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Georgia Caraway: Vintage cowboy boots spur love at first sight

My dear readers, I wanted you to be the first to know, I have fallen in love - again. Last month I wrote about my "Georgia" sheet music collection (some of you may have considered this to be the ultimate in egocentric behavior). This month, I am writing about my newest passion.

I wish I could blame this intense emotion on this month-for-lovers, with Valentine's Day falling in the middle, but alas, it isn't so.

All it took was one soleful glance across a crowded antique mall and, well, I surrendered to the siren call. Tall and slender, well made, and at a glance I could tell, well heeled. They molded my feet perfectly. Their shafts were covered in deep-blood-red-and-white-stitched patterns. My heart's desire? A fully restored pair of vintage cowboy(girl) boots.

Who was that Cupid who shot that arrow into my heart? None other than Al Graham, the newest purveyor of tantalizing goods at the Western Heritage Gallery. Al had moved 99 pairs of these vintage temptations from his personal collection in Austin to the gallery, just waiting to share space in some unsuspecting guy or gal's closet. As soon as I tried them on, I declared, "They are mine!"

Al assured me that because of his careful restoration, my boots would outlive me. I told him that might be so, but I would wear them in my grave so that they would be with me forever. Such was the intensity of my emotion. I was especially spurred on when Al also assured me that if I ever went honky-tonking, some tall, dark and handsome cowboy would approach me and say, "Nice boots." Now that is a pickup line to which a gal might succumb. What could I do but whip out my Visa card and make them mine?

I immediately called my friend Pamela Daly and told her that lounging next to my soft leathery-skinned suitors were a pair of red boots from the 1950s in her size. Of course, Pamela knows I would never lead her astray in matters of the heart or wallet, so she dropped what she was doing and galloped out to the gallery and claimed those deliciously decadent Valentine-red beauties. Pamela's delectable pair with the starburst-pattern tops is featured in the photograph.

The history of vintage cowboy boots is as romantic as the boots themselves. Each pair has a story to tell. As Tyler Beard wrote in his celebrated book Cowboy Boots: "For millennia, horsemen have relied on protective footwear. Man, his boots, and the horse have been inexorably linked in history, legend, myth and our imaginations."

The style of boots from the 1870s came from an adaptation of the Wellington and military boots worn by those fortunate enough to be able to afford boots during the Civil War. By the 1880s, a more traditional style was developed with a stovetop boot shaft, some simple decorations and a higher heel.

The most influential pre-1900 bootmakers were Charles Hyer of Olathe, Kan., and Joe Justin of Spanish Fort, Texas, 90 miles northwest of Denton.

After the turn-of-the-century, Italian bootmakers Tony Lama and the Lucchese family and the Hyer Brothers, with the introduction of the toe-wrinkle (the straight or curved stitched lines across the top of the foot), made their brand on the industry.

The popularity of Western radio and movie stars and cowboy crooners from the 1920s through the 1950s such as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Hank Williams Sr. and Gene Autry took wearing cowboy boots from the silver screen to become a fashion statement among regular folks.

Bootmakers produced millions of pairs of boots to satisfy this yearning of fans to imitate America's favorite stars. The period from 1940 until 1965 is considered the Golden Age of cowboy bootmaking. Then along came John Wayne in the 1960s, Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta in the 1980s. Tyler Beard calls the late 1980s and early 1990s a period of the "retro-cowboy-boot stampede" with vintage boot stores in New York and California causing resurgence in boot wearing and bootmaking. No doubt about it, cowboy boots have attitude.

Incidentally, Pamela and I strutted our stuff at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, and would you believe it - true to Al's words - two tall drinks of water moseyed up to us and said in voices straight out of a Western bodice-ripper, "Nice boots." So guys and gals, hurry on out to the Western Heritage Gallery and pick up your next romantic fling. Yee-haw!

GEORGIA CARAWAY is executive director of the Texas Institute of Antiques & Collectibles and owner of enVogue & Vintage at Western Heritage Gallery in Denton. Her book, "Tips, Tools & Techniques to Care for Antiques, Collectibles and Other Treasures" will be published by UNT Press in April.