Kyle Rosfeld builds boots the cowboy way
Kyle Rosfeld wears a cowboy hat and cowboy shoes. His friendly face sports a neatly-trimmed mustache that is reminiscent of men’s turn-of-the-century shaving ads – the 19th century, that is. He works on turn-of-the-century equipment – again, 19th – in his workshop where he produces hand-made custom leather products. He is, by all urban millennial standards, a “hipster,” but there is nothing twee about him or the Sandhills Boot Company, located on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills in a tiny village called Cody with a population of 154 and a six-hour drive to the nearest international airport (in Denver).
In the wake of the worst recession in recent memory, Americans have realized the value of handmade American craftsmanship. Collectively we have demanded our products be proudly “Made in America.” We have embraced all things local and artisan, happily paying a premium for the handcrafted wares of an artisan producer, supporting local makers as well as the local economy.
We see this ethos play out from food to furniture to fashion, from the farm-to-table “foodie” movement to the Etsyfication of America, where furniture is made from reclaimed wood salvaged from historic barns and deconstructed houses in blighted urban neighborhoods and organic vegan clothing is made from positive energy and hemp.
But the borderline precious artisan-as-ethos fervor still seems mostly confined to large urban populations, the kind of cities that mostly lost touch with the concept of “local” during the industrial boom of the last century and are now desperately trying to reclaim it. Somewhere amidst the excitement for American craftsmen, those who made the commitment to craft prior to 2007 and don’t live in sexy “up-and-coming” urban cities following the natural boom-bust cycle, have been somewhat forgotten.
To be fair, Rosfeld started the Sandhills Boot Company in 2000, but still.
Prior to that, Rosfeld was a cowboy. A genuine, bona fide cowboy. At that time, he and his family lived in Valentine, Nebraska, a city near the border of South Dakota in the Nebraska Sandhills, grass-stabilized dunes that cover a large swathe of the state and lend themselves best to cattle ranching.
The life of the ranch hand is not an easy one, and Rosfeld says he got to the point where he couldn’t even bend over to pick up his kids at night when he got home. He started looking into ways that he could fill his time while making some money, and initially considered building saddles. At that time he met someone at a branding – “branding” here means something quite different than the kind of “branding” discussed in board meetings and heralded by social media entrepreneurs – who had been building boots and wanted to get into ranching. The two essentially swapped places, and Rosfeld set out to make his first pair of boots.
It didn’t start off so well. “They didn’t look good; they didn’t fit!” he laughs. Undaunted, he bought 27 hours of instructional videos from a bootmaker in Idaho and spent a whole summer figuring out what went wrong with that first pair. His next pair was made for a brand inspector just outside of Valentine, and he loved them. So, Rosfeld thought to himself, “Alright, I guess I’m a bootmaker!”
In those first years he put boots on everyone he could talk into buying a pair. He caught a break when a pair of his boots was purchased to sell at auction at the Cattleman’s Ball of Nebraska, a huge fundraiser for cancer research. He then got an order from then-Senator Chuck Hagel and his two brothers, and the Sandhills Boot Company has been “off and running since then.”
As much as it seems like Rosfeld fell into this by accident, artistry is in his blood. His father was a singer-songwriter and a poet who taught music for a living, so the arts were always in his background. As an exchange student in Germany after high school, Rosfeld hungrily learned everything he could that wasn’t accessible to him in Valentine, which included learning how to sew from his host mother who was also a master seamstress. She taught him all of the meticulous details of sewing, and he found it easy to jump back into years later.
After that Rosfeld went to school to become a veterinarian, but was never admitted into vet school. He jokes, “I still play around with animals though. This is the closest I can say I’ve come to using my degree!”
Totally hand-made bootmaking on the labor-intensive level that Rosfeld does is a dying industry. Because of that there is a sense of solidarity among them. “There are a few that are still creating them with traditional methods,” he says. “That’s also been the neat thing about this: when I run into another bootmaker, I can pick their brains and they’re willing to share their information because there are so few of us out here; we’re not in competition at all.”
All of Rosfeld’s boots are custom-made to his customer’s specifications. He will use any kind of hide or skin a customer might request – buffalo, cow, python, goat – and build them in any heel height with any toe style. He also shapes the boot directly to your foot, which is something you can never get out of a store-bought boot – so, yes, he does prefer that you come into his shop in Cody to get measured.
“Then I can guarantee that they’re going to fit,” he says. “If they’re not quite right then I know it’s my fault, that I did something wrong. I agonize over every pair. I put too much time into them to start over from the beginning.”
How much time? Roughly 40 hours of hands-on work per pair, and that doesn’t include the time for the glue to set or the leather to dry. “It’s a very time-consuming process when you don’t have the industrial tools to do it,” he says.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Rosfeld works on a vintage Singer sewing machine from 1896 – the kind of “vintage” that could just as easily be in a museum. He does all of the top-stitching on this machine, row by individual row. His “new” machine that he uses for the soles is from 1965.
Even if he had more of the modern industrial equipment that other bootmakers use, he says he would still build boots the same way. “I’ve heard of several things that would make [the process] go faster” – such as buying pre-stacked heels and stapling them onto the boot, or stitching with a machine instead of by hand – “but I just don’t think it would be a better boot.”
“Everything I do is old-school; it’s a very traditional method,” he says. He likes to joke that his company started at “the turn of the century” – the 20th – and he’s using “turn of the century” equipment – the 19th. His work hearkens back to the time of the post-Civil War cowboy, calling on the image of the romanticized American icon. But, as Rosfeld can attest, there is nothing easy or romantic about the life of a cowboy, and in the late 1800s a good pair of boots might cost an entire month’s wages.
Rosfeld’s boots start at $1250 for a basic pair, a reflection of the materials and the intensive labor that goes into them. Because of that, his boots have primarily appealed to more of a fashion clientele so far, but he wishes he had more cowboy clientele.
“[These boots are] made for working. They’re made for using. They’re made for wearing daily. But cowboys think they can’t afford them. There is the old tradition that a pair of boots is a month’s cowboy wages; I hope they’re making more than I’m asking! But you kind of have to value having a pair of boots that’s fit to your foot. There are various things about them that make them superior.”
Prior to the recession, Rosfeld was doing this as a full-time job. When the recession hit, Rosfeld was hit with a double-whammy – art and fashion were the first things to get cut from people’s spending budgets, and his boots are nothing if not both. He now has a part-time mail route in Cody that his wife will help him with when the shop is busy. Boot repair work helped get him through the recession and he also diversified into other items, including belts and purses. On average he builds 12 to 14 pairs per year. In his best year he built 25.
If Rosfeld were in a major city that’s currently seeing a resurgence of artisan craftsmen and local, independent entrepreneurs – say, Portland or Brooklyn or Detroit – his shop would be sandwiched between a makerspace and a letterpress studio and he would have so much work he would need a team of apprentices working under him. But the Nebraska Sandhills is truly the American heartland – “flyover country,” as some might call it, but also the gateway to the Wild West where the Oregon Trail and Pony Express once passed through, and where Buffalo Bill Cody gained fame and formed the first-ever rodeo, still honored with the annual Nebraska Land Days celebration to this day.
Rosfeld’s boot sales have mainly happened through word of mouth, but it has served him well: he just finished building a pair for Neil Young, and is currently working on boots for Willie Nelson and both of his sons, which he will get to personally present to them at a concert in Lincoln, Nebraska later this summer.