Best foot forward / Brothers tap into Nocona talents as they open Montague Boot Co. By ANGELA K. BROWN Associated Press
NOCONA - When Montague Boot Co. hung its wooden sign from the awning and lined up fancy Western footwear in the storefront window, folks in this small community knew their century-old bootmaking industry was still kicking. The downtown plant has grown from five to 40 employees since it opened last spring, less than two years after the town's largest employer, Nocona Boot Co., shut its doors. "It's just great that we have a boot factory back in Nocona because that's what we do here," said Connie Jo Gilleland, owner of Nocona Country Florist and Gifts. In 1887, four years before the town incorporated, J. "Daddy Joe" Justin started his business making footwear for cowboys driving longhorns on the cattle trails meandering near Nocona, about 45 miles east of Wichita Falls. Justin's sons moved the business to Fort Worth in 1925, but their sister, Enid Justin, stayed and opened the competing Nocona Boot Co. In 1981, the plant merged with her family's Fort Worth-based Justin Boot Co., one of the world's largest boot companies. In 1999, Justin closed its plants in Fort Worth and Nocona, citing a downturn in the market triggered by changing consumer tastes and increased competition from athletic shoes.
The closure of Nocona Boot Co. devastated residents, who placed several dozen funeral wreaths on the factory lawn. Workers on the production lines wore "I was given the boot " stickers. Many of the 160 fired employees had to go outside the county to find manufacturing jobs. Folks in this community of 3, 200 also were upset that the Nocona boot brand was to be made at a plant in another city or state. "They took the boot company and our name with it, so it was a double shot," Mayor Paul Gibbs said.
Then Jim and Bill Williams Jr. came along. The brothers have been supplying leather products to Nocona and other boot factories across the nation for years through their Dallas-based Williams Co. The brothers are the family's third generation in the leather business. The Williams brothers launched their new company last year in Nocona, where they found plenty of potential employees skilled in the industry. David Hellinger, the former Nocona Boot Co. plant manager who now oversees Montague Boot operations, and other workers have experience that adds up to about 700 years.
"It wasn't a hard sell," Jim Williams said. "Nocona is just full of bootmakers. They're teaching us." Montague Boot 's building, coincidentally, was the original site of the Nocona Boot Co. The brothers named the new plant after the county. Wanting to make boots for a private label, they reached an agreement with now-retired rodeo champion Larry Mahan, whom Williams calls "the Michael Jordan of cowboys." Montague Boot Co. makes several styles of men's boots in alligator, ostrich and elephant hides, ranging in price from $300 to $550.
The company also makes women's boots in ostrich under the Mahan label. The boots are sold only at the Cavender's Boot City chain, with nearly 50 stores in Texas. Since the boots hit the stores last summer, customers have responded well, and sales have been consistent, Williams said. "We want to remain a small niche, with an American-made, high-quality product," Williams said. "We're kind of like a small country store. We're not against growing, but it's not our No. 1 goal."
The popularity of Western wear is cyclical, but sales shot up in the late 1980s and early '90s with the celebrity of Garth Brooks and other new country music artists. Although cowboy boots haven't been flying off shelves since then, core customers have kept coming back. The industry got a boost when the Texas governor became president in 2000. "George W. Bush has definitely helped it," Williams said. Since Montague Boot Co. started operations, it has helped the community reclaim its identity, the mayor said.