Schwarz & Schwarz in Dillon, Montana
There’s gold in them thar boots
by Gene Fowler
When you get a pair made at Schwarz Custom Boots in Dillon, Montana, you not only get a great pair of boots, you also get a handy twofer. Bootmaker Dan Schwarz tackles the lower part of the boot build, where the hide meets the road, while his wife, Julia, handles the artistic stuff up top. Working in the back of their retail shop, Atomic 79, the Schwarz team produces some of the handsomest cowboy boots in the West.
Dan says that he never really “gave two thoughts” to how boots were made while growing up in the farm and ranch country of north-central Montana and then working for a time in the cattle industry. That changed in the late 1990s when he took a pair of boots in for overhauling at Dillon’s repair shop, Blacktail Bootery. The owner must have sensed that Dan’s destiny loomed in the boot world and offered to sell him Blacktail. When Dan returned for his repaired boots, the offer was repeated.
And the second time, something clicked. After a six-month apprenticeship, the cattleman was officially afloat in the boot and shoe repair trade. But it wasn’t long before he noticed the footwear industry’s disconcerting trend. Boots and shoes were getting worse and worse. Many of the boots made overseas with plastic components were pretty much unrepairable. Dan and Julia’s daughter Keni, a teenager at the time, got the idea that maybe they should learn how boots were made, in order to provide the most effective repair job. And, heck, maybe even make some.
Keni approached veteran Billings bootmaker Mike Ives, then 81, about teaching her. A 1993 Montana PBS report called Ives the state’s “King of the Bootmakers,” explaining that he learned to make boots out of necessity after returning home from World War II. Unable to find a new pair, he deconstructed an old pair and put ‘em back together. Reverse engineering, American ingenuity.
At first, the grizzled boot king declined, venturing the opinion that the so-called weaker sex was not strong enough to build boots. On a subsequent visit to Billings, Dan suggested to his daughter that she should shake hands with the bootmaker and squeeze the beeswax out of his bones. A firm handshake, of course, often does the trick with any first impression and, sure enough, Mr. Ives relented.
A quick 10 days of instruction provided a good foundation, which Dan and Keni supplemented with two solid weeks of study with bootmaker Carl Chappell at C. T. Chappell Boot Shop and Trail Town Custom Leather in historic St. Jo, Texas. A third-generation bootmaker, Chappell’s bootmaking heritage goes back to his father, uncle and grandfather….and even further to a German immigrant named Humphries, who traveled from ranch to ranch across Texas in the 1800s making boots for working cowboys. In his 1999 book, Art of the Boot, Tyler Beard wrote that Carl was “fast becoming known for his tall-top, colorful, collared, rootin’-tootin’-style buckaroo cowboy boots—for work, play, or whoopin’ it up on a Saturday night.”
(Interesting factoid. There’s quite a bit of boot history in St. Jo’s patch of North Texas. Drovers going up the trail often stopped off in the Red River hamlet of Spanish Fort, where they ordered a new pair of boots from H. J. Justin, before he moved a short way west to the leather mecca of Nocona. Tradition says the cowboys were following the Chisholm Trail, but when I attended the Real Chisholm Trail Symposium in St. Jo in 2017, researcher Wayne Ludwig gingerly informed the gathering that no trail south of the Red River was actually branded the Chisholm until shoot-‘em-ups and singing cowboys began to burnish the name onto Texas soil from the 1920s on.)
“That was a great experience,” says Dan of his time in Old St. Jo. “Carl is a really good teacher. We went in with a load of experience from having repaired boots and so we already knew about most of the tools. But we didn’t know about getting a good fit, shaping a last, topstitching and all that. That was all new. Carl also told us that while the cosmetics of the boot—the fancy stitching, tooling and inlays—will sell the first pair, it’s the fit that sells the customer a second pair.”
“We walked away with confidence,” Keni recalled in an interview with the John Deere newsletter Homestead, “hung out our shingle, and in six months we were three years behind in boot orders because our base price [at the time] was just $425.” Repairing footwear soon took a backseat to the custom business. Keni built boots for the family shop until 2016, when she hung her own shingle for Coyote Leather Works. According to a report in the Dillon Tribune, she still turns out the occasional pair of boots, but she also offers everything from leather buttons to billfolds, belts and holsters. Her leather jewelry reportedly encompasses feathers from peacocks that hang around Coyote’s yard.
Another former apprentice, Kody Brown, is currently serving his country in Afghanistan. Back when they had more hands on deck, Schwarz Custom was turning out some 60 pairs of boots a year. Production also slowed down when Dan and Julia opened Atomic 79, a retail shop with a boot workshop in the back, in 2014. Today the team completes about 25 pairs a year, and the wait for the heavenly fit of a Schwarz boot runs about two and a half years. Measurements, encompassing nine separate steps, must be done in person.
Atomic 79 is housed in an 1881 building that originally served the gold rush trade. “Back in those days,” explains Julia, “it seems like they moved the territorial capital each time there was a gold strike, from Bannack to Virginia City to Last Chance Gulch at Helena. So, the name of our shop is the atomic number for gold. And it also means that we offer the gold standard for boots, both in the ones we build and the ones we sell and repair in our retail shop.”
Resembling an old-time mercantile, along with boots Atomic 79 also carries farrier goods, saddles, tack, jewelry, backpacks, axes, shovels, vet supplies, ropes, clothing, Stetsons and Resistols, and probably even a campsite sink. “We like to say, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,’” jokes Julia.
Custom bootmaking, however, remains the heart of the business; and as one hears from so many bootmakers, it’s the personal connection with customers that really makes the work satisfying. Just about every pair memorialized on the Schwarz Custom website and Facebook pages comes with a story.
A pair made for a customer in the Navy, for instance, features images that match the sailor’s tattoos. There’s anchors and red swallows, with waves and wind stitching that emulate water and air to represent his work in an aviation sector of the Navy.
A pair of beach-themed boots for a seashore-loving, Dillon-area chiropractor is based on a Kenny Chesney song about getting one’s “toes in the sand, knee-deep in the water.” It took several tries to get the palm trees right, notes Julia.
Boots sporting colorful chili peppers were made for a local friend from Yuma, Arizona. It took six months to find leather in the exact shade of lavender one woman requested for her boots. A jeweler from Chicago presented the challenge of having a Ray Bradbury poem emblazoned inside the boots. As a surprise, Julia placed three hearts on the inside of a pair made for a breast cancer survivor. “They represent her husband and two daughters,” says Julia, “and are also a celebration of her relocating to Montana. It’s moments like that when you get close to a customer and you are moved by the experience.”
More than a few customers come to the Dillon shop with foot abnormalities. One man whose feet are thick and short never thought he would be able to wear boots. When he came to pick up the boots, he was wearing sandals because he simply had trouble finding shoes that fit. And when he slipped on his first pair of Schwarz custom-mades, he wept.
Dan says his cowboy days still play a role in his bootmaking career. “I used to shoe horses, so I would study how the horses walk. And building a last is a lot like setting horse shoes. A last is as much a feel as anything else. It may look easy, but it’s not.” These days, of course, he studies cowboys and their boots. “I can look at a pair of boots and tell what a guy does in ‘em. Every little kink and twist tells a story about the movement in the boots.”
Before opening the retail store, the Schwarz family offered Boot Camp classes. Their first student was a lady from Holland named Petra Molenaar. She was already in the States and showed up one day at the Schwarz’s door. “She makes boots now in Holland,” says Dan. “She makes a four-piece boot like we build, but it’s not quite as refined as Western boots. It’s kinda like a Frye Boot from the 1970s.”
Nicol Hatch, from Utah, was already making and repairing saddles when she attended Boot Camp. And seeing as how the nearest boot repair shop is 75 miles away from her and her husband’s small town, orders poured in when word got out that she was taking a boot class. “Nicol is about as cowgirl as you can get,” adds Julia. “She does a cowboy’s work every day. Her husband gave her a mink coat and she said, ‘Now where am I gonna wear this?’ But when she wore it out to milk cows in the winter, she discovered it was about the warmest thing ever made.”
Another student, Troy James of Anaconda, Montana, a historian of Native Americans in the state, has won awards at Sheridan shows for his boots depicting Indian lifeways and scenes. He also applied his leather skills to creating a replica of Chief Joseph’s coat.
Dan and Julia also attended more trade shows and events before opening Atomic 79, but in non-pandemic years they still try to make the summertime Saddles & Spurs event, geared towards kids’ education, at the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. “It coincides with the National Day of the Cowboy and it’s like a mini-vacation for us,” says Julia. “It’s so much fun to see the kids designing their own boots and getting all excited.”
Sooner or later, an interviewer gets around to asking the couple about the 24/7-ness of their work environment. “We’re really fortunate in that we love what we do and we get to do it together,” says Julia.
“And whenever I need to,” jokes Dan, “I find I’m pretty good at ignoring her.”
“Ha,” Julia retorts. “He may say that now, but if you watch us when we get really lost in our work, pretty soon the husband and wife begin to look more like the boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Schwarz Custom Boots Top Leather Providers
Garlin-Neumann Leathers (for calfskin)
Montana Leather Company
Panhandle Leather Company
Shut & Ashe Leather (for kidskin)
Mark Staton Company (for alligator)
Larson Leather Company (for ostrich)