Excerpts by NICOLE RUPERSBURG
Kyle Rosfeld wears a cowboy hat and cowboy shoes. His friendly face sports a neatly-trimmed mustache that is reminiscent of men’s turn-of-the-century shaving ads – the 19th century, that is. He works on turn-of-the-century equipment – again, 19th – in his workshop where he produces hand-made custom leather products. Somewhat of a modern-day “Hipster”, if you will. But, a tough one.
Americans have realized the value of handmade American craftsmanship. Collectively we have demanded our products be proudly “Made in America.” We have embraced all things local and artisan, happily paying a premium for the handcrafted wares of an artisan producer, supporting local makers as well as the local economy.
Rosfeld was a cowboy. A genuine, bona fide cowboy. At that time, he and his family lived in Valentine, Nebraska, a city near the border of South Dakota in the Nebraska Sandhills, grass-stabilized dunes that cover a large swathe of the state and lend themselves best to cattle ranching.
The life of the ranch hand is not an easy one, and Rosfeld says he got to the point where he couldn’t even bend over to pick up his kids at night when he got home. He started looking into ways that he could fill his time while making some money, and initially considered building saddles. At that time he met someone at a branding – “branding” here means something quite different than the kind of “branding” discussed in board meetings and heralded by social media entrepreneurs – who had been building boots and wanted to get into ranching. The two essentially swapped places, and Rosfeld set out to make his first pair of boots.
His next pair was made for a brand inspector just outside of Valentine, and he loved them. So, Rosfeld thought to himself, “Alright, I guess I’m a bootmaker!”
In those first years he put boots on everyone he could talk into buying a pair. He caught a break when a pair of his boots was purchased to sell at auction at the Cattleman’s Ball of Nebraska, a huge fundraiser for cancer research. He then got an order from then-Senator Chuck Hagel and his two brothers, and the Sandhills Boot Company has been “off and running since then.”
As much as it seems like Rosfeld fell into this by accident, artistry is in his blood. His father was a singer-songwriter and a poet who taught music for a living, so the arts were always in his background. As an exchange student in Germany after high school, Rosfeld hungrily learned everything he could that wasn’t accessible to him in Valentine, which included learning how to sew from his host mother who was also a master seamstress. She taught him all of the meticulous details of sewing, and he found it easy to jump back into years later.
Totally hand-made bootmaking on the labor-intensive level that Rosfeld does is a dying industry. Because of that there is a sense of solidarity among them. “There are a few that are still creating them with traditional methods,” he says. “That’s also been the neat thing about this: when I run into another bootmaker, I can pick their brains and they’re willing to share their information because there are so few of us out here; we’re not in competition at all.”
All of Rosfeld’s boots are custom-made to his customer’s specifications. He will use any kind of hide or skin a customer might request – buffalo, cow, python, goat – and build them in any heel height with any toe style. He also shapes the boot directly to your foot, which is something you can never get out of a store-bought boot – so, yes, he does prefer that you come into his shop in Cody to get measured.
“Then I can guarantee that they’re going to fit,” he says. “If they’re not quite right then I know it’s my fault, that I did something wrong. I agonize over every pair. I put too much time into them to start over from the beginning.”
How much time? Roughly 40 hours of hands-on work per pair, and that doesn’t include the time for the glue to set or the leather to dry. “It’s a very time-consuming process when you don’t have the industrial tools to do it,” he says.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Rosfeld works on a vintage Singer sewing machine from 1896 – the kind of “vintage” that could just as easily be in a museum. He does all of the top-stitching on this machine, row by individual row. His “new” machine that he uses for the soles is from 1965.
Even if he had more of the modern industrial equipment that other bootmakers use, he says he would still build boots the same way. “I’ve heard of several things that would make [the process] go faster” – such as buying pre-stacked heels and stapling them onto the boot, or stitching with a machine instead of by hand – “but I just don’t think it would be a better boot.”
“Everything I do is old-school; it’s a very traditional method,” he says. He likes to joke that his company started at “the turn of the century” – the 20th – and he’s using “turn of the century” equipment – the 19th. His work hearkens back to the time of the post-Civil War cowboy, calling on the image of the romanticized American icon. But, as Rosfeld can attest, there is nothing easy or romantic about the life of a cowboy, and in the late 1800s a good pair of boots might cost an entire month’s wages.
Rosfeld’s boots start at $1250 for a basic pair, a reflection of the materials and the intensive labor that goes into them. Because of that, his boots have primarily appealed to more of a fashion clientele so far, but he wishes he had more cowboy clientele.
“[These boots are] made for working. They’re made for using. They’re made for wearing daily. But cowboys think they can’t afford them. There is the old tradition that a pair of boots is a month’s cowboy wages; I hope they’re making more than I’m asking! But you kind of have to value having a pair of boots that’s fit to your foot. There are various things about them that make them superior.”
Nebraska Sandhills is truly the American heartland – “flyover country,” as some might call it, but also the gateway to the Wild West where the Oregon Trail and Pony Express once passed through, and where Buffalo Bill Cody gained fame and formed the first-ever rodeo, still honored with the annual Nebraska Land Days celebration to this day.
Rosfeld’s boot sales have mainly happened through word of mouth, but it has served him well: he just finished building a pair for Neil Young, Willie Nelson and both of his sons, Darryl Hannah, and Mike Semrad of The Bottle Tops. Word is spreading quick about Kyle’s artistry and sure to make a big splash in your hometown.