Shoemakers carry on tradition of the masters
Reprinted with permission from the Grand Rapids Herald-Review - March 22, 1992
by Mary Lou Aurell
Lyle and Elaine MacRostie practice an exquisite craft in an old garage in the small northern community of Spring Lake.
When they opened MacRostie Leathers on the Bigfoot Trail there, Elaine came home to the area where she grew up. Lyle found peace in a rural setting. Consequently, the MacRosties and their business prosper.
The building where the couple makes custom handcrafted footwear is also their home. Both show the characteristics of sturdy, back-to-the-basics activity.
The MacRosties work in a shop filled with the delicious smell of oiled leather, the specter of age-worn tools and soft music. Their footwear and their lives are comfortable.
Lyle learned the craft he practices from Gokey's nine master bootmakers. He saw their boots on a friend and had to have a pair.
He also wanted to see where the boots were made. He visited the Gokey boot factory in the Twin Cities and became fascinated with a craft which is now a way of life for him and his family.
Lyle proposed an apprenticeship to the Gokey masters. He had been out of the armed service for three months and working in the Ramsey County tax assessor's office when he approached the G.I. Bill administrators to fund his apprenticeship.
"It took me two weeks to convince them to create a bootmaker program," Lyle said. He became the masters' first apprentice in January 1971.
Elaine, who grew up in Spring Lake as a Dowling, began her apprenticeship in 1976. She had met Lyle while she was working as a secretary to his father, a St. Paul Episcopalian priest.
"The masters taught me how to sew on the machines," she explained. "Lyle taught me the rest."
The MacRosties speak fondly of the now deceased Gokey masters. "All of them survived the Holocaust and one literally made shoes which saved his life in a prison camp."
Lyle remembered one of them trying to convince him shoemaking was not the best thing he could do. During the masters' days in Europe they were considered lower class citizens.
"They came to work at the Gokey factory in suits, carrying briefcases," Lyle explained. "Then they would change into their working clothes at work."
Lyle persevered as an apprentice and is now a master at making shoes and boots which feature authentic moccasin construction. "This style is uniquely American," Lyle said. "It blends the comfort and design of the American Indian's moccasin with the European hard sole."
The clean style is enhanced by using rich brown oil-tanned hide known for its flexibility and comfort. Each shoe or boot is specially fitted to its buyer's feet through the use of a last or foot form which Lyle may change until it fully resembles a particular foot. All MacRostie footwear is guaranteed to fit.
Perhaps this is because the shoes and boots are entirely handcrafted. All are handstitched and handwelted on a moccasin bottom where each stitch ties a knot.
Some shoes, like the double-soled moccasins, take about seven hours to make, others 14 to 15 hours. The couple works on the highland pull-on or lace-up boots as many as 40 hours.
They use tools -- most older than they -- integral to their craft. Lyle works with a hammer and awl which came from a Sears and Roebuck shoe repair kit owned by his great grandfather. Others have been given to the MacRosties by the masters.
They claim if they didn't have their tools, there would be no shoes. Most are irreplaceable like their craft may be one day.
"Shoemaker's tools are called 'St Hugh's Bones'," Lyle commented. "He is one of the patron saints of shoemakers who was martyred in the third century. After he was buried, some shoemakers dug him up and used his bones for tools."
However, the MacRosties celebrate another patron saint's day -- St Crispin's on Oct. 25. Legend has it St. Crispin fell in love with and married a princess for whom he fitted shoes. His love led to his death.
The MacRosties also celebrate the leather which is important to the success of their craft. It never stiffens when it becomes wet, but remains flexible. Thus, their shoes feel broken in when first worn.
Much of the leather must be purchased in large quantities because suppliers are geared to large manufacturers, not small business. Yet the shoes the MacRosties make have three times the life span of factory-made shoes. In fact, the MacRosties continually are amazed by the durability of their footwear. Some have lasted 12 or 15 years.
"We've found they have been made to take rugged terrain," Elaine exclaimed. "They have been on a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to the Great Wall of China, have crossed the Yucatan Peninsula, gone all over South America and into the Himalayas."
MacRostie shoes and boots have taken on lives of their own, many are treated like good and old friends.
"We like to get letters from our customers telling us where our shoes have been," Elaine continued. "That's one of the reasons we don't have a telephone." Another is the hectic quality it brought to their lives when they had a shop in St. Paul.
"Many people came to that shop asking us to fix shoes we had not made," Lyle recalled. "We found we couldn't do that. I think we will soon fill our landfills with such disposable shoes."
The MacRosties do repair what they make. And most of their repair is resoling.
"We tell customers they will probably need to resole in two to three years," Elaine said. "Sometimes it's more than five."
Along with their repair work, the couple makes about 200 pairs of shoes or boots a year. They go to major craft shows to build a winter's worth of work.
To date their best business has come from the eastern seaboard and the Lincoln Center Craft Fair, along with orders taken during the Madison Art Show. They took Best of Show for their work in Wisconsin in 1985 and 1986.
The Invitational Award they won in Madison in 1991 will send them there for one weekend this summer and to New York the next.
Their dream is to build up an adequate customer base to end their traveling. "When we return from New York it takes ten to 15 miles on the Bigfork River and running Muldoon's Rapids before we feel we are home again," Elaine said.
Today, in the community they call home, the MacRostie family is one-fourth of the population. "We have the best of worlds here, living and working in the same place," Elaine observed.
Will their sons become shoemakers? "They probably will have to find out what the world out there is all about before they know why they should be shoemakers," she concluded.
© 2003 MacRostie Leathers
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