From the highway, Ed Martin’s house is just a bump in a cornfield east of the Fort Lyon prison.
It’s not until an apron-clad Martin opens the door of his workshop — a 1920s-era ranch house his aunt passed on — that piles of leather and old tools hint at his profession.
It’s the shed, though, that gives it away.
The old, rundown boxcar behind Martin’s shop is filled with rows and rows — about $20,000 worth — of foot-shape molds called lasts, the foundations of handmade boots.
“Every pair is different — you put yourself into every pair,” Martin said of his boots. “I’ve made a living, but nothing spectacular. But I love what I do.”
The last is the most important part of the boot, Martin says. He uses one of his 400 pairs of lasts to shape the body of every boot he makes.
Each pair of finished cowboy boots is unique.
Some, like the two pairs sitting by his front door, are elegantly simple, tan ostrich or chocolate alligator with little ornamentation.
Some are elaborate, richly ornamented, with flower and leaf cutouts in yellows and blues and rows of decorative topstitching, which Martin freehands row by row on an old sewing machine.
Martin is one of seven bootmakers in Colorado and about 250 professional bootmakers in the U.S., said Dave Hutchings, a bootmaker in Thornton on the board of the national Boot & Saddle Makers Trade Show Roundup held in Wichita Falls, Texas, each year.
“You could put Ed’s boots next to any other bootmaker’s, and his boots would be different,” Hutchings said. “He’d be right there at the top with some of the top custom bootmakers around the world or around the country.”
Martin’s boots sell for upwards of $900. Some are far more expensive; he has one pair of alligator hides, good for one pair of boots, that cost him $1,000.
Martin is about 5 feet 8 inches tall, with black-rimmed glasses, short white hair and, yes, he’s wearing cowboy boots (half-quill ostrich) under faded, boot-cut jeans.
He looks fit and trim even at 82 — evidence that he was bred from cowboy stock. His grandfather was a sheriff, and his father was a bootmaker in Amarillo, Texas. Ed’s two brothers also joined the bootmaking business. One died, but his brother Vern Martin still lives in Amarillo and makes boots at age 87.
Martin’s leathery hands are gentle as he pulls pieces of animal hide from bins in a bedroom of the house.
It’s not the drab, uniform leather selection you might expect if you’ve visited any run-of-the-mill boot shack.
He has ostrich hide, lizard, alligator, calfskin, kangaroo, eel, horn-back lizard and stingray in a rainbow of colors — royal blue, magenta, cherry red and every shade of brown imaginable.
As he walks around the workshop, past old heavy-duty sewing machines, leather scraps and spools of thread, Martin describes the bootmaking process. The process is peppered with words like “last,” “tongue,” “border” and “quarter-box toe.”
He first measures the foot, then cuts leather parts using thick blue metal cookie-cutter shapes and a high-pressure machine that pinches the cutter onto the leather. Then he starts cutting and stitching decorations.
“Everything I do, I want it to be fresh and the best I can do,” he said. “I feel like I’m making a better boot today then I ever have before, even when I was 60 or 70.”
Martin dropped out of fifth grade in the 1940s to help support the family when his father left. He worked as a shoe repairman for $3 a week, and was later hired by Engerton’s Boot and Saddle Co., where he worked for $25 a week.
Back when Martin was learning the trade, Amarillo was a national center for bootmaking, and there were bootmakers on practically every corner.
“Somebody would say ‘Boy, I’d take a pair of them and have them tomorrow,’ and this bootmaker would look at the other and grin,” Martin said. “They’d work half the night, mainly all night, two of them, making this guy a pair of boots, just for the heck of it.”
In his prime, Martin made two pairs of boots a week. Business is slow these days, so he doesn’t work as speedily. But he still makes boots for customers all over the country; one man who works in the wine business in California flies out to see Martin and place orders.
He also won first place for “best dress boot” at 2001’s Boot & Saddle Maker Roundup in Brownwood, Texas.
Bootmakers are close with their trade secrets, and he learned the tricks of the trade by being quick on his feet and spying out the actions of his fellow bootmakers.
And some bootmaking tips stay in the family. An intricate, scrolling border pattern that Martin uses to finish the tops of some boots has been in his family and shared among the brothers for decades. He uses a lasting tool his father used that was made in Sweden in the 1800s.
He’s not quite so secretive. Martin has had a few students over the years, including Suzanne Watson.
Watson, a bootmaker in Paonia, sold her house about 10 years ago to move and learn bootmaking. She traveled to Missouri and Oklahoma for classes but was unhappy with all of her teachers until someone recommended Martin.
She said Martin is a perfectionist and can be cranky, but is a great teacher who is now a mentor and friend.
Martin moved from Amarillo to Boulder in 1964, then to Firestone. The widower settled in Fort Lyon almost a decade ago, when he sold his shop to retire from bootmaking.
“I thought it was time … I didn’t think I would make any more boots,” he said.
But that didn’t last long.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “I had to get back.”
So he is back, as E.P. Martin Boots, working away on this deserted stretch of U.S. Highway 50.
Even after decades of experience, Martin says a prayer to the “boot god” every time he cuts a piece of leather. Each new pair is a challenge, his student Watson agreed.
“You’re looking at that last, you’re looking at the measurements you took, and there’s so many feet that are so different,” Watson said.
“You have to stick by what you’ve learned and stick by your measurements and trust that, and trust the last that you have.”