Long-time leatherwork instructor, Mike DeWitt, keeps his heritage craft alive and well in Oklahoma
By Lynn Ascrizzi
You never know where a passion for the age-old art of leathercraft will take you. For Michael DeWitt, owner and operator of DeWitt Custom Leatherworks, the long and winding trail that leading to his current workshop in Henryetta, Oklahoma, has evolved as a rewarding outgrowth of his dedicated, leather-teaching career.
His sojourn began in the rural hinterlands of a ranching and farming community in northern Arizona, not far from the small city of Holbrook, which in the late 1800s, had gained a legendary reputation as a shoot-’em-up, cow town.
Born in 1957, in much tamer times, DeWitt grew up only a short walk away from a 500-acre ranch owned by his granddad, Malcolm “Mac” DeWitt, who raised dairy cows, Herefords and alfalfa. Helping out on the family ranch as a kid, gave him his first taste of leatherwork.
“We did haying with horse teams,” he recalled. “With leather harness, there were always repairs to be done. Grandpa and my dad, Keith DeWitt, who worked for the Arizona highway department, also did leather repairs.”
But, a fondness for ranching and wide-open spaces was not what drew him into a productive career in leatherwork. That abiding interest was sparked by his junior high school industrial arts teacher, Frank Perkins, whose curriculum included making small leather goods like belts and wallets. “It fueled the fire to learn more,” DeWitt said.
About a year or so later, Perkins left school teaching to open a leather shop in Holbrook. It wasn’t long before he hired his promising, former student as a part-time apprentice. It was in that shop, that the rich, earthy smell of leather and the satisfaction of handcrafting and repairing leather goods fully captured DeWitt’s imagination.
“That’s where I really got hooked,” he said. “I started working for Perkins on the weekends, when I was about 14 years old. I learned boot and shoe repair, saddle repair and custom leatherwork, like making chaps, belts, wallets and handbags.”
He was so motivated by leatherwork, that he turned part of his granddad’s barn into a saddlemaking and repair shop, tasks that he tackled in the evenings. He continued to work with his instructor, off and on, until he graduated from Holbrook High School in 1975.
About a year after graduation, the adventurous DeWitt took off for Ecuador to put in two years of service, or what they call a mission, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Then, at age 22, he had a hankering to go to Montana. There, he worked on severalranches, including Powder River Ranch in Miles City.
Around that time, he met his future wife, Charlene Justice. “Her dad managed the H- Cross-H ranch that bordered a ranch I was working on,” he said. The two were married in Arizona in 1981 — 38 years ago. Along the way, they raised five children and have five grandchildren.
During those early years, DeWitt never lost his love for custom leatherwork. “I was still doing saddles and tack and repairs. I wanted to build boots, but couldn’t find anybody to teach me.” So, he researched two schools that offered leatherwork courses —Texas State Technical Institute (TSTI) in Amarillo, and Oklahoma State University (OSU), that offered a shoe, boot and saddle program in Okmulgee, about 50 miles south of Tulsa.
He chose Okmulgee, a decision he has never regretted. “I felt like I got incredible training,” he said. “The leather courses were part of a vo-tech program that offered an associate’s degree with general education requirements. It was launched after WWII to fill a niche for GI’s, so they could learn a trade,” he explained. “It started as an agricultural school, offered associates degree classes in farm mechanics and small engine repair and evolved into boot and shoe repair, saddle and bootmaking.”
After he graduated from OSU-Okmulgee in1983, DeWitt worked for one year with leatherworker, Bob McLean, in Prescott, Arizona. “He had boot repair shops. I taught Bob how to build boots, and for one year, we built a boot business, together. He’s still in the boot business in El Paso,” he said.
At the time, DeWitt found himself making frequent phone calls to his former OSU leather instructor, Earl Bain. A highly accomplished boot-builder, in 1975, Bain taughtBo Riddle, a renowned bootmaker-singer-songwriter, currently living in Nashville. Bain passed away at his home in Schulter, Oklahoma, in 2018.
“I had to call Earl weekly to run problems by him,” DeWitt recalled. “It was trial by error. I got a good education from Earl. The pressure was a lot different — building boots for a living, instead of a hobby. In the summer of 1984,Earl asked me if I was interested in the saddlemaker instructor’s job, at OSU.”
That began DeWitt’s long career as an instructor. At first, he taught saddlemaking, but added bootmaking after Earl retired. He worked at the leather program for 21 years. Then in 2005, the university dropped the leather program. “We always had enough students, but we didn’t get enough graduates,” DeWitt explained. “Students in their 40s or 50s wanted to learn how to build boots and saddles, but they’d just take the shop classes and pack up and go home, without getting an associate’s degree.”
This low graduation rate ran counter to the state’s regents policy that required associate of applied science programs to produce five graduates a year, over a five-year period. Instead, only an average of 1.5 students graduated from the leatherwork program each year, according to a 2005 news article in Tulsa World, which had covered the controversy raised by the imminent close-out of the leather program.
Economic pressures were also a factor. The program cost OSU $150,000 to $175,000 a year for instructors’ salaries and supplies. The university couldn’t justify the cost. And, OSU officials questioned whether future students could get good-paying jobs doing custom leatherwork.
Nonetheless, given the strong, cultural tradition of boot and saddlemaking in that part of the country, a kind of compromise was reached. The state built a vo-tech school called Green Country Technology Center, directly across the road from OSU-Okmulgee and transferred all of the former leather program’s equipment to the new facility. Leather instructor DeWitt moved over there too, along with the equipment.
He taught at Green Country for eight more years. Looking ahead to the time he might retire, he and his wife, Charlene, put in a leather workshop about 150 feet from their house in Henryetta. “We fixed it up when they closed the leather program in the summer of 2013,” he said.
SHARING THE KNOW-HOW
As it turns out, the hard-earned, hands-on leather skills that DeWitt picked up early on, and had gained from his 29-year teaching career, are serving him beautifully and well. Most days, you can find him working on orders or teaching leatherwork in his rustic, 500-square-foot custom shop. His wife also works from home, as a change manager for Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “It’s a job in information technology,” he explained.
Today, he’s just as busy as ever. “I’m covered up,” he said, of business. “I work eight to ten hours a day, six days a week, most weeks. When I want to go out and visit the grandkids in Utah, I put a sign on the door.”
“I have repeat customers. I enjoy the diversity. I don’t know from one day to the next who will walk through the door. I do a lot of cellphone holders, and I wear and make leather suspenders. I do a little bit of everything. I can ship, but most repairs are dropped off and picked up here.”
An early riser, his day begins at 4 or 5 a.m. He enjoys his one-man shop. “I like working alone. And, I enjoy having students come, too,” he said, of his one-on-one, boot and saddlemaking courses.
Students are charged $200 per day for a typical, 10-day course. Enrollment fluctuates. “So far this year, I’ve had six students,” he said this past March. “But last year, I didn’t have any.”
Custom boot prices start at $850 and go up from there, depending upon what details are added and if exotic leathers, like snakeskin, are used. Saddles start at $2,600. “They’re made to order and might include brands and initials. Most of the saddles I make are working saddles, for working cowboys. I do make a few show or rodeo saddles,” he said.
His goal is to keep a balanced work schedule. “I do repairs in the morning,” he said, of the mending jobs drawn from a 100-mile radius. “After a lunch break, I work on new custom saddles and boots in the afternoon. Customer wait time is close to three months for boots and six months for saddles.”
Most of his saddle leather is sourced from Hermann Oak Leather in St. Louis, Missouri, and Wickett & Craig of Curwensville, Pennsylvania. He orders hardware, sheepskin and some leather from Weaver Leather of Mount Hope, Ohio. Saddle trees are ordered mainly from Timberline Saddle Trees in Vernal, Utah.
Boot leathers come mainly from C Loy’s Leather in El Paso, Texas. Other leathers, for soles and heels, are mostly sourced from Panhandle Leather Inc., in Amarillo, Texas.
Many workshop owners have a favorite machine, and for DeWitt, it’s his trusty Singer 110. “I do most of my decorative stitching with it, on my boot tops. I’ve had it for almost 40 years. It was used when I got it. It’s probably close to 100 years old.It has never let me down. Over the years, I bought several 110 Singers for extra parts,” he said.
He also uses a 40-year-old, Landis Rapid E for stitching soles and a Landis K model for repairs. “Parts are still easy to get,” he said, of the K. “They hold up well and are dependable.”
He’s also fond of his much newer, heavy-duty, Cobra Class-4 stitcher, “a really good machine for saddle work,” he noted. And, he uses a Durkopp Adler 205, a German machine. Both machines work well on saddle bags, holsters, chaps and the like.
When it comes to hand tools, however, “I build a lot myself,” he said. “You gotta know how to work with wood and how to weld. Your needs create the need to build a tool.”
He ordered some of his hand tools, however, from Pro Series Tool Co., of Farmington, New Mexico, owned and operated by Robert Beard, who specializes in individually hand-crafted leather tools, like edgers, skivers, knives and stamps. And, C.S. Osborne Leather Tools of Harrison, New Jersey, “is the most basic place to get hand tools; they have a little bit of everything,” he said.
His customers range from 19 years old to folks in their 80s. “I’ve had young adults bring their boots and saddles for repair and order gifts for Christmas, weddings and birthdays. I’ve had 80-year-olds bring boots, shoes and purses for repair.”
He estimates that about 70 percent of his customers who place orders are male. “Often, women bring their husband’s items in for repair. Most of my custom boots and saddles are made for men, but definitely not all,” he said.
Since “retiring” to his home workshop, DeWitt has noticed a novel trend: “In the past five years, probably 80 percent of the students who have signed up for my boot-building workshops have been women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-50s,” he said.
He’s not sure what is prompting this particular surge of interest. “Part of it could have something to do with magazines that run lots of articles about women in the industry,” he speculated. “People are finding out that there are successful women in the leatherwork business, which has traditionally been a very male-dominated industry. But, the demographics are changing,”
Despite a recent resurgence of interest in the craft, does he think that, in the long run, custom leatherwork is a dying art?
“No I don’t,” he said. “I think it has evolved from what it was 100 or 200 years ago. Back then, leatherwork was more functional. Now, its artistic side is becoming a big part of the craft. There are people doing sculpted faces out of leather, designing leather clothing and more. A lot more art is involved. There are amazing artists out there now. Leather is an incredible medium to work with.”
THE RIGHT FIT
When it comes to custom bootmaking, for him fitting is the first order of the day. “If a boot doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter how good it looks. When I fit a customer for a pair of boots, I normally take anywhere from 10 to 20 measurements of their feet and legs, up to the boot height they want.”
But sometimes, a person’s feet might differ slightly in size. So, while measuring, he figures out if they might be experiencing foot problems. And, he takes note of the type of footwear they use.
“Usually if a person is right-handed, they use that right foot and leg for more stability. Generally, one foot will be slightly larger than the other. Or, I check to see if there have been injuries of any sort like bone spurs, calcium deposits or bunions. Quite often, the two boot lasts are not exactly identical.”
And, whether he’s making a pair of boots or a saddle, a good-looking appearance is a top priority. “The aesthetics really need to catch my eye. I look for good lines, a good match from one side of the boot or saddle to the other, quality materials and quality craftsmanship.”
He also advised, “Always put the customer first. I love it when a customer comes back for more, or they refer customers to me. That is one heck of a compliment!”
When it all comes down to it, DeWitt and custom leatherworkers like him are rare birds, expert artisans whose rich experience reflects a broad array of skills and services that, these days, are not always easy to come by.
Above all, DeWitt is grateful to his students, past and present, whose abiding interest in learning traditional leatherwork is helping to keep a heritage craft alive.
“I have learned way more from troubleshooting problems that my boot and saddlemaking students come up with, and by their mistakes, than from the lessons I have passed on to them. Working with my students has continued to be an incredible education.”
TRADE SHOW FOOTNOTES
Trade shows geared for boot and saddlemakers have played an invigorating role in the long leatherwork career of Mike Dewitt, of DeWitt Custom Leatherworks in Holbrook, Oklahoma. At these professional and educational events, he has either set up booths displaying his leatherwork or attended as a spectator simply to enjoy the fun.
For instance, at the Annual Boot & Saddlemakers Trade Show in Wichita Falls, Texas,* DeWitt likes to check out the latest in leather machinery, hardware and free seminars, and meet up with good friends of the trade, like artisan bootmaker Lee Miller of Austin, Texas, or his former leatherwork students.
DeWitt also enjoys taking in the annual, Rocky Mountain Leather Show in Sheridan, Wyoming,** a boot and saddlemakers’ event held in mid-May.
* The 31st Annual Boot & Saddlemakers Trade Show will be held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4 – 5, 2019, at 1000 5th Street, Wichita Falls, Texas. For more info: http://www.bootandsaddlemakertradeshow.com/
** The 2019 Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show will be held Friday – Sunday, May 17, 18 and 19 at the Holiday Inn Sheridan-Convention Center, 1809 Sugarland Drive, Sheridan, Wyoming 82801. For more info: http://www.sheridanwyoming.com/events/rocky-mountain-leather-trade-show/
DeWitt Custom Leatherworks
Mike DeWitt, owner- operator
500 West Bluff Street
P.O. Box 231
Henryetta, OK 74437