Requiem: Botte Sauvage
"When you seek a guide in the mountains he looks first in your eyes and then at your shoes. If both are right, you are right."
Camping and Woodcraft, by Horace Kephart, Macmillan Company (1917), 15th printing, 1951, page 138
The botte sauvage worn by early French-Canadian explorers
Photo courtesy of The Bata Shoe Museum
Some old harness needles and an edger
My fifty-four year old Gokeys
From time to time when I'm rummaging around in my closet I'll come across an old pair of leather boots. Invariably, no matter how pressing the issue of the day might be, I pause to look them over, maybe even drag them out to dust them off. And the memories flood back...
The story goes way back, back to my childhood, back to those days of grace when the day started by slipping out of the kitchen door to walk bare foot in the cool, dew-covered grass of the back lawn. And to wander down to the riverbank where my next-door neighbor Merv Chamberlian, who was a mailman, had a small shed which had served as a cobbler's shop. In my youth it was open and inside were the mud-caked remains of his cobbler's bench, his tools, his lasts and leather hides shrunken and dried out, stacked on shelves around the small room. After the flood of 1942 it had been abandoned. What a treasure trove for an eight year-old boy!
Somehow, later, at about the same time I got interested in Scouting and wanted to get some merit badges, Merv and I struck up a friendship and he told me the history of the cobbler's shop. When he was younger he had learned the cobbler's trade. At that time there was a boot making company called Gokey that made the finest custom made leather boots for the outdoorsman. These were modeled on the French-Canadian footwear called "botte sauvage" worn by the early voyageurs who explored the Great Lakes region.
I later learned that the Gokey Boot Company, founded by Noah Gokey in Addison, NY, operated for many years in Jamestown, NY before finally relocating to St. Paul at the turn of the century. World renown, they used the cottage industry system: orders would come into St. Paul, MN and the work would be farmed out to cobblers like Merv. Merv was especially pleased that before too long he was eligible to sew the "ladies" version that required 12 stitches to the inch, rather than the usual 10. At my urging, he agreed to teach me the boot making skills so that I could get a merit badge.
I still have the special tool Merv gave me that grooves the edge of the leather prior to sewing (an Osborne Model 21 Creaser) . I think my son still has the crude cobbler's bench I made to stitch a first pair of hiking shoes. It took most of a summer's vacation to make that first pair of boots, and when I took them into Frank Castano's Shoe Repair store on Main St. below the bridge, to have hobnails set, he almost came unglued in his broken Italian. He simply couldn't believe that I, a WASP kid, had actually sewn a pair of hiking boots from scratch. He was so dumbfounded, he set the hobnails for me for nothing! It would be nice to report that the boots worked out just fine and that I wore them for many years. Nay, they didn't hold up very well and I disposed of them. A few tools, a cobbler's bench that became a coffee table, and the ability to prepare for and sew the shoemaker's lockstitch were all that remained of the experience.
I decided a few years later to buy a pair of Gokeys. (Merv was delighted - when they arrived at the post office, he, personally, set them aside so that he could deliver them to me). This was no small decision. A pair of Chippewa hiking boots in those days would set you back about $12.00. (I know, because I'd already by then gone through a pair and it was the disappointment of that experience that prompted me to opt for the Gokeys). This despite my mother's angst! (The same mother, mind you, who felt the guilt of having a pigeon-toed child to begin with and who managed, somehow, to find the means to get my condition corrected.) The 1952 Gokey was $52.50!
The Gokeys were just outstanding. Made in conformity to a tracing of each of my feet, they fit like the proverbial glove. Gorgeous, supple, real oil-tanned leather, with doe skin lining. They also offered their famous "snake proof" model, with heavier leather, attested to by countless guides and professional snake hunters. Gokey boots, it has been reported, have been handed down from one generation to another. This was the perfect boot to wear at my new job "guiding" at the Ice Mine tourist attraction, now gone.
And wear them I did: 2600 miles of hitchhiking in all kind of weather my first year at college. Countless fishing trips and hunting excursions here and in Indiana, Iowa and Connecticut, mucking around in tide flats in Maryland, slogging between classes over muddy campus walkways, picnics, picture taking expeditions, on the job, anywhere and anytime I needed comfortable, easy-on/easy-off, weather proof footwear. Year after year after year, until they became so soft and supple they'd roll up into a package small enough to stuff into an ordinary oxford shoebox. All through the 50's, the 60's, the 70's, the 80's, and then the 90's.
One of the calf adjusting straps had deteriorated. I had heard rumors to the effect that Gokey was down to one or two boot makers. So I found a shoe repair shop in Olean. The owner couldn't get over the, by then, 40 year old boots. And he repaired the strap for nothing. But the leather he had to use was inferior to the original, and in about 1997 I decided with the announcement that Gokey had been acquired by Orvis, another reputable firm, I'd get the boots "reconditioned." A lot of the stitching that holds the sole on had deteriorated, and new outer soles were needed.
What happened next turned out to be a nightmare. I sent them in (pre paid) and after months of waiting, they came back. True, the stitching had been repaired and they had been re-soled, but my wonderful, soft, burnished comfortable Gokeys were no more. Instead what I held in my hands were a pair of stiff, blackened and cracked boots that might just as well have come out of a 500 year old grave. Lesson learned the hard way: never be the first customer to a newly announced acquisition. The repair facility was in Kansas - they had a blistering hot summer that year. I figure the boots laid around for weeks in an oven-hot storage facility. Orvis did not go out of its way to attempt to answer my questions or to refund. I haven't bought anything from them since. I note now from Orvis's website that the Gokey Custom Footwear is handled out of Roanoke, VA. Today, a pair of Orvis/Gokey Snake Proof Boots retails for $475.00.
Is the boot making craft dead? The craft is dead, but there are still some boot makers. I was pleased to learn (from his website) that Lyle MacRostie, when he returned from military service in 1971, was able to apprentice himself to Gokey. Despite repeated urgings by the then aged sewers at Gokey to discourage him from taking up the craft, he persisted and in 1978 he and his wife, Elaine, set up their own boot making business, now located in Spring Lake, MN. Even though he has survived and usually has a year's orders in advance, the future is not necessarily bright.
The American tanneries that made the special heavyweight oiled leather he uses have closed. Were it not for the President of Red Wing Shoe Company, David Murphy, also a Gokey fan, Lyle and Elaine would be in trouble. Red Wing owns S.B. Foot Tannery and Murphy has seen to it that the MacRostie's will get the specially tanned leather they need to continue in business. If one is to get a pair of genuine Gokeys made by a Gokey-trained craftsman one has to go to Lyle and Elaine (www.bigfoottrail.com).
I don't wear my Gokeys much anymore; it's enough that they still exist - a testament to a time when true craftsmanship existed in fact, not in so much marketing verbiage.
The smart person would put them on eBay (Gokey boots are collectible) and pick up an easy $50 to 100 bucks. Have you ever heard me say that I'm smart? Just call me "sentimental."
Copyright September 7, 2006 Thomas P. Dewey