MacRostie Leathers - Custom Handmade Footwear

Shoes keep them in stitches in Spring Lake

by Sally Sedgwick
Grand Rapids Herald-Review

MacRostie Leathers product line of moccasins, boots, shoes
building boots

Deep in wild rice country in northwestern Itasca County is the little town of Spring Lake. And there, in a building where wild rice was once roasted and canoes were once built, hands are still busy keeping alive an age-old craft.

It's the home of MacRostie Leathers. And handmade boots and shoes have left the workshop to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, walk the streets of the nation's capitol, tour the Great Wall of China, and walk through the jungles of Central America.

Each shoe made by Elaine and Lyle MacRostie is made to fit a foot, even if that foot has a size C heel, E ball, and D instep, or suffers from a bunion. And it is made with techniques learned from the master shoemakers of the legendary Gokey Company.

William Noah Gokey was the first to combine the Native American moccasin style of construction with the European hard sole. His shoes cradles the foot with a piece of leather that was stitched at the toe of the shoe. In the early 1900s his factory was located in Jamestown, N.Y., but in 1971 it employed nine shoemakers and had both a store and a mail order company located in St. Paul.

In 1971, Lyle MacRostie had just come home from military service when he noticed the Gokey boots worn by a neighbor. He tracked down the workshop and suggested that he become an apprentice. It was a new idea for the firm.

The MacRosties take the love for their craft and put it into every pair of shoes they make. The couple have been making shoes and honing their skills since 1978.


Then he negotiated to use his GI bill for the new apprenticeship position. For the next three years he would carry hot water to soak the leather, learn to use the special cobbler's tools and take his lunch hours to watch the master shoemakers at work.

And listen to the stories.

cutting the leather

Many of the craftsmen had been through harrowing experiences in Europe during World War II, some surviving only through their ability to do a useful craft like making shoes.

Still, they believed it was not a skill of the future. "Why you want to be shoemaker?" One would demand of Lyle.

But he did, and in 1976 his wife Elaine left her job in the banking industry to join him at Gokey's and learn the craft. In 1978 they began their own company, still doing repairs and contract work for Gokey's.

Twenty years ago they came north and bought the old wild rice processing plant where Elaine had brought rice to sell when she was a child. She had grown up near Spring Lake as a Dowling, in the same area where her paternal great grandparents had homesteaded in 1911.

Now they make custom shoes from orders received at the three or four shows they attend each year, over the internet at, or by mail or appointment. More than half of their new orders are from customers who already own a pair of MacRostie shoes.

It's a long and loving process. Each shoe will pass back and forth between the two as it is formed. Lyle will size the initial order and begin to custom make the "last," or model of the foot. Gradually an exact replica is built up on the last; each foot may be different. Meanwhile Elaine will be making the pattern and cutting the leather.


As the shoe is built, each has their part; in hand or machine sewing, thinning, trimming and edging the leather, and putting on the finishing touches. The whole process takes over a day for a pair of moccasins to over a week for a pair of boots.

There are seven styles, "a shoe for every purpose." And recently Elaine has designed a leather bag as well.

And today, all the materials come from America. But that may change as suppliers shut down -- some unexpectedly. Finding suppliers is "always a problem for any business as small as us," they explain. Even the tanneries which make the special heavyweight oiled leather that they use have closed. When they run out now, they will have to look abroad.

There are other frustrating problems as their special supplies are harder to find. The quality of the harness needles and shoe tacks have gone down. There is only one company that makes lasts. And, of course, their cobbler tools are virtually extinct.

Yet there are enough customers who value a quality product to extend their orders out a year in advance. And as craftsmen, the couple is happier than ever. In the beginning, explained Lyle, they were more production oriented; planning to expand. Now they take whatever time is needed to complete the shoe.

Even so, it can be a seven-day-a-week job. They try to include time for the many reasons they came to the northwoods as well; gardening, canoeing and riding their motorcycles where it's a "40 mile trip around the block" if you stay on the blacktop roads. Their three sons, Buddy, Michael and Douglas, are in college or jobs, but they now have grandchildren to enjoy.

Shoemakers used to be an integral part of life. One dictionary of the craft by R.A. Salaman lists 28 shoemakers for a population of 3,880 for two English villages -- in 1851. Today, there are few like the MacRosties who still construct a shoe around an individual foot.

This article appeared in the July 3, 2002 issue of Northern Tracks & Trails
© 2002 Grand Rapids Herald-Review
Republished here with their permission.


MacRostie Leathers
51211 County Road 4
Spring Lake, MN 56680

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