The Road to California Leads to the City at the Pass
By Gene Fowler
Back in the Days of ’49, many a pilgrim bound for the California gold fields traveled through the westernmost tip of Texas. In those days, the community called El Paso del Norte was on the southern side of the Rio Grande, and a smaller settlement of Americanos was growing across the river.
“The sight of this little place is truly refreshing to the weary traveler of the plains,” wrote one gold seeker, after trekking across the Trans-Pecos desert. “Indeed, the cool shady avenues, fragrant breezes, delicious fruits and luxuriant appearance of everything, makes one almost feel that he is transported to the bowers of Eden.”
More than a few of those weary travelers saw golden opportunity in those bowers. They put down roots and opened for business, acquiring their goods for resale from traders in Santa Fe. And in the 20th century, more than a few savvy bootmakers had similar visions as names like Lucchese, Tony Lama, Justin and many more set up shop in El Paso del Norte, now on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.
Scott Wayne Emmerich, current hombre-in-chief of El Paso’s Tres Outlaws Boots, set out on the California Road in search of silver and gold in 1980. The Pennsylvania native soon found himself drawn to the City at the Pass. In time, he would find his destiny and fortune intertwined with the West Texas town known as The Cowboy Boot Capital of the World.
“I had stopped off in Florida on my way to California,” Scott Wayne recalls. “And crossing the street one day, I saw a guy wearing a pair of green antelope cowboy boots. I loved ‘em and when I asked where he got them, he said El Paso…so I checked it out on my way to the West Coast. I found a bunch of cool little boot shops, and I bought about eight pairs.”
Resuming his trek, he sold the boots in Los Angeles. “Then I came back to El Paso and ordered samples, which I took back to L.A. and presented at trunk shows. That really began my love for cowboy boots.” After a series of successful trunk shows in the Golden State, Scott Wayne opened a cowboy boot boutique, Falconhead, in the City of Angels.
He also began designing original ideas for boots with such singular creativity that, in 1995, he teamed up with fellow bootheads Jerry Black and Carlos Salazar to found Tres Outlaws Boot Company in El Paso. Carlos left the company before the new millennium, and Jerry retired in 2004. Today, Falconhead has flown from Hollywood, but Rockstar Cowgirl, a custom jewelry boutique in Cody, Wyoming—“just a few doors down from Buffalo Bill’s historic Irma Hotel”—has about 1,000 pairs of Tres Outlaws boots on display and for sale at any given time.
Back in El Paso, Scott Wayne still designs and creates custom boots, turning out about 10 to 12 bling-tacular pairs a week. And if you think you’ve seen the wildest botas in the West, you need to see Tres Outlaws. My late amigo Tyler Beard, who made a good Texas-brag case for being the self-proclaimed World’s Leading Authority on Cowboy Boots, testified in his 1999 book, Art of the Boot, that Tres Outlaws boots are “sexy, evocative and captivating.” Proving that Texans can also accomplish understatement, Scott Wayne Emmerich describes the Tres Outlaws boot philosophy by noting that wearing cowboy boots should be a “festive occasion.”
The bootmaker defaults to state tradition, however, adding that Tres Outlaws Boot Company “houses the only master bootmakers in the world.” While that may sound like a bona fide stretching of the blanket, I’ve found it can prove unhealthy to argue with an outlaw. And check out the multiple galleries of incredible custom boots on his website, falconhead.com.
Let’s slip on, for instance, a truly unique pair of boots known as “The Mexican.” To do so, we would have to travel to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., for that is where this mind-blowing creation now resides. Iconography in the design depicts eras of Mexican history and culture from the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution. Rare gold and silver vintage coins are mounted in the leather. Some 700 hours went into the creation of this masterwork of cowboy boots.
Another design that caught my eye, “Luscious Lizards” features hand beading on a combination of kelly green nubuck and canary yellow French calf leathers. “The customer that requested that design turned out to be Leo Ehrenholt, a pilot who had flown with Gene Autry during World War II,” says Scott Wayne. (And I can picture my rock musician son wearing those boots in honor of his late iguanas named Brando and Ellington.)
But I’m really knocked out by Tres Outlaws’ tributes to my own favorite reptile, “Gila monster I” and “Gila monster II.” The hand beading on the boots resembles the beading on the Heloderma suspectum, or Gila monster, so named because its skin is studded with tiny osteoderms. Colorful Sonoran Desert flora accents the beady monsters on the boots.
“The Bohlin” pays tribute to a leatherworking legend, Edward H. Bohlin of Hollywood, the “saddlemaker to the stars.” Tres Outlaws’ Bohlin boots are made of alligator dyed black, reminiscent of Bohlin’s beautiful black saddles, and accented with vintage Bohlin silver from one of his saddles made in 1940. Other Old West themes emblazoned on “Trio Bandito” boots include the Shootout at the OK Corral, Stagecoach Holdups, the Great Train Robbery, Native American Chiefs and—from the great ranchos of the Lone Star State—Famous Texas Brands.
Birds, butterflies and beautiful blooms adorn Scott Wayne’s designs with nature themes, and logo boots include everything from state symbolism like Oklahoma oil wells to a kick-up-your-heels-at-long-last mascot for long-suffering Philadelphia Eagles fans. Tres Outlaws brings the bling with gold, silver, Swarovski crystals, turquoise, diamonds and other precious metals and gems. One design, featuring cards, dice, slot machines and horseshoes, tips its toes to Las Vegas with the slogan, “What happens in these boots, stays in these boots.”
Celebrities sport Tres Outlaws’ eye-catching designs by the hundreds, from Jane Fonda and Lady Gaga to Judge Joe Brown. The pair Scott Wayne designed for former Secretary of State John Kerry is appropriately understated, but still manages to depict Kerry’s interests such as playing the guitar, hockey and parasailing. Another custom statesman’s pair has been exhibited at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
If a customer can’t visit El Paso to order a pair of custom handmade boots in person, Scott Wayne mails them a foam foot mold with a return box for proper fitting. The customer makes an impression in the foam with each foot and then mails the box back to Tres Outlaws. “It took me about five years to perfect the mold,” says the boot artist.
It’s been a long road of cowboy boot bravado for the design desperado at the City at the Pass, from the days back in Pennsylvania when he slipped on his first pair of factory-made Frye’s and got his initial sense of how it feels to experience the legendary footwear of the West. “They were basic and clunky,” he recalls, “but I loved them anyway.” And as the old master bootmakers pass away, Scott Wayne worries that the knowledge and skills they pass along will be lost, as fewer and fewer younger artisans follow in their footsteps. His workforce at Tres Outlaws is now “four and a half,” down from more than a dozen earlier in the 2000s.
As he contemplates hanging up his own bootmaking spurs one of these days and riding his Harley off into the sunset, he offers an urgent word for folks who might long to venture West in their own pair of Tres Outlaws art, “Get ‘em while you can.”
421 S. Cotton
El Paso, TX