By Edward Loya
In the late 1970s, there was a growing consensus in Texas that Ray Jones just might be the best bootmaker in the state, if not the country. So, when Ray abruptly announced his retirement in 1977 at age 65, he shocked his clients and the entire bootmaking community. Every major newspaper in Texas covered the story because it was unthinkable that an artisan of such extraordinary talent and renown would shut down his shop after reaching the height of his craft. But what folks did not understand about Ray is that he had always lived his life on his own terms. The timing of his retirement was no different.
As a teenager, Ray ran away from home so that he could learn to make saddles in New Mexico and experience life in the Old West. After finishing high school in the middle of the Great Depression, he traveled south through Mexico and on to South America earning a living making Western-style saddles. When he was ready, he returned to Dallas and married his childhood sweetheart, Katherine Elizabeth Roper (who went by Elizabeth); together they built one of the most respected custom boot shops in the history of western bootmaking. Between the ages of 14 and 65, Ray’s service in World War II was the only event in his life that caused him to spend any significant amount of time away from leather work.
On January 3, 1918, Ray Alvin Jones was born in Francis, Oklahoma, to Richard Randolph and Effie Mae Fuller Jones. When Ray was six years old, his family relocated to Dallas, Texas, so that Ray’s father, a carpenter, could work on the Dallas railroad. Ray grew up as a poor kid from Dallas, but what he lacked in material wealth he more than made up for with his imagination, self-reliance, determination and dexterity with his hands. His life experiences show that he was quintessentially American—and Western.
As a high school student at Dal-Tech High School, Ray developed a friendship with an old German leatherworker at Dallas’s famous Schoellkopf Company, a pioneer boot and saddle shop that had the distinction of being the first saddlery in Texas. The old man (whose name Ray did not recall when asked later in life) made English bridles and riding crops for polo players. The man taught Ray how to braid with leather and how to stamp belts.
Around the age of 14, Ray met Elizabeth, whom he would eventually marry. The two developed an incredible bond that would withstand Ray’s many adventures throughout the world.
It seems that the mechanized big city life in Dallas did not suit Ray. Inspired by the leather work he was doing, Ray yearned to travel out West where he could ride horses and continue to work with leather so that he could learn a trade that would allow him to forge a life on his own terms.
Ray’s opportunity came the summer when he was 14. Elizabeth’s father was in the business of arranging for cars to be transported from Dallas to their destinations in various towns throughout the West. When Elizabeth told Ray that her father had arranged for a car to be driven to New Mexico, Ray made her promise to procure him a seat in the next car traveling there. Elizabeth—always Ray’s loving partner—did so.
Not knowing that Ray did not share his plans with his parents, Elizabeth told Ray’s mother that she had arranged for Ray to travel to New Mexico. In response, Ray’s mother locked him in his room. Ray then escaped through his bedroom window and took the trip to New Mexico anyway.
That summer, Ray apprenticed to the famous New Mexico saddlemaker J.B. Williams at J.B. Williams Saddlery in Deming, New Mexico. Williams, who made saddles that sold for $100 in the late 1930s, billed himself as “the only man to ride up the old cattle trail and later make saddles for the cattlemen.” Williams proclaimed that he “rode up the old cattle trail from London, Texas, to the end of the trail at Abilene, Kansas, for Ike T. Pryer in 1887.” (Incidentally, the legendary leather craftsman Al Stohlman said that Williams made the first saddle Stohlman ever owned.)
In addition to being a saddlemaker, Williams owned a 400-acre ranch, 100 head of calves and a tannery business. Williams paid Ray $4 per week plus room and board. As Williams’s apprentice, Ray braided riding crops and made fancy bridles for horse polo players. Ray said, “We made two saddles a week, he and I together. I slept in the back of the shop and batched.”
Williams made a major impression on Ray, who later in life would acquire his own property where he kept horses, cows and other animals, and pursued the life of a bootmaker/rancher.
As part of his apprenticeship, Ray learned to make and repair boots. Ray said, “The saddlemaker I worked for also made boots, and I worked on them, stitching tops and first one thing and another. We only made two per a week, but there was a lot of repair work.”
After Ray returned to Dallas, he continued to make bridles for polo players. During the summers that followed, Ray returned to New Mexico (completing a two-year-long apprenticeship with J.B. Williams).
While the details of Ray’s time out West are unclear, Ray told his family that he worked as a cowboy in New Mexico. Ray told stories about spending many New Mexico winter nights sleeping underneath a wagon while using a tarp to shield him from the cold wind.
Ray briefly set up a boot shop in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Of this first solo bootmaking venture, Ray said, “Some days in Las Vegas, I wouldn’t take in enough by four o’clock to buy a 10-cent bowl of chili.”
Ray also worked at a logging camp at Lake Mary near Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was responsible for driving a team of horses that hauled logs down steep mountain roads. Ray regaled his family with stories about wagon teams that did not make it down the mountain because the logs would get so heavy that the wagons would end up going over the side of the road.
Ray graduated from high school in the middle of the Great Depression. Rather than burden his family or scraping by doing menial work, Ray pursued his passion for leathercraft. He ventured down to Mexico and on to South America including Uruguay and Argentina. In Montevideo, Uruguay, he worked for a large land and cattle company whose riders preferred Western-style saddlery.
While Ray explored the Americas, Elizabeth graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, completed a local business school program and accepted a position with the Office of the Lampasas County Agent in Lampasas, Texas, where she had relatives.
Ray and Elizabeth both returned to Dallas in 1937. On March 27, 1937, they were married in Dallas.
By 1937, Ray resolved to make saddles and boots for a living. Out of patriotism— and perhaps as a way to supplement his family’s income—Ray also joined the Army National Guard in Dallas.
In anticipation of the 1937 “re-run” of the Texas Centennial celebration, the couple opened a boot repair and custom boot shop at Fair Park in Dallas. However, the “re-run” Texas Centennial celebration was not as successful as the actual Texas Centennial celebration the previous year and the Jones’s Fair Park bootmaking venture was unsuccessful. (Interestingly, Charlie Dunn is said to have earned a top bootmaking prize at Dallas’s Texas Centennial celebration; it is unknown if Ray was there at the time to witness Charlie’s achievement.)
Undeterred by this experience, Ray and Elizabeth set up their first official boot shop, Jones Boot & Saddle Shop, in Lancaster, Texas—about 17 miles outside Dallas. After failing to generate enough business there, the couple decided to try their luck down in Lampasas. From that point, Ray joked that Dallas was “where we liked to starve to death.”
In November 1938, the couple opened a shop near the Lampasas Courthouse Square. Ray told a reporter that “we were looking for ranch country where people really wore boots, really needed them.” Initially, Ray and his wife made one pair of boots a day, working for 10 to 12 hours per day. By the time the couple started getting the hang of the business, World War II interrupted their plans.
On October 15, 1942, Ray’s National Guard Unit was ordered to active military service at Camp Howze, Texas (about 60 miles north of Dallas), as part of the Army’s 84th Division, known as the “Railsplitters” Division. While Ray prepared to ship overseas, Elizabeth took a position stitching tops for a boot shop in Dallas (the name of which is unknown to the family).
During World War II, Ray served as a staff sergeant in the 84th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, Mechanized. According to the War Department’s Cavalry Field Manual (Feb. 1944), the cavalry reconnaissance troops were “organized, equipped, and trained to perform reconnaissance missions,” the goals of which were to “identify hostile units and to determine their strength, composition, disposition, and movement [and to report] [t]errain features and conditions which may affect operations[.]”
The 84th Division landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, in November 1944 (five months after D-Day) and engaged in combat in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
The 84th Division liberated Hannover-Ahlem (April 10, 1945) and Salzwedel (April 14, 1945)—two satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany—earning recognition as a “Liberating Unit” by both the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ray told his family that Henry Kissinger, who later became U.S. secretary of state, bunked across the street from him. Kissinger, who had grown up in Germany, distinguished himself as a private in the 84th Division by volunteering for dangerous intelligence missions, using his language skills (including his fluency in German) and serving as an effective military administrator of the liberated town of Krefeld, Germany.
While in the service, Ray befriended Arkansan Andy Anderson who later at his famous Los Angeles, California Gunfighter Shop made fast draw holsters for 1950s and 1960s Hollywood Westerns starring, among others, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Doug McClure, Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson—and Raquel Welch.
At the end of World War II, Ray was one of two servicemen in 84th Division selected through a competitive process to study a trade in Europe. He elected to study chemistry, tannery and shoemaking at Leicester College of Technology and Commerce, a public university established in 1870 that offered courses in, among other things, shoemaking, bootmaking and tannery. The college had served as the location of a top-secret radar training station.
Of his time in England, Ray said, “British shoes and boots were supposed to be the best, so I wanted to study their methods, mainly the chemistry and their tanning procedure.” Ray toured British shoe manufacturing plants, observed the British method of shoe production and worked in a shoe factory in Birmingham, England.
In England, in keeping with a romantic British cobbler tradition, Ray wrote an ode to the craft to which he would devote the remainder of his life:
A Gentle Art It Is
A Gentle Craft Like Nobody’s Bizz
We Make You A Shoe That Looks New
But Falls Apart with the Coming of the Dew
A Gentle Craft That Has the Art
To Steal into a Ladies [sic] Hart [sic]
Here You May See What Youth and Love Can Do
The Crown Doth Stoop to the Maker of a Shoe
Ray was honorably discharged on February 6, 1946. He earned three bronze stars for his service during World War II.
In March 1946, Ray and Elizabeth returned to Lampasas to resume their bootmaking business. Between 1943 and 1950, Ray and Elizabeth had two daughters, Beth and Martha, and one son, Jimmy. Elizabeth later told the family that Ray had become quieter after the war. Judging from the productive years that followed, he also became more determined to be a successful bootmaker.
In 1946, Ray established his first post-war shop in Lampasas on East 3rd Street and the Jones family lived in a rented room at the Lampasas House. Several months later, the couple moved the shop to a location on the Lampasas Courthouse Square, also on East 3rd Street, where Ray kept the shop until about March 1947. In the spring of that same year, they moved the shop to another East 3rd street location (307 E. Third St.), a two-story rental unit where they operated the boot shop on the first floor and kept their private living quarters on the second floor.
By mid-1946, Ray’s business was successful enough for him to begin planning and acquiring his own property to build a final home for his business and his family. Between June 1946 and October 1947, Ray acquired Lampasas’s historic Donovan Grist Mill property on Sulphur Creek (a total of 5.3 acres).
Over the next several years, Ray worked in his shop at 307 E. Third St. during the week and spent evenings and weekends developing the mill property using money he earned from selling boots; Ray did not believe in borrowing money from the bank.
Ray oversaw, and participated in, the construction of the two-story concrete block building, with a full basement, using skills he had learned from his carpenter father. In January 1953, Ray moved his boot shop to its permanent location at the Donovan Grist Mill property. In June 1953, the family moved into their new home above the shop.
Ray’s two-story concrete “shop” building—which resembles a boot factory more than a family home—is the best evidence that for Ray Jones, bootmaking and family life were one and the same.
In the 1940s, Ray’s saddles were in higher demand than his boots. A gentleman named George Moore assisted Ray with tooling leather, making saddles and handling saddle repair.
But by the mid-1950s—due to a historic drought in Texas, the increasing substitution of pickup trucks for working cowboys and the 1957 Lampasas Mother’s Day flood, which destroyed Ray’s saddlemaking supplies (and claimed five lives and caused an estimated $5.5 million in property damage)—Ray changed his focus exclusively to making cowboy boots.
In the 1960s, customers started purchasing multiple pairs of boots for use outside the ranch. Ray believed that “the older styles” from the 1940s and 1950s—with small square toes, slanted heels and no stitching on the toe—“look[ed] more like a boot.” But as times changed, Ray adjusted his boots to satisfy his customers’ preferences.
Ray started putting a “walking heel” on his boots that was shaved close to the counter, i.e., without an underslung heel or rand for spurs. He also started making his boots with a rounded toe rather than the more traditional small square toe.
While early examples of Ray’s work from the 1940s and early 1950s included highly imaginative and elegantly stitched tops and inlay designs, Ray’s booming business eventually led him to settle on producing one unique boot style.
It is a testament to Ray’s genius that the boot that we know as the “Ray Jones” boot is, for many, the epitome of what a cowboy boot should be—tough looking, actually sturdy, made with the finest materials and beautiful in its simple design. As Sarah Delano put it in Texas Boots, “[w]hat [Ray] Jones [was] after is a pair of boots in which every detail is flawless but whose overall effect is discreet, subdued.”
Starting in the 1950s, the vast majority of the boots that left Ray’s shop had the following characteristics: Ray’s highly individualized “toe flower” stitch pattern; matching white piping, side seams and pull straps that give Ray’s boots an impeccable (and almost military) appearance; Ray’s classic collar stitching pattern that matches the stitching on the wrinkles on the vamps; tapered ears that continue the white striping design; Ray’s classic 1940s top stitching pattern (while Ray developed several top stitching patterns, by the early 1950s, he primarily used one stitching pattern on his tops); three rows of pegs on the shanks; and an arrowhead-shaped tongue design that is reminiscent of Ray’s time in New Mexico where Native American symbolism is ubiquitous.
In the early years, Elizabeth stitched boot tops. As the business picked up, they hired employees to assist Ray in making boots, including Mexican-American artisans from the Lampasas area. Using her business acumen, Elizabeth transitioned to serving as the boot shop’s “chief financial officer,” handling all financial matters and helping around the shop as needed.
Following the example of British shoemaking shops that he had observed in England, Ray implemented an assembly line method for making boots. Ray trained his workers to work in six work stations. After Ray fitted the customer and cut the leather, one worker assembled the tops, another worker put the tops on the lasts, another worker sewed the welt, another worker put the soles on and pegged them, another put the heels on and yet another cleaned the boots and inked them.
At the peak of Ray’s production in the 1970s, his workers included Angie Gonzalez, who stitched all of Ray’s boot tops from her home; Joaquin Medina, who did the lasting; Pablo Jass, who put on soles and shanks and shaped the heels; Denzel Smith, who put the heels on the boots and Dwight Smith, who inked and cleaned them.
While several of Ray’s workers became notable bootmakers in their own right— including Pablo Jass, Bonner Williams, Lee Gonzales, Harry Bailey, Jack Reed, Lillard “Shorty” Lawton, Joaquin Medina and Mike Jass (Pablo’s brother)—only Pablo later emerged as the true heir to Ray’s bootmaking legacy.
In the 1970s, many customers waited four years for Ray’s handmade boots. Family papers show that starting in 1972, Ray’s shop consistently produced between 1,000 and 1,100 pairs of boots each year, working 10 hours a day, five days a week, and a half day on Saturday. The shop could finish a pair of plain handmade boots in 16.5 hours.
Ray was a perfectionist. He told a reporter that the “the attitude the person has who puts the boot together . . . can have a lot to do with what comes out.”
Ray’s eldest daughter, Beth Ann Barnett, recalled helping her parents in the shop. At age nine, Beth learned to make the ears for the bootstraps. Every Saturday at 11 am, Beth cleaned the rubber cement from the machines, cleaned the bathroom and swept the floors.
Speaking about her father’s dedication to his craft, Beth said, “He was pretty artistic. He would sit down and draw his patterns on a piece of brown paper, then use a needle without thread on a sewing machine to stitch the pattern on the paper and he put talcum powder in a Bull Durham tobacco sack and he rubbed the talcum powder on the pattern cutout and laid out the pattern on the leather. He stitched the toe flower for every pair of boots that the shop made.”
Ray’s daughter, Martha Wallis, recalled that her parents worked 12-hour days and that by the time the family met for supper, her parents were often so tired that they often did not speak much during the meal.
Martha recalled a time when Ray was working on a leather inlay design in the shape of an eagle. When he finally finished the boots, he sat down for supper and declared, “They are finally done!” According to Martha, “Daddy hated doing initials because it was difficult to make them perfect and he was a perfectionist.”
Ray did not particularly enjoy making fancy boots that required a lot of what he called “foo-fooraw” (i.e., fancy stitching, insets, and initials). As Ray struggled to keep up with orders, he preferred to make his customers the traditional “Ray Jones boot” in French calf or exotic leathers.
Ray recalled a time when he spent hours making a pair of boots for a University of Texas-trained lawyer that had fancy white and orange stitching with orange Texas longhorn inlays that matched the customer’s orange Cadillac. Ray, who was already having trouble keeping up with his regular boot orders, summed up the experience by stating, “We don’t go hunting for those kinds anymore.”
When asked about the most extravagant pair of boots he ever made, Ray said, “Ole’ Stephen Kleberg, who runs the King Ranch, went out and killed his own African elephant and brought the skin from its ears to make he and his wife a pair of boots…awfully nice boots.”
Ray told a reporter that he had gotten the most satisfaction in his career making boots for crippled customers who suffered from polio in the 1940s and 1950s. He stated, “Some of those girls would actually cry because they never had anything that fit so good or looked so good. That’s the main joy of it. The rest is just plain hard work.”
In addition to bootmaking, the Jones family raised horses, goats, cows and sheep on properties in Lampasas and Rumley, Texas. Similar to his mentor J.B. Williams but on a smaller scale, Ray enjoyed the life of a rancher/bootmaker. He stated, “We farmed hay all summer long when the kids were home; now we try to raise feed for the winter. It’s a hobby and sometimes it’s carried us over a lot of hard humps in the bootmaking. It helps me feel fresh to start over every morning. Normal everyday problems don’t kill you then.”
Ray was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars but otherwise did not engage in other social activities. When he was not making boots or tending to his animals, he spent his free time reading at home or fishing at Lake Buchanan or Inks Lake in Burnet County, Texas.
Ray and Elizabeth Jones were not active in politics, nor did they attend church. But they arranged for their children to attend Lampasas’s Central Christian Church on a regular basis.
By 1971, Ray had a backlog of 780 boot orders and his shop was consistently 10 months behind in filling orders. By that time, Ray was so successful that he evidently told a reporter that he made the best boots around “not . . . boastfully, but as a matter of fact.”
Ray’s discipline in the shop was rooted in his commitment to make every pair better than the last pair so that he could deliver to his customers the highest quality boots for the money that they paid. Ray told a reporter, “[A]ll I have ever tried to do is provide my customers with an honest deal.” He continued, “We never tried to charge all we could get” because “[i]f we did, the people who really needed them couldn’t afford them.”
Ray was not one to mince words about what he thought and overpriced boots was a topic that bothered him. He could not understand why anyone would pay another bootmaker more money for a pair of boots than what he charged. Late in his career, Ray told another reporter, “There are bootmakers around who are high priced and that is all they are. A $400 pair of my boots are made with extremely exotic leathers and stitching.”
While Ray strove to give his customers an honest deal, he expected honesty in return. An example of this relates to a time in the late 1950s when a customer took a pair of custom ordered boots from Ray’s shop on the promise that he would pay Ray as soon as he got the money. Every now and then, Ray would run into the gentleman in town and the man gave Ray the same story about not having the money to pay for the boots. After the man gave Ray the “run around” several more times, Ray finally confronted him in town and told him to pay up or hand over the boots. When the man refused to give the boots back, Ray cold-cocked him, took the boots off him while he was laying on the ground and told him he could get them back after he paid for them.
Ray said his customers included working cowboys, Texas ranchers, oilmen, country-and-western singers, actors, rodeo performers, lawyers, doctors, bankers, businessmen, a “few outlaws” and “others who had never seen a ranch.”
Ray had many return customers and multi-generational customers (i.e., grandfathers, sons and grandchildren). His customers came from throughout the United States and all over the world including the Philippines, Iceland and Italy.
Reporters constantly asked him about his famous clients. But as a widely respected bootmaker who had more work than he could handle, Ray did not feel the need to play up his high-profile clientele or engage in marketing gimmicks.
Ray, who counted President Lyndon B. Johnson as a customer, told a reporter, “Actors and politicians? Yeah, there’s plenty of ‘em who buy my boots.” But he added, “I try to make all my customers the best pair of boots I can, whether the customer is a rich oil man or a kid who has bailed hay under the hot Texas sun all summer to get the money.”
In a 1974 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Ray shrugged off questions regarding famous people who ordered boots from him over the years, saying, “We have made more boots for the common old boy,” and adding, “No matter who they were, they all had to pay the same money and wait their turn.”
In June 1977, the Dallas Times Herald ran a Sunday feature story on Ray with the headline “This Man May Make the Best Boots in Texas.” Ray undoubtedly got some satisfaction out of seeing his hometown—the place that had rejected him as a young bootmaker at Fair Park—acknowledge his supreme standing among Texas custom bootmakers.
Ray was no longer the up-and-coming bootmaker who was “starving to death” as he strove to make his mark in the bootmaking world. He had made it to the top.
Two months later, in August 1977, Ray surprised everyone when he stopped taking boot orders and abruptly announced his plans to retire in five years.
Citing personal and family reasons, Ray decided to quit making boots when he was at the height of his craft. When asked about his reasons for retiring, Ray told the Austin American-Stateman, “It’s time to quit.”
He explained that after nearly 50 years of bootmaking, he wanted to spend more time with his family, stating, “We missed what everybody else took for granted— weekends, vacations. We could have continued to do the same thing . . . We’ve hurried all our lives . . . until we hurried ourselves to death.”
At the time that he announced his retirement, Ray had 5,000 outstanding customer orders. Ray’s boots were so high in demand that customers who had their name on the list were able to sell their spot for more money than it cost to purchase a pair of boots.
Of the “scalping” that occurred on the market, Ray simply said, “If a man wants to sell his place on the list, that’s his business.” Ray was not going to make any more boots than the ones he had committed to make, so he did not begrudge customers who were willing to bid for a place in line.
At the time of his retirement, the price for a basic pair of calf skin boots with three rows of stitching and 12-inch-high tops had climbed to $250. Ostrich boots, the most expensive, sold for $600 to $700. Ornate boots with elaborate designs (e.g., butterfly inlays) or gold inlay had reached unprecedented prices.
When asked about the future of the bootmaking industry, Ray was not optimistic. He stated that boot factories “just don’t make a good boot” and that “[i]t is a shame fine honest work is disappearing in this country. Everybody these days is just in it for a buck.”
News media throughout Texas covered Ray’s retirement. In 1980, Texas Monthly Magazine selected Ray Jones as the best bootmaker in Texas. In 1981, the Houston Chronicle ran a story with the headline “The World’s Best Bootmaker?” in which the reporter stated that Ray was “the best bootmaker in Texas, probably in the United States.”
Another reporter covering Ray’s retirement called him “one of the finest leather craftsmen in the state, if not the country” and wrote that he was “considered by many as the best bootmaker around.”
On February 15, 1983, paying the ultimate compliment to a custom bootmaker, both houses of the Texas Legislature—the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives—passed resolutions recognizing Ray for establishing “one of the best-known and most successful shops of its kind in the state” and “preserving an important part of Texas’s heritage” (S.R. No. 149 and H.R. No. 69).
On March 18, 1983, the man lauded as the bootmaker who was “respected by those bootmakers respected by everybody else,” closed his shop at age 65. He continued to receive recognition even after his retirement, including an exhibit in July 1983, at Lampasas’s Keystone Square Museum. At the time of his retirement, Ray estimated that he had made more than 45,000 pairs of boots since learning the craft as a teenager.
Ray Jones, who passed away on March 10, 1996, at age 78, lived long enough to see his apprentice Pablo Jass become a master bootmaker in his own right. The story of Pablo Jass, another leather legend, will be told in my next article.