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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
“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,”
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
DeWitt also enjoys taking in the annual, Rocky Mountain
Leather Show in Sheridan, Wyoming,** a boot and saddlemakers’ event held in
* 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
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