Renowned bootmaker Paul Bond passed away in February. He was just 96 years old. He was “just 96” because, by all accounts, his youthful vigor belied his advanced years. Right up to the end of his life, Bond frequented the bootmaking shop he established in 1955 in Nogales, Arizona, to design boots and talk to his customers.
Bond was a man who left his bootprint on the heart and soul of the American West. Born into a Texas ranching family in 1915, he grew up riding horses and working cattle at his parents’ ranch near Carlsbad, New Mexico. At 14, he apprenticed to a local bootmaker. The teenager also broke horses for the U.S. Cavalry. When he wasn’t turning wild colts into sturdy war horses and packhorses, he was turning raw leather into boots for local cowboys.
By his early 20s, Bond was rodeoing—and having some success riding broncs and performing as a trick rider. He was a member of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, the predecessor to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, that forced promoters to share gate proceeds with rodeo cowboys, giving them a shot at a viable living.
During this time, Bond started making flashy boots for himself, his granddaughter-in-law Shannon Enciso tells True West. He tucked his pant legs inside the tall, colorful shafts he had designed to wow rodeo audiences. His eye-catching boots were also meant to “impress the ladies,” Enciso admits. The boot trick apparently worked as he met his first wife, Joyce, at a rodeo where she was the rodeo queen.
To supplement his rodeo income, Bond opened his first boot shop in 1946. Contacts he made on the rodeo circuit eventually got his name around in Hollywood. “A lot of people that were riding at rodeos had turned into stunt people at the movies,” he told Linda Wertheimer in a 2006 interview for National Public Radio.
The cowboys-turned-stuntmen ordered boots from Bond, and eventually major movie stars such as Gene Autry, Rex Allen and John Wayne became his customers. Bond also made a few saddles, including an “extra large one” for Wayne.
Bond told Wertheimer he preferred bootmaking to saddlemaking because he could be more creative with boots. “You could do some of the fancy work and put some…personality in a boot, make something out of them that people were proud of,” he said.
He hung up his rodeo spurs to craft cowboy boots full-time in the late 1940s. A few years later he set up shop as the Paul Bond Boot Co. in downtown Nogales, a sleepy little town on the U.S.-Mexican border. To keep up with the demand for his boots, he needed the skilled leather craftsmen who were abundant along the border.
The locale’s rugged scenery also made it a popular spot with Western movie directors. More actors came to Bond’s shop, further cementing his reputation as a bootmaker to the stars. But actors, rodeo hands and other denizens of the entertainment and sport arenas were not his only clients. Ranchers and working cowboys flocked to Nogales for a pair of boots suited to each individual’s taste and style. Bond had a knack for treating everyone the same, whether they were famous and wealthy entertainers or hard-scrabble cowboys.
Throughout his long career, Bond always made boots the old-fashioned way: handcrafted and hand-sewn with high-quality components—right down to the stacked leather heels and lemon wood pegs in the arch. His artistry and craftsmanship earned him acclaim and honors, including his induction into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and multiple recognitions as “Bootmaker of the Year” by True West Magazine, most recently in 2011.
While Paul Bond the man is no longer with us, his legacy of quality, artistry and value inspires and lives on through his descendants who now run Paul Bond Boot Co. in Nogales. As bootmaker Rodney Ammons said recently, Bond was a “real gentleman and a damned fine bootmaker.”
G. Daniel DeWeese coauthored the book Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion. Ranch-raised near the Black Hills in South Dakota, Dan has written about Western apparel and riding equipment for more than 25 years.