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Dillon boot maker shares Western footwear craft

By Chelsi Moy

Missoulian

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 12:45 p.m. MDT

In this March 28, 2012 photo, master boot maker Dan Schwarz, left, demonstrates how to welt a boot for students, from second left, Nicol Hatch, Troy James and Bob Bugeaud, during boot making school at his shop in Dillon, Mont. Schwarz and his family not only make hand-made western boots, they also teach the craft.

The Missoulian, Michael Gallacher, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DILLON, Mont. — 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.

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