By Danna Burns-Shaw
The Wheeler Boot Company has announced their retirement; they will be closing their doors in July 2020 and is now no longer accepting orders. How many companies do you know that have to quit taking orders nearly four years before they close their doors (due to the sheer volume of pre-paid orders)? This is the unique, inspiring story of such a company; a company that started in Houston, Texas, back in 1960 by the entrepreneur couple, Paul and Dorothy Wheeler.
Paul was originally from Missouri, Dorothy from Texas. Paul had big plans as a young man living in the 1940s, but those plans were sidetracked because of World War II…Pearl Harbor would delay and derail many young men’s dreams in the 1940s. After serving and surviving the war, the Wheelers decided to move to a booming Houston, Texas, where the oil and gas business brought great promise of fortune.
Paul had prior experience working in a shoe repair shop owned by his father, Bill, and he sold shoes before the war; taking that experience, he decided to open up a shoe shop in 1954. Soon he began working on a tremendous amount of cowboy boots. Shocked with the incredible volume of boots he was repairing, Paul started to study the different types of construction being used to assemble the boots he repaired. Many of his customers commented and complemented his work, telling him he should start building boots.
In 1962, the Wheeler’s shoe and boot business began to boom, so at the age of 12, Paul and Dorothy’s son, Dave, was told he was going to have to work in the business. “Back then you did what you were told, it was not a democracy – it was a dictatorship!” Dave worked his way from the bottom up; all the grunt jobs went his way and at 12-years-old he could think of much better things he’d like to do with his time.
Around 1968, the decision was made to officially start making Wheeler Custom Boots for the public. Sixty years and four filing cabinets of orders later, the Wheeler Boot Company has built thousands upon thousands of boots – from the very basic to the most elaborate boots ever to be assembled. Those cabinets hold the foot tracings and the names of presidents, kings, cattle barons, oil icons, business moguls, movie stars and hardworking, appreciative cowboys.
Paul could see the promise in his young son as a talented, creative boot maker, so he asked him to make a few new boot designs and prototypes. The clients loved them and this new found love of design made building boots exciting for Dave, as he began to flourish in the art of boot making.
Dave met and married Janis in 1970, right around the time the boot shop was really taking off. The two couples worked side by side to fill the ever increasing orders that began to pile up. They started to hire more help and added seven employees to help level the load. Each had a specific job, doing one particular thing each day, turning their shop into an assembly line of sorts. There was so much work that they would send work home with many of their employees. The hours were long and the high demand for Wheeler Boots started to drive the prices up.
Unfortunately, with any boom there will always be a bust and for the Houston area, the 1980’s oil bust would prove to be devastating. Back then almost every job in Houston was connected with the oil industry in some way – everyone was affected. Wheeler was forced to cut hours and scale back their production to three days per week. One by one the employees left, to hopefully find work elsewhere, except for one fine boot maker named Jorge Amaro; he will be by Dave’s side until the last nail is driven mid-2020. Dave commented that of all the boot makers he has hired over the years, Jorge was one of the only ones that could build from start to finish. He and Dave have worked so long together they practically mirror each other’s technique.
Dave and Janis took over Wheeler Boot Company in 1985, before Google gave an answer to every question we could ever ask and before photos were readily available via the internet. Dave had volumes of encyclopedias, those were his reference guides. If he had a request to put a soaring eagle on a boot, he would pull down a heavy encyclopedia, thumb through to “E” and hope to find a soaring eagle in order to capture life-like intricate details.
Most things have radically changed since 1960; however, the true art of handmade, custom boot making hasn’t changed. Dave still uses much of the original equipment his father Paul used. He still traces each foot on folders, carefully observing each foot and even if he’s months from starting that boot, Dave remembers every aspect of that client’s foot. “The fit is the most important thing in boot making; every step of the entire process I’m taking into consideration the client’s foot – thinking about their feet the entire time.” That is why many clients have flown from all over the world to have Dave Wheeler measure their feet. “If we measure, we guarantee the fit, if you measure, we don’t.” While the majority of Wheeler’s business is from the greater Houston area, they certainly have several countries and most states included in those four filing cabinets.
Another one of Wheeler’s great fortunes was when Dave observed Peter Main’s work at a museum in Houston. He was astounded by the intricate detail that Peter achieved in carving life-like figures, turning leather into scenes with such precise detail, adding additional realism with his unbelievable application of color dyes. Peter had just recently moved to Houston from Australia and was quickly becoming recognized as one of the world’s finest leather carvers. “When Peter joined on, it truly meant we could do anything with a boot.” Peter has created incredible works of art with every pair of leather inlays he has produced for Dave over the years…pairs, he has to replicate the intricate work twice and make it look as close to identical as possible, doing everything freehanded. “Peter has never said no to any request, he loves a challenge and our clients have certainly provided many challenges for Peter to creatively accomplish.” To own a pair of Wheeler Boots with a Peter Main Inlay is like owning an original Renoir.
Dave recalled making boots for Mr. Soichiro Honda, the Japanese owner of Honda. He said his fit was extremely difficult, very short and wide. Dave painstakingly stressed over every step to ensure the boots would fit properly. When Mr. Honda came for his final fitting, he insisted that when he tried them on there was paper underneath the boots because he was never going to wear them! He just wanted them for display….Dave sighed and thought, “Why didn’t we just make them in a size 8, they would have looked much better as a display boot!”
Dave has over 50 years of wonderful stories and memories like, “Back in the day (1962), our base price for boots was $50. It didn’t seem long before that price shot up to $900 (base price). We thought, did you ever think our base price would be ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS?!” Then Wheeler’s base price shot past the $2000 mark and folks were spending an average of $3000 and up for a custom boot. Taking his last orders nearly two years ago, Dave’s base price was $2700.
Everyone wants to know what the most expensive boot Wheeler Boot Company ever created was… it was $25,000 – twice, from the same client. These boots required over 250 hours each to produce, so for the price he paid, that was a bargain, since Dave’s hourly shop rate is $150 per hour. The client was very hands on in the process. They came up with the idea together and Dave would call him after every 10 hours’ worth of work to inspect and make any changes. After changes or approval, Dave would swipe his credit card for 10 hours; this way there were no surprises and the client enjoyed being part of the process. Dave recalls one day, he had spent hours meticulously laying all the small cut-outs, which made up the pattern of grapes for the winery themed boot. He called the client in to inspect his incredible puzzle of hundreds of leather pieces. The client took one look at the puzzle and tipped it upside down, wanting to start over. Dave disappointingly said, “You are paying for all those hours.” The client chuckled and said, “Of course I am,” as he handed Dave his card. That client returned a year later to have a Peter Main commissioned boot top featuring his favorite wine.
Wheeler’s averages 150 pairs of boots per year. Dave has put a clock on every step required to build his custom boots and he knows it costs him $1000 every time he opens his doors, so he’d better make his day productive. He says many boot makers underprice themselves (himself included) and don’t take into consideration all the costs associated with having a business. Dave’s shop is roughly 2200 square feet, approximately 300 feet of which is showroom, and the rest holds the multitude of machines and tools required to build a world-class custom boot. He has thousands of lasts, too many to count, his 31-15 Singer sewing machines date back to 1912 and amazingly enough you can still buy parts for them! The crown jewel in the shop is the Model B inseam stitcher – it sews the welt together with a hot oily, poly thread. You can sew eight pairs in ten minutes accurately; by hand eight pairs would be difficult in one day. He has an Adler long arm machine, a Singer short arm machine, a consew for belts, two patch machines, a skiver, clicker, dies, a Sutton finisher and a Rapid E outsole stitcher, just to name a few.
Dave was taught many things from his father, who passed away in April of 2001 at the age of 83, like dedicating each machine to a particular job, never changing what the machine does. His father told him, “Don’t change the needle, the tension or the thread type. The machines will perform better and last forever.” Dorothy lived until she was 91, helping Janis with the paperwork into her 80s.
When you ask Dave what he is most proud of, he will quickly say, “That is an easy question…my father never gave out compliments,” he said, “You don’t get a compliment for doing your job!” However, one day he told Dave, “You have taken the shop to levels I couldn’t.” That rare compliment was the seal of approval Dave appreciates most. He said, “My Dad set me up for success, I’ll be forever grateful. He just expected me to show up, not get into drugs and do an honest man’s job.” A very simple philosophy.
Little did Dave’s parents know that Wheeler Boot Company would become a legendary brand, even being featured on the popular CBS Sunday Morning show. He was reluctant to even do the show because he knew it would slow him down with the multiple days of shooting required to capture the five minute segment. Dave also knew it would create more demand for his already, sold-out career and that the phone would ring off the hook (which it has since the airing). Dave just wants to do what he does best, build the world’s best boots. In 2020, he and his bride of 50 years will ride off into the new chapter in their lives, leaving thousands of pairs of boots as a testament to the greatness they masterfully created.