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Interview w/ Lee Miller - Texas Traditions | Pt. 1: Early Life

The Hanger Project interviews Lee Miller from Texas Traditions. Lee Miller is a custom bootmaking icon who operates in Austin, TX. Lee has been passionate about boots throughout his life, and his passion led him to become one of the best in the business. In this interview, Lee talks about his earliest experiences with cowboy boots, and his journey to becoming the legendary bootmaker he is today.


Transcription

My name is Lee Miller and I'm a bootmaker here in Austin, Texas. My shop is called Texas Traditions. I grew up in Rutland, Vermont. And all of my older brothers were wearing cowboy boots and my mother was wearing boots also. And so you know I was kind of surrounded by that. I of course I was a child of the times. And there were Westerns on TV and all of our idols were cowboys and as I got older and my brothers were wearing cowboy boots, also all the the music the icons of music were wearing cowboy boots. So it was really a time period of just being exposed to that. And so it was a natural thing that as my brothers outgrew their cowboy boots I got to wear them too. But I was always fascinated with footwear. My grandfather had a store and it was a woman's department store. My godfather was down in the basement and that was where the shoe department was. And so as a young boy I would be sent down to just be with my godfather. And he was known as a masterful fitter and people, women would come from miles around just to have him fit their feet. So I would wander the aisles of all the shoes and the boxes. And I would look at them all and I wondered what was this mystery of footwear. And so that was just kind of there lurking in the background. And then as I grew older of course I started wearing the cowboy boots that my brothers were wearing and my mother wore boots also. So it all just kind of came together. And when I was 18 years old. My mother asked me "what do you want to do"? And I said I want to be a shoe maker / bootmaker that's what I want to do. So from the ages of 18 to 20, I got a job in a local shoe repair shop with this Italian man. And and I tried to make shoes on my own. Lenoci was the name of the gentleman and his father was a shoemaker from Italy. And I remember when I was 18 and I went to work for Lenoci's. I was happy to meet his father who spoke no English. And I remember I said "Marty tell your dad that I want to be a shoemaker". And so he told them in Italian. And he said something back in Italian kind of feverishly and I said "what what did he say, Marty, what did he say?" and Marty just said "my dad says you're crazy". And so I was a little bit discouraged. But at the end of the day his father tapped me on the shoulder and he handed me his lasting pliers from Italy that he had used to make shoes in Italy.

So I still have him and I still use him every day. Yeah.

So that's that was a gift from the old country when I was 20 years old I realized I wasn't getting where I wanted to be.

And this was in Vermont?

In Vermont, yeah. And so I went to my parents said you know go to your high school guidance counselor and we'll start looking for schools that you can go to. Well the best school in the country was in Lynn, Massachusetts and it had just burned down. And so that was out of the picture. So there were only a few others that we could find. And of course this is long before the internet. One of them was in Altoona, Pennsylvania. So I traveled to Altoona, Pennsylvania to go and look at it and it was just, it was horrible. There was no way I was going to go there, you know. And so I went back discouraged. And that really left only one left after going through all of the possibilities. The only one left was in Oklahoma. So I rode away for information, this is near Tulsa and everything looked good. You know, it was very promising. So I was accepted. But it was a two year program. And you were going to learn how to make cowboy boots which I was thrilled. Oh, I got to Oklahoma at the age of 20 and it was I think it was March of 1975 and I was just blown away. It was unbelievable. I mean it it was it was so cool. This was a technical school. So the technical it was the Oklahoma State University Technical Division.

So they taught diesel mechanics. They taught architecture. They taught jewelry making. They taught a whole myriad of skills. And one of them was cowboy boots. And in the end the class room was filled with people just like me who had come from all over to learn how to make cowboy boots. It was wonderful not only to be in Oklahoma as somebody from Vermont, but also to be surrounded by all people who were there for the same thing that I was looking for which is how to learn how to make cowboy boots. One of my fellow students went on to found Merrell Footwear Company. So he was out of Utah and he went to Lynn, Mass to learn how to make shoes and he was there in Oklahoma to learn how to make cowboy boots. So when I graduated in 1976 he offered me a job to go to Utah and make cowboy boots and hiking boots. So that's what I did.

And that's where I was when I got a call from Charlie Dunn from the people here and they had heard about me and Charlie Dunn needed apprentices.

So how did that and how did he hear about you?

Well there was a man who I went to school with in Oklahoma who landed a job with Charlie. And when Charlie needed more help my name came up. And so Charlie said "Find him". So it took him four months to find me. I didn't have a phone. And I was living on an Indian reservation in Utah.

And I was you know one day.

You can't make that up.

No. And one day you know I just had a really rough day at work. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was like OK I either have to quit or I'm fired. I don't know which it is but I can't go back to work. And there was a knock at the door. And they said "Lee, you have a phone call. And it was, it was Steve calling on behalf of Charlie Dunn. And they were saying "We want you here, will you come.

And had you know who Charlie Dunn was at the time?

Yeah living in Vermont. Yes I knew who Charlie was. A friend of mine had traveled to Austin Texas and got an album by Jerry Jeff Walker. And brought it back to Vermont and said "You got to hear this song". And it was called Charlie Dunn.

And that song kind of immortalized Charlie Dunn.

Right and that that was you know I remember sitting in his van listening to the tape and thinking this guy's famous. And he's doing what I want to do and never thinking that I would ever meet him. Or go to work for him. I don't remember if I took five flew down here or if I got on a bus. I think I got on the bus. You know Greyhound bus. You know, and came here and just instantly, it was November of 1977, and I knew the minute I walked in the door that I had found what I was looking for.

And you know, and the workmanship that I saw here, Kirby, was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. It was just the highest level of the craft being practiced. At the time that I came to work here, I believe I was one of four and they grew. But I stayed here and I worked for Charlie for nine years. And I met my wife here, Carolyn and in 1986 when Charlie retired at the age of 88. Carolyn and I bought the shop. We've had it since then. Since 1986.

That's unbelievable.

It is. I was lucky. I was lucky to have met Carolyn and lucky to have found when I was looking for.

I'm Kirby Allison, founder of The Hanger Project, and we love helping the well-dressed take care of their wardrobes. Thanks for joining us today here at Texas Traditions. I hope you enjoyed learning about Lee Miller. If you have any questions about what you saw in the video today, feel free to ask and in the comments section below. I enjoy getting back to all those questions personally. Most importantly if you enjoyed the video, let us know! Give us the thumbs up or subscribe to our YouTube channel so you can receive future notifications. I'm Kirby Allison founder of The Hanger Project and thanks for joining us.

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