By Edward Loya
Shortly before his retirement, Ray Jones told reporters that custom western bootmaking was a vanishing art. Ray said none of his apprentices were ready to take his place because they had not yet mastered every step of bootmaking. As Pablo Jass—Ray’s best known and most accomplished apprentice—approaches his 50th year in the business, we know that Ray’s prediction missed the mark. But what does this tell us about Pablo Jass?
Like his mentor, Pablo is somewhat of an individualist, a disciplined artist and a man of few words who allows his actions to speak for him. Thus, it is not surprising that Pablo never spoke to Ray about the possibility of taking over Ray’s turnkey business; nor did it ever occur to Pablo to make the ask. That would not have been Ray’s way – and it was not Pablo’s way. Before Ray retired, Pablo, in keeping with his mentor’s stoic approach to the craft did not speak with Ray about his interest in continuing as a bootmaker. When Ray told reporters that nobody was prepared to take his place, Ray truly did not know that Pablo was quietly making plans to pursue a solo career as a bootmaker.
Through his sheer determination—and using the skills that he developed as Ray’s dutiful apprentice over the course of 11 years—Pablo has established himself as one of the most respected and beloved bootmakers of his generation. In the process, he single-handedly extended Ray Jones’s legacy several more decades. With the exception of Charlie Dunn and Lee Miller’s “Rose” boots, no other known master-apprentice pair has created a popular and distinct style of cowboy boots that has been consistently made for nearly three quarters of a century.
Pablo was born on February 4, 1949, in Lampasas, Texas. His father Pedro, originally from Bertram, Texas, and his mother Guadalupe, originally from McGregor, Texas, met in Lampasas in the mid-1940s, settled there and raised a family of two girls and seven boys, including two of Pablo’s brothers, Mike and John, who are also bootmakers.
Pablo attended St. Mary’s Catholic School, Lampasas Elementary School, Lampasas Middle School and Lampasas High School. While completing his schooling, Pablo helped his parents pick cotton at his uncle’s ranch in Sealy, Texas. For spending money, Pablo built fences for local ranchers and hauled hay.
He played tight end for his high school football team, but missed his senior year so that he could work part-time helping his father at the local furniture store. Ray Jones’s daughter, Martha Wallis, who went to school with Pablo, described him as “quiet, down to business, courteous, and polite.”
After graduating from Lampasas High School in May 1968, Pablo continued to work part-time at the furniture store while he waited to be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
On February 6, 1969, Pablo was drafted into the Marine Corps. After completing basic training in San Diego and Camp Pendleton, California, he was deployed to Vietnam on August 7, 1969, as a Private First Class “MOS 0311” Infantry Rifleman as part of the Marine Corps 3rd Battalion, Combined Action Program. The 3rd Battalion conducted more combat operations (48 total) than any other Marine Corps battalion in the conflict.
In August 1969, Pablo arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam. He saw combat shortly thereafter and was wounded on September 10, 1969. The military awarded him the Purple Heart while he was hospitalized in September 1969. After medical transfers to military bases in the Philippines, Texas and North Carolina, he was honorably discharged on March 6, 1970.
During Pablo’s first year back home, a friend’s father helped him secure a job as a meter reader for the City of Lampasas. When asked how he liked working as a meter reader, Pablo, who never has a negative word to say, replied, “A lot of walking and good exercise.” Pablo’s career as a meter reader was short-lived as Pablo would spend the remainder of his adult life and career working as a bookmaker.
Up until that point, Pablo had known of Ray Jones since he was 10 years old, but the extent of their interaction consisted of an occasional wave or acknowledgement. Pablo stated, “There was a creek running behind his shop. We used to say, ‘Let’s go meet behind Ray Jones boot shop.’ We used to go there [to Sulphur Creek] to get a drink of water and go fishing.”
In the last week of September 1971, Pablo visited Ray’s boot shop to talk with his friend Tony Sanchez who worked for Ray. At one point during that visit, Pablo— who had no prior interest or experience in leatherwork and did not even own a pair of cowboy boots—asked Tony if Ray was hiring. In response, Tony said, “I don’t know, ask him.” When Pablo worked up the courage to ask Ray if he had an opening, Ray simply replied, “No, not at this time.”
Two weeks later, Ray had an opening. Ray stopped by the furniture store where Pablo’s father worked and asked him to send Pablo to see him about a job. When Pablo visited Ray, he was hired.
At the time that Pablo accepted the position, he did not have lofty aspirations to become a great bootmaker; nor did the thought occur to him that he might pursue a career in bootmaking. For Pablo, a job with Ray meant a better paying job: his pay increased from $1 per hour as a Lampasas meter reader to $1.25 per hour as a bootmaker. As Pablo put it, “I did not know I was going to get into this business. I didn’t know anything. I just got into it.”
Pablo’s first day working for Ray was October 2, 1971. At the time, Pablo was 22 years old and Ray was 53 years old. Pablo initially swept the floors and pitched in where needed, but after his friend Tony left to open a repair shop, Pablo assumed Tony’s responsibilities for assembling the soles and shanks and shaping the heels.
Ray and Elizabeth Jones’s other workers included Angie Gonzales, Joaquin Medina and the Smith brothers (Denzell and Dwight). Pablo’s brother Mike Jass also worked briefly for Ray in the early 1970s.
By the time Pablo joined Ray’s shop, Angie, the wife of Ray’s former employee Martin Gonzales, had been stitching boot tops for Ray since the late 1960s. According to Pablo, Angie was “very good” at her job. Elizabeth would drop off two pairs of boots at a time at Angie’s house for top stitching and pick up the work that Angie had finished. Ray told a reporter that Angie could stitch a pair of boot tops with six rows of stitching in 45 minutes.
Joaquin Medina did the lasting. Of Joaquin, who had initially learned the craft in Mexico, Ray said, “I never had anybody make a neater toe than he can.”
Contrary to Tyler Beard’s bootmaking lore, Pablo was not Ray’s shop foreman but rather another worker in Ray’s “assembly line” bootmaking operation. After Joaquin completed the lasting, Pablo assembled the soles and shanks. Denzell Smith put the heels on the boots, Pablo shaped the heels and Dwight Smith inked them and cleaned them.
Ray did not talk with his workers about his apprenticeship with J.B. Williams in New Mexico, his service in the U.S. Army during World War II or his reasons for styling or constructing his boots a certain way. Pablo, who was responsible for inserting Ray’s legendary three rows of pegs in the shanks, never had a conversation with Ray about why Ray used three rows of pegs as opposed to the standard two rows.
Pablo described Ray (who he still affectionately refers to as “Mr. Jones” and “Ol’ Ray”) as “a good teacher” and “pretty particular about his work.” When asked if Ray was a demanding boss, Pablo only said, “We all have bad days. Good days and bad days.”
When asked what he liked about Ray’s teaching style, Pablo said that Ray taught them “how to do it the right way.” “We made mistakes,” Pablo said, “but he would tell us how to do it right.” When asked if Ray was the type of boss who complimented his employees when they did great work, Pablo said, “No, if we made a mistake, he let us know and we would fix it.” As we might expect from a perfectionist like Ray Jones, Ray insisted that his employees strictly follow his instructions. For example, one day when Pablo was sanding the heels on a pair of boots, he experimented and shaped them wider so that the heels were wider all the way around. Pablo thought to himself, “That looks nice.” When Ray saw what Pablo was doing, Ray asked him, “What are you doing them like that for?” In response, Pablo replied, “It looks nice, Ray,” to which Ray responded, “No it doesn’t—you’re working for me, you do it the way I say to do ‘em.”
Pablo, who helped Ray make more than 11,000 pairs of boots, was surprised when Ray announced in August 1977 that he would retire in five years. Pablo said, “[Ray] looked too young to retire.”
After hearing the news, Pablo did not make immediate plans to find work after Ray closed his shop. “In the late 1970s, I daydreamed that I was going to have a shop,” Pablo said, “but I never thought it was going to happen.” In the meantime, Pablo had plenty of work to do as Ray had a backlog of 5,000 boot orders at the time of his announcement.
In the fall 1982, Pablo’s old fried Tony Sanchez resurfaced again with a new opportunity that intrigued him. Tony, who by this time had two repair shops, planned to get rid of his repair shop on the Lampasas Square if he could find someone who could afford to take it over. After Joaquin Medina could not come up with the money to purchase Tony’s shop, Pablo agreed to take over Tony’s lease and paid Tony $5,000 for his equipment. Thus, on October 2, 1982, five months before Ray closed his shop, Pablo quietly opened “Jass Boot Shop” on the Lampasas Square.
Between October 1982 and March 1983, Pablo continued to work for Ray until Ray’s retirement, and during evenings and weekends, Pablo got his shop ready with the intention of starting his own custom bootmaking business.
When Pablo put these plans in motion, his future as a bootmaker was far from certain. Before opening his own shop, Pablo had never completed an entire pair of boots on his own. However, Pablo understood that he had to continue working to support himself and his young family, which, by this time, included a wife and two young children. As Pablo put it, “everything kind of just suddenly happened.”
In a 1977 interview, during which he talked about the “vanishing” tradition of bootmaking, Ray told a reporter that none of his apprentices were ready to take up the mantle after his retirement because none of them had mastered the complete process for making boots. In fairness to Pablo – and to Ray – Pablo had only been working for Ray for about six years when Ray made these remarks and Ray had not yet observed Pablo’s progress over the next five years (during one of the busiest periods of Ray’s career). We simply do not know whether Ray believed at the time of his retirement that Pablo could make it on his own as a bootmaker. When asked if he thinks that Ray believed he would be making boots for four more decades, Pablo laughed and stated, “No, I don’t think so.” Interestingly, Ray did not speak with Pablo about his plans for work after Ray retired; nor did Pablo talk to Ray about his aspirations to continue making boots on his own.
With 5,000 boot orders to complete, a barrage of interviews from local and national press who wanted to speak with him about his retirement, a number of customers who wanted to check on their boot orders (not to mention other people who wanted to place new orders), and the time he needed to reflect on his decision to withdraw from a profession to which he had devoted nearly all his adult life, Ray had plenty to worry about beyond the future of his 34-year-old employee.
To her credit, after Ray closed his shop on March 18, 1983, Elizabeth Jones immediately started referring Ray’s former clients to Pablo for new boots and repair work. As a result, in a very short time, Pablo’s business started thriving.
From the start, Pablo made his boots the exact same way that Ray did in his shop, using the exact same techniques, materials and equipment that Ray used. Having observed Ray run his shop for 11 years, Pablo did not have many questions about the bootmaking process. Pablo said that the most difficult part of establishing his shop was learning how to make an entire pair of boots on his own.
Pablo modeled the first pair of boots that he made after the last pair that Ray had made for him. To help him along in that process, Pablo borrowed the lasts that Ray had made for him so that he could see how Ray put together the lasts.
On one occasion, Pablo went to Ray’s house to get his advice about a cutting job related to the heel measurement. Before Ray showed him the cutting technique, he told him, “I am going to show you just one time and from there you just have to learn by your mistakes.”
Pablo’s favorite part in the process of bootmaking is what he did for Ray—the bottom work or what Pablo describes as “finishing them out.” When asked why that is, Pablo said, “I guess because I just did it for so long working for Ray. Sometimes I still feel like I am working for him.”
Ray’s daughter Martha said that “Pablo’s boots are so much like Daddy’s that I have to have them side by side to tell which is which.”
In April 1984, after a year and a half of working on the Lampasas Square, Pablo moved to his current location at 803 East Avenue G—a former grocery store building that is located one block from Pablo’s childhood home. Pablo’s brothers Mike and John initially worked with him when he opened his shop. After a couple of years, the brothers left to establish their own boot shops. Pablo’s ex-wife, Juanita, stitched boot tops for Pablo during his first two decades in business, but since roughly 2005, Pablo has done all of the work on his boots, including top stitching.
To make his boots, Pablo uses five different sewing stations equipped with Singer Model 31-15 sewing machines—the same make and model sewing machine that Ray used—most of which Pablo acquired from Angie Gonzales, who stopped stitching boot tops after she sewed the final pair for Ray in March 1983.
To sew his toe flower, Pablo uses a Singer Model 31-15 sewing machine that he purchased from Ray for $120 in the early 1990s. Given that this particular sewing machine is the only machine that Ray kept from his shop, it is quite possible that this is the very same machine that Ray used to stitch the toe flower on his boots. Pablo has tuned the machine to stitch an extremely tight stitching pattern in the same manner that Ray used to stitch his toe flower.
While Pablo closely follows most of Ray’s techniques, he has made a few minor adjustments. For example, he altered the shape of the “tail” in the top stitching pattern near the side seams, which, to a discerning eye, makes it possible to distinguish Pablo’s boots from Ray’s boots. Pablo also uses a wider heel on his boots. Pablo views these differences as insignificant, stating, “I just changed it up a little bit.”
When asked to describe any further differences between his boots and Ray’s boots, Pablo said, “Probably the length or something. The shape of the foot. Every foot [made by the different bootmakers] is a different shape; they’re not all the same.” Indeed, the shape of the feet on Pablo’s boots best demonstrates his individual artistry and genius.
Pablo’s boots are the quintessential American cowboy boots. The feet have a shapeliness that is elegant and stylish, but also proud and rugged. The shape of the feet on Pablo’s boots emits a timeless quality suggesting that any Westerner going back 100 years would have been proud to wear them and that Pablo’s boots would have fit right in during an earlier period in the West.
Working within the framework that Ray taught him, Pablo prefers to make subtle changes in the styling of his boots using different colors in his stitching and leathers.
In describing his approach to the styling of his boots, Pablo talked about the late landscape painter Bob Ross, who used subtle changes in the colors and textures in his paintings to alter the appearance of a tree or its placement within the landscape. Pablo said, “When [Bob Ross] was painting, he’d paint trees and stuff. And he kind of changed them around a little bit. That’s where I said, ‘Well, I can change something.’ That’s what I more or less think about, the way he painted it and then how he changed some stuff.”
Resurrecting techniques that Ray had used on his boots in the 1940s and 1950s, Pablo occasionally puts wingtips and matching counter pieces on his boots and includes side stitching on the vamps for customers who prefer the old fashion styles.
When asked if he studies the work of other bootmakers, Pablo said, “I just look at them, but that’s all. They’re not going to change the way I make ‘em.”
Pablo identified boot collector John Tongate’s “Christmas Boots”—a name bestowed on the boots by Tyler Beard—as the most noteworthy boots he has made. Modeling the boots after an old pair of 1957 Ray Jones boots with stitching on the vamps, Pablo made the “Christmas Boots” in 1994. John picked the stitching colors and Pablo decided the rest.
Like his mentor, Pablo has received broad critical acclaim. He was featured in Tyler Beard’s Art of the Boot and recognized in 2002 by Texas Monthly as one of the “Top 25 Custom Bootmakers.” And in 2008, Lampasas residents commemorated the accomplishments of Ray, Pablo and other Lampasas bootmakers with a local “Boot” mural depicting their boots on the wall of a building in the center of town.
Pablo has shipped boots to customers all over the world including Australia, Japan, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, France, Singapore and Belgium.
The surviving members of the Jones family celebrate Pablo’s accomplishments as an extension of their father’s and mother’s legacy and in recognition of Pablo’s individual mastery of the techniques that their father taught him. Ray Jones, who passed away on March 10, 1996, at age 78, lived long enough to see Pablo become a master bootmaker in his own right. One of Pablo’s prized mementos is an original photograph of him and Ray in Pablo’s shop taken several years after Pablo moved to his current location.
This October will mark Pablo’s 50th anniversary as a bootmaker, an accomplishment relished by the lucky few bootmakers who are fortunate to learn the craft at an early age and blessed with the talent, good health and longevity needed to accomplish such a feat. To put Pablo’s accomplishment in perspective, Ray Jones completed about 46 years as a bootmaker—at least four years fewer than his celebrated apprentice.
In late 2019, as I was contemplating writing this article, I purchased a rare pair of Ray Jones boots on eBay. The night before I first visited Pablo at his shop, I spent the evening cleaning and polishing these boots. When I handed them to Pablo the next day, he thoughtfully examined them, nodded and said, “If they fit, wear ‘em.” Before this conversation, it never occurred to me that the greatest tribute I could pay to Ray Jones’s legacy would be to wear the boots.
Like Ray Jones’s boots, Pablo’s boots are made to be worn—not for collecting dust on a display shelf. As Pablo put it, “Work in ‘em from Monday to Friday, clean ‘em Friday afternoon, go dancing in ‘em on Saturday, clean ‘em Sunday morning, go to church, because next week goin’ be the same ol’ thing again.”
I now own a pair of bespoke Pablo Jass boots—which I have named the “Bronco” boots because Pablo and I designed their green tops and lime green stitching to match my Baytree Green 1975 Ford Bronco Ranger. For Pablo, I will commit to wearing them for dinners with my wife, weekend drives and Sunday mass. But when they are not being worn, they will be on display at our home—like the American work of art that they are.
Jass Boot Shop
803 E Ave G
Lampasas, TX 76550