By Nick Pernokas
Moe’s Custom Boots in Beggs, Oklahoma, is one of those ephemeral dreams that’s always been there, yet seems to be a more recent fixture. That’s the way dreams work sometimes.
Randy Moe’s family had a few horses and cattle on their Oregon acreage. Although it wasn’t large enough to be considered a cow outfit, it was enough to stoke a young cowboy’s dreams.
“I can’t remember not having horses,” says Randy.
Randy had a normal childhood, but a fight when he was 12 cost him most of the vision in his left eye. Randy’s family enjoyed rodeo, and many of them went on to compete in a wide variety of rodeo events. Randy rode bareback broncs and bulls when he was big enough.
As a teenager, Randy worked for Bob Morrow on Bob’s Roseburg, Oregon ranch. Randy loved working cattle on horseback and Bob mentored him in cowboy skills. Eventually, Bob attended Lawrence DeWitt’s saddlemaking school and went from raising cows to building saddles. Bob called his shop The Cowboy Cobbler.
When Randy was 18, he enlisted in the Marines. Passed over by the Army because of his bad left eye, Randy was trained by the Marines to be a combat demolitions engineer. Fortunately, the Vietnam War ended before his scheduled deployment there.
Discharged and in his early twenties, Randy asked Bob Morrow if he’d show him how to build saddles. Bob agreed to let Randy trade an hour and a half of saddle cleaning, oiling and sweeping, for an hour and a half of saddlemaking instruction. Bob ended up introducing Randy to some of the fine points that made saddles work.
“My first love for leather began with Bob Morrow,” says Randy.
Randy can remember cringing when local stock contractor Bob Christensen periodically showed up at the shop with a pickup load of broken tack.
“Rodeo contractors can bust up a lot of tack.”
Christensen’s deliveries became the source of a lot of experience for Randy. He repaired everything from bucking straps to bronc halters.
This repair work led to saddle work. Christensen’s cowboys also tore up a lot of saddles. Fortunately, they had good taste in equipment. Randy was able to work on high-quality saddles like Severes and Hamleys.
“You were learning from some of the masters themselves when you were taking their work apart.”
At the same time, Randy also did some sales repping for various other saddlery and western wear companies, which allowed him a look into how other shops were doing things.
In 1977, Randy married Sherrie. Now with a family, Randy thought he needed to supplement his income that he was making with Bob. In 1979, Randy went to work for the Veterans Administration. In 1981, Randy went out on his own, building saddles. Sherrie did a lot of the tooling on them. Randy didn’t quit his day job though and it led to a job with the Army Corp of Engineers as a hydrologic technician. Randy worked in a four-state area around Oklahoma, using cutting-edge equipment to determine flood stages and release volumes in lakes. His 38 years working for the government would prove to be a good choice for him.
“I had the best job you could have. You were always on the edge of science and technology. It always kept you sharp.”
Randy liked making saddles, but he believed that there was more money to be made in bootmaking. In 1984, he decided to attend Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, which offered a bootmaking program. Fortunately, one of the instructors was bootmaker Earl Bain, who was about to retire. The other instructor was Mike DeWitt, who had worked for Paul Bond Boot Company. These men influenced Randy immensely.
“They both became great friends for a lifetime.”
After 9/11, Randy’s day job changed along with the rest of the world. He did two tours of duty in Iraq for the Army Corp of Engineers. As a construction inspector, he oversaw maintenance and construction on multimillion-dollar projects. Although Randy was an unarmed civilian, he had to travel with regular military patrols that were headed in the same direction as his construction sites. Randy had to count on his escorts to take care of him.
With his retirement from the Army Corp of Engineers looming, Randy knew that bootmaking would be his next full-time career. He also knew that he wanted to learn more about making high-end boots. He went to work for Jim “Smitty” Smith at Blucher Boots in Beggs, Oklahoma, on the weekends for a few years. When Randy retired from the Army Corp of Engineers, he went into a full-time position at Blucher for another two-and-a-half years. Since Randy already had his own shop at his home, he easily transitioned into his own full-time business when his stint at Blucher ended. Smitty has remained a mentor to Randy.
“Smitty and I are still very good friends. I stop and visit, or call him, at least once or twice a week.”
Randy feels that boots are very complex and that you really have to concentrate on them. Because of this, he prioritizes his bootmaking first.
“At this point in my life, boots are the only thing. I think about them when I go to bed, and I get up in the morning and can’t wait to get out to the shop.”
Randy has always liked a retro look to cowboy boots. It was a style that most of the working cowboys in eastern Oregon wore and it made an impression on Randy in his early years. It was a boot that he saw a lot of in Bob’s shop. When he worked for Blucher’s, he found that they had been building that style boot for a long time. The world of the bootmaker was a small one, and as partnerships and companies came and went, boot styles were shared and combined. But Randy has also been inspired by the boots built by his many friends.
“It’s a recipe that just keeps growing.”
Randy can build any type of toe and heel combination in a custom order. The under-slung heel is a staple. The quarter-box toe is a “punchy” traditional toe that he frequently uses. This toe is so named because a quarter will cover half of its surface.
Another type of toe is the French square toe that has a subtle taper to it. These both contrast with the fashion-driven, broad square toe that has emerged in the last 20 years.
Randy likes a 14-inch top. The boot offers some height, but it’s still not as hot as a 16-inch top. An 11-inch top is even cooler to wear in the summer. This height was used in many of the old Pee Wee boots made by makers like the famed Jay Griffith.
Randy uses a colorful suspender strapping as an option for boot pulls. The interior mounted pulls are a style from the early 1900s. He color-coordinates the cotton tweed strapping with the boot’s color.
One of Randy’s secrets to a good cowboy boot is to use good leather in the insole, and then wet it and shape it to the customers last. That way the boot fits correctly from the start and doesn’t need to break into the foot. The rest of the leather needs to be top quality. Stacked and nailed heels both work well. Randy prefers a flat shank, just because they don’t bend.
Another secret is to not hurry. Randy has an advantage in this as he is retired and doesn’t need to get a pair of boots done to pay the light bill.
“It becomes more of an art thing, rather than a production thing.”
Even though he has taken successful orders from remote customers, Randy likes to measure a foot in person. He knows exactly where to take the measurements. This also allows him to be aware of any small idiosyncrasies in the foot. This contributes to a better fit. Feet change as a person ages, so it’s always good to have a new last made if it’s been a while since a customer has ordered boots.
“The idea is not to get a pair of boots on and wear them; the idea is to perfectly match your foot to a boot.”
Randy likes to build boots for working cowboys because the boots are used all the time, and not put up in a closet. With an $800 base price, he tries to keep them affordable for the cowboys. For this kind of “using” boot, Randy favors a waxed French calf. He thinks that it makes the boot a little more durable.
“You can work in them all day long, rinse them off with a hose and go to town in them in the evening.”
Of course, Randy will work in other more exotic leathers as well.
Randy thinks that a few things make it easier for a bootmaker to start out today. There is more shared information between makers, equipment is easier to come by and media allows knowledge to flow. Older makers want to pass this know- how on, rather than taking it to their graves as many of their predecessors did.
Randy has a couple of bootmakers that he mentors. The trio just bought 600 old lasts, in every size imaginable, and they’re using them in a co-op fashion. This gives each bootmaker access to a whole library of feet.
Randy’s tools and equipment memorialize the leather industry. He likes knowing that the vintage tool he uses today was held by a skilled craftsman of the past. Much of his shop’s contents, including his favorite top stitcher, came from old friends and mentors in the leather industry.
“All of these tools remind me so much of my friends.”
Around 1990, Randy and Sherrie had become reining enthusiasts and competed in reining. They went to reining trainers for help and converted their experience in training horses over to the reining discipline. In 2000, they got into the breeding business and began to stand a reining bred stud, “Billy the Kid.” They built their operation up to 20 broodmares. The stress of competing, breeding, working their day jobs and bootmaking finally began to take its toll. Today the couple has cut back to fewer horses, which allows them to enjoy the horses more. Of course, it also allows Randy more time to spend in his shop.
Today, at the age of 65, Randy reflects, “I always wanted to bust out and do this for a living in days gone by, but I’m so happy that it came in the season that it did. I think the Good Lord saves the best for last. I’m living the good life.”
If you’d like to find out more about Randy Moe’s Custom Boots, you can call him at (918) 240-3445 or go to his Facebook page.
PO Box 65
Beggs, OK 74421