By Nick Pernokas
The Missouri field looked like a board game, with its neat windrows of hay laid out on it. A lone farmer carefully guided his baler down each row. He blotted some sweat and dust out of his eyes as he surveyed his work. The farmer decided that his baler needed an adjustment. The tractor was moving slowly and the farmer stepped down to fix the baler on the fly. When the bad step happened, it came fast. As the farmer fell, he saw the baler looming over him like a savage animal. Seconds away from tragedy, he did the only thing he could do. Kicking up at the machinery as hard as he could, he lodged the leather heel of his cowboy boot into the gears of the baler. It took the sacrifice and jammed on the leather heel.
As the farmer slid his foot out of the ruined boot, he had a new appreciation for its solid construction. But, he might never have owned the boot if a young boy hadn’t sought refuge in a dark movie theater on Saturday afternoons.
Don Atkinson’s father, Issac, fought in World War I. He was caught in a mustard gas attack, which affected his health in later years. As a result, Issac passed away when Don was nine. Don’s mother, Elva, supported the family by working in a Trenton, Missouri kitchen as a cook and baker. They lived in a nearby hotel and Don had to get himself ready for school, and a lot of other things, on his own.
Don grew up without having much as a child, which resulted in him taking very good care of everything he acquired later. Like many Americans during the Depression, he would escape to the local movie theater, where for a nickel he could be transported to another world – where the good guys always saved the day. Don began a lifelong infatuation with both the cowboy stars of the day and “The Picture Show.” In later years, he would often recall how real those early films seemed.
Don had a cap pistol like his matinee idols carried, but he decided that he really needed a holster to carry it in. The obvious thing to do was to go to the local saddle shop to find out about getting one. A saddle maker named Monroe Veach lived in Trenton and had made a name for himself making trick saddles, and later, roping saddles. Monroe gave the little boy some leather and instructions. When Don actually completed the holster, Monroe decided that he had potential. Monroe had been motivated by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show as a young boy and had become a trick rider and trick roper. Perhaps he saw himself in Don. For the next nine years Don learned about the leather business from Monroe.
“Monroe had a whole bunch of kids and Don just fit right in,” says Virginia Atkinson. “Monroe’s son, Billy Veach, became Don’s best friend.”
“He thought of Monroe as his dad,” says James Batchelder, Don’s stepson. “Monroe really took him under his wing.”
Monroe helped Don build his first saddle, which was a miniature. Don also wanted to learn about boot making and would work for any boot maker he could, just to learn more about it.
“He’d work for free just to learn. If someone did something good, he wanted to know them. He wanted to talk to them. He was the same way about rodeo,” says James.
Monroe had a love of rodeo and it rubbed off on Don; Don took to rodeo. It was a way he could follow in his celluloid heroes’ footsteps. His mother didn’t approve of the rodeoing and it resulted in some friction between them. Often, Don would return home after a few days of rodeoing to find that she had thrown out some of his awards, buckles, Gene Autry books and in one case, a first edition of the first Superman comic book.
Don competed in all of the rough stock events as well as calf roping and team roping. He would finally quit calf roping when he was 42.
Don opened his first shop in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, when he was 18. He day-worked on a local ranch, owned by the Johnson family, to make a little extra money. He became friends with their boy, Son Johnson. Son was a roper as well, but he was already going out to Hollywood, doing some stunts and wrangling in the movies. Soon he would get an acting contract from director John Ford and be known as Ben Johnson.
When war broke out in Korea, Don volunteered for the Army. He became a cook and rose to the rank of master sergeant. When Don was discharged from the Army, Monroe gave him a place to have a small shop on his property. Don didn’t feel comfortable staying there, so he bought a house in Trenton for his mother and himself, and put his saddle shop in the garage.
Don loved to cook. In the Seventies, he opened a restaurant in Trenton called The Chuck Wagon. But, he found that he was spread too thin between the two businesses, and decided to stick with the leather business.
Don liked making gear and saddles for fellow rodeo cowboys. He was proud of the trophy saddles he made for seven years for the European Rodeo Association, the trophy saddle for the 1983 “Clem McSpadden’s World’s Richest Roping,” and the trophy saddle for the 1967 RCA National Finals Rodeo. The latter was won by Larry Mahan, who became friends with Don after that. Mahan’s saddle ended up in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Don preferred to make saddles, but he became well known for his ability to fit a custom boot, as well as fix problems with orthotics in his boots so that they still looked good. His ingenuity didn’t stop there. He also built several saddles for children with disabilities that kept them on a horse and allowed them to ride. A man in Trenton blew off two middle fingers and a thumb in an accident; Don made him an actual hand out of rawhide that he could pick things up with.
“It was the coolest thing. It looked just like a hand but a different color,” says Erick Wattenbarger, Don’s other stepson.
Virginia Atkinson met Don in the early 1980’s. They were married in 1983. Her two sons, James and Erick, took to Don immediately and he began to teach them about leatherwork. Virginia learned to sew boot tops and became very good at it. Later, she added purses and belts to her repertoire.
Don impressed on the boys that he was committed to his work.
“Don always said that he would die at his workbench,” says James.
The economy was not good in Missouri at the time and the family thought about relocating. Don happened to talk to Larry Mahan, who was living in the Texas Hill Country at the time. Larry told Don that the cutting horse business was booming in Texas and that he should come to Kerrville, which was near Mahan’s ranch. In 1985, Don took his advice and he had two shops in Kerrville before he finally settled on his final one, just outside of town in Ingram.
Things were good there and people wanted high-end boots. Don was busy and the whole family pitched in with building them. Don didn’t have much time to build saddles though, and this disappointed him.
“We were finally getting a fair price for the boots, but that kind of took the working man out of it, unfortunately,” says Virginia.
Some of his saddles he did find time to make were purchased just for display. One resides in the minister’s office of a very large church in San Antonio, and another was made for a large hotel in Houston.
“He wouldn’t ever brag on himself. He was modest,” says Erick. “That old man put in a longer day than I’ve ever seen anyone else do. He loved doing that kind of work. That leather would just carve like butter under his hands. He had immensely strong hands. No matter what he did, he’d put his artistic flair on it. If Don made you a present, there wasn’t much blank space on it.”
Don always admired the way Gene Autry had dressed in his films. He liked the way Gene tucked his pants in his boot tops to show them off.
“He’d say that Gene was a showman and people today didn’t have that sense of style,” says James.
It’s no surprise then that Don was particular about the way he dressed. He would only wear Levis jeans. He only wore long-sleeved, snapped western shirts and he bought his favorite brand by the box. His clothes were always neat and pressed. Don’s suit coats were western style and yoked. He wore a scarf with a Montana Silver slide on it. He wore a Resistol hat, which he would either shape himself, or have shaped to his specifications. He wanted his hats to have a “mule kick,” or indentation, in the front and rear of his crown, to set off the rest of his cattleman-style crease. Don always wore the All Around Cowboy buckle that he had won at the Butte, Montana, rodeo in 1946.
John Wayne and Gene Autry were his favorite western actors and he was an expert on all of their work and trivia. Don kept a chronological list of all of Gene Autry’s films, and he knew which ones he didn’t have in his collection. Don had at least 500 VHS tapes of old westerns. Although they included Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Gary Cooper, Don also liked some lighter films when he needed a laugh. His favorite pick-me-ups were the Police Academy films, as well as the Clint Eastwood films Every Which Way You Can and Every Which Way but Loose.
A customer to Don’s shop in Ingram would be welcomed by a row of western-style buildings that looked like a movie set. Don’s shop sat between Clint Orms’ silver shop and a western artist’s shop. The customer would enter the narrow shop through a front door with “Howdy Folks” painted on the glass. In the small storefront were walls that were covered with photos of Don’s rodeo days mixed with autographed photos of friends and customers. One photo in particular meant a lot to Don; it was a picture of friend, customer and astronaut Gene Cernan. Don always had a dog in the shop… a customer might have been greeted by a dachshund named Abby who slept in a sleeping bag on the bench.
The counter and showcase divided the storefront from the shop in the back. If you went through the swinging door at the counter, you’d enter a small shop that was divided into a boot-making side and a saddle-making side. Shelves in back were full of boot lasts and leather.
Don also had a huge LP record collection, which he played in his shop; later he would add CDs to the mix. His favorite records were stacked on the player and he could go a long time without changing a record. He loved George Straight’s first album with “Amarillo by Morning” on it. He also listened to Merle Haggard, Gene Autry and The Texas Playboys. Gene Autry’s Christmas album was one that he loved, possibly because Christmas was his favorite holiday. The shop was always decorated for Christmas.
Don worked with a lot of exotic leathers in his boots. He liked to pick the leather out himself and take his time fondling it. His favorite was full-quill ostrich. He also used a lot of farm-raised alligator. Don had a phobia about snakes though and he was deathly afraid of them. He didn’t even like handling snakeskin. Don would only make boots with snakeskin if a customer really wanted them. Don collected stray cats and filled his horse barn up with them. He fed them well to keep them around, just so they would keep the snakes away.
Don was a good teacher to James and Erick. He was an extremely patient person who loved to talk and tell stories. Don would check each job himself though, even with James who worked for him for 25 years. He felt like a Don Atkinson boot had to be quality control checked by him and have the crucial steps done by him.
Don made many of his own tools; he even used broken glass early in his career for some trimming jobs in boots. He learned how to make boots in an old-school way that he stuck with for his entire career. He made his own bottoming thread by wrapping 14 strands of flax thread together to form a larger cable, which he twisted and rubbed with rosin.
“He always said it was strong enough to hang yourself with,” laughs James, who bottomed boots for Don for 25 years.
Don was very particular on how he wanted his heels to set. He wanted the heels to touch the ground absolutely flat when the boot was resting on the ground. The soles were hand pegged on with wooden pegs, which added a lot of time to the construction, but made the boots really hard to pull apart. The decorative rolls around the welts had to be perfect. A decorative pattern was embossed on all the edges around the bottom of the welt.
“When the customer saw the boots for the first time, he wanted it to be an art piece,” says James. “He didn’t care if it would wear off or be covered up… and indeed some people thought they were too pretty to wear.”
Many of Don’s boot customers ordered them by mail. They filled out an elaborate order form, as well as sending in some socks that had tape placed around crucial points. Generally, Don’s boots had a narrow round toe and the heels were usually slightly under slung.
“He could fill those boots with water if he needed to stretch them and the water would still be there the next day. They did not leak.”
Don was proud of some of the unique boots that he made over the years. These ranged from a pair of knee-high, white ostrich cowboy boots with golf cleats to an intricate pair for Bob Wills.
Around 1998, Don began having trouble with his feet. After going to a doctor, he found out that the sores were caused by diabetes. The thing that really saddened him was that he could no longer wear his own boots. Don was able to put his ingenuity to work though and create some custom orthotics for shoes, which made it less painful for him to stand while working in the shop all day. Still, Don needed a way to make his work easier on his body.
“As Don got older, he talked more and more about teaching,” says James. “I built him a website and here come the calls, letters and students.”
Around 1999, Don began to offer a boot-making course and a saddle-making course, as well as courses in making other items. The students left with whatever product they had made. With James’s help connecting to the new “world wide web,” Don was able to attract people from all over the world. While usually his lessons were one on one, he did take a couple that came from Japan to learn to make boots and purses. He enjoyed meeting these students with different backgrounds than his own, and considered them friends when they left.
One of these students was Jürgen Volbach from Germany. Jürgen was a well-known, multi-medium artist, and motorcycle enthusiast, who was visiting some other bikers in Texas. Don had done work for them, so they took Jürgen to Don’s shop to meet him.
“When I met him, he looked like a real cowboy to me. I loved the street that looked like a western town. He had saddles with beautiful carving in the front room and many typical western decorations. So many things I had never seen before in this art,” says Jürgen.
The next year Jürgen returned as a student. Don taught him how to use many tools that he hadn’t seen before.
“I learned many little things, and about what I had done wrong before. I never learned from a man like Don again. This was the foundation for my later work.”
Jürgen returned to Germany with some saddlebags for his Harley and became a very successful leather artist.
In 1999, Don also realized that he needed some more help. He took a former student, Dale Richey, on as an apprentice. Dale kept the shop clean and eventually worked on boots and saddles with Don. By 2009, he was helping with the schools.
“Don was like my second father,” says Dale.
Robert Brandes lived in Fredericksburg and stumbled into Don’s shop by accident one day. Robert had amassed one of the largest collections of older rodeo trophy buckles dating back to the 1920s. Regarded as something of an expert, Robert collaborated with David Stoecklein on his coffee table book, The Western Buckle. Robert became a frequent visitor to Don’s shop and he enjoyed listening to Don’s rodeo stories.
“Don, I was told by a lot of people, was hard to get to know, but I found him easy to get to know and we had a pleasant relationship. I liked him a lot,” says Robert. “He was a tough old guy. Don was definitely old school.”
Don had tooled a 1 ½ foot by 1 ½ foot plaque, which he hung on the wall of his shop with some of his nicer trophy buckles on it. Eventually, Robert purchased the plaque and buckles and added them to his collection.
Don made Robert a pair of gorgeous ostrich boots. Robert, a lifelong wearer of custom boots, was impressed. “The boots he made me were spectacular,” says Robert. “They were some of the nicest I’d ever had made.”
In 2008, Emery Downen stopped in to ask about a job. Don didn’t need help at the time. Emery went to work at a local luggage company, but he’d come back and visit Don.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much knowledge somebody like Don Atkinson had in building boots and saddles. I don’t think he got the recognition that he deserved,” says Emery.
Eventually, Emery bought most of Don’s boot-making equipment, which became the basis of his own business, Emery Downen Custom Boots and Saddles. Dale Richey got the saddle-making equipment.
Del Way was Don’s pastor towards the end of his life. Del was a recording artist as well and had come to Don to get a guitar strap, but left with a close friendship. Del eventually had a saddle made, and also collected quite a few pieces that Don had made and various memorabilia from Don’s life. A month before Don’s death, Del’s church dedicated their new arena to Don.
“Don was a good Christian. I liked him because he was raw,” reflects Del. “He said what was on his mind. He was Christian, but he wasn’t religious.”
One night, Erick returned to the shop and found Don lying on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack. Don passed away a few days later on July 15, 2011, at the age of 82, never regaining consciousness.
In 2016, a dusty motorcycle rider pulled up in front of Don’s shop. The leather clad German walked up to the door to say hello to his old friend, only to find it locked and the shop empty. Sadly, he continued on his journey towards El Paso.
John Weinkauf, a boot maker in the Kerrville area, made belts for Clint Orms. He stopped in at Don’s occasionally.
“His boots were typical of that old-style look. They were a sturdy, stout boot,” says John.
Sturdy enough to stop a hay baler.
Thank you to Kathy Kimmel and John Weinkauf for opening the doors on this article.