pipe truck driver or in some other career track not subject to as many federal safety rules as rig workers, because he was wearing cowboy boots, not clunky steel-toed safety shoes. Not only did he not have on government-approved foot wear, he had his jeans tucked into the tops of his boots. This indicated that, whatever else there might be to know about him, he was a sure ‘nuff, real Texan.

Of course, how a fellow wears his boots is not absolute proof of Texan-ness. I, too, am a sure ‘nuff, real Texan. But on this night, I wore tan walking shoes and khaki cargo pants.

Even so, seeing such an open expression of a Lone Star pedigree got me thinking about cowboy boots and their role in our culture.

If you’re wearing boots today, unless you’ve been out horseback riding, you’ve got them on more because they are Texas icons than for their practicality. Boots were specifically designed for riding: The narrow toes to facilitate placing one’s feet in the stirrups, the high heels to help keep them there, the strong sole to make it easier to stand in the stirrups if necessary and the high tops to protect your legs from brush.

These days, of course, Texans who wear boots pull them on because they represent us. Yankees expect we Texans to wear boots. Beyond that, a good, well-broken-in pair of boots are just plain comfortable.

If you want to really look like a Texan, your boots should be worn with the pants leg stuffed inside the tops, just like the young man in Kingsville. Look at pictures of old time cowboys, or go hunt up a present-day cowboy. Chances are, the jean legs are inside the boot tops.

Drugstore cowboys–okay, most of us–wear our jeans or slacks over the boots.

I own two pair of boots, one that belonged to my granddad and the other, a handcrafted pair given to me by a friend. Both have served me well over the years, but I did eventually come to understand that no matter how many Westerns we Baby Boomers saw when we were growing up, you don’t wear cowboy boots if you’re going to be walking around in rough country. If you do, sooner or later the slick leather soles of your boots will slip on a rock and the rest of your body will follow.

Walking shoes or lower cut, cleated boots were made for walking, just like cowboy boots were made for riding. (Yes, Nancy Sinatra was wrong in her 1966 hit song, “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”)

I knew one old-time Texan, a retired educator, who solved the boot-vs-walking shoes problem by purchasing custom-made walking shoes with fancy boot tops sewn on. Not only did he not have to mess with tying his shoes, his ankles were protected in true cowboy style. Even so, he was good to go, mobility wise.

With hurricane season approaching and therefore a vague possibility of rain, neither are boots the best wet-weather footwear.

So, before walking shoes or rubber boots, what did old time Texans do when they got their boots wet?

First, consider the consequences of getting your boots soaked. Wet boots mean more to the wearer than the irritation of having wet feet. Wet boots, being made of leather, can lose their shape.

Old timers knew to take their boots off when they got wet and stuff them full of oats. The oats absorbed the water and held the boot in shape until it dried, a long-defunct magazine called Texas Week reported in the fall of 1946.

Think boots weren’t important to Texans back when?

In 1947, a 17-year-old from Ohio passing through Jeff Davis County on a chilly day made even nippier by the mile-high altitude, got himself arrested for stealing a pair of boots and a jacket.

Taken before a grand jury, which shows how seriously folks around Fort Davis took their boots in those days, the teenager said he had stolen the boots and coat because he was cold.

Grand jurors, knowing how low the temperature had been, bought the kid’s story and passed another Texas icon–a hat–to raise money for bus fare home for the boy. And he got to keep the coat and boots for the trip, providing he agreed to send them back.

Whether he returned the property was not reported, but I’d bet my boots he did.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 31, 2014 column

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