A nearly 120-year legacy of custom boot-making put the border town of Mercedes, Texas, on the map. But as the recent Texas oil boom slowed to a trickle, independent boot-makers – up to a dozen doing business at a time in the town – disappeared, leaving stalwart shops like Rios of Mercedes still turning out colorful, handcrafted cowboy boots to order for customers who can afford them.

“When you have the young men out there [in the oil fields] making lots of money in a short period of time, they tend to go in and buy their steel-toed boots – and they’ve got extra money, so they’ll pick up a pair of ostrich boots or cayman boots and a nice pair for church,” Rios of Mercedes General Manager Ryan Vaughan says. “And when that’s not happening, it affects deeply our industry.”

Jim Lee, professor of economics at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi acknowledges that Mercedes’ economy is being “greatly affected” by the boom-and-bust nature of the oil business but sees additional factors at play.

“Custom handmade Western cowboy boots have been subject to a down-trend because we’ve been outsourcing, and a lot of those sales have been going overseas,” Lee says.

In the meantime, Rios of Mercedes has remained successful by tapping into niche markets. One solid buyer, Vaughan says, is the competitive horse show world, both here in the U.S. and abroad, where boots are used as tools for the rider. Yet another market has spawned from a trend among urban professionals – lawyers and bankers – who yearn for what Vaughan calls “a bit of the ranch life.”

Strong demand for custom boots also hums along in Japan, due to that country’s love of John Wayne, Vaughan says.

Louise Rodriquez

A bootmaker at Rios of Mercedes hand-shapes a box toe on a custom boot.

What makes a Texas cowboy boot unique? To Vaughan, a Texas boot must be hand-lasted: leathers like ostrich, buffalo, snake and stingray are stretched by strong hands over a form called a last. This gives the leather just the right amount of comfort for the wearer, Vaughan says. A leather stacked heel and the distinctive shape of the vamp (the foot section of the boot) complete the look.

The custom boot-making business is challenging, Vaughan says. “It’s not something you can get rich off of overnight.” But a passion for creating boots is what drives boot-makers, like those at Rios of Mercedes, to dedicate decades of their lives to the craft.
By Louise Rodriguez.

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