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Tall Tales from the Old West - June 21, 2019

Hyer Brothers Shoe and Boot Shop, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1880s (Photo from Johnson County Museum)

Q: According to some western lore and tradition, Charles Hyer, a shoemaker in Olathe, invented the very first one of these in the mid 1870s. But others claim it was invented in Abilene or Coffeyville. What was it?

A: The cowboy boot 

According to some western lore and tradition, Charles Hyer, of Olathe, supposedly invented the first "cowboy boot." However, others dispute that he was the first. Other contenders for this title include boot makers in Abilene and Coffeyville, Kansas.

But let's stick with Charles Hyer for the moment. Here's part of the legend, as laid out by the Kansas Historical Society and by the Olathe Boot Company (which acquired Hyer Brothers Boot and Shoe Company):

Charles H. Hyer learned the art of boot making from his father William, who immigrated to Illinois from Hanover, Germany in 1850. Charles Hyer moved to Leavenworth for a railroad job. In 1872, after his railroad job ended, he taught leather working at the Kansas State School for the Deaf in Olathe. Here, Hyer passed on to students his boot-making knowledge and skills that would later make his name legendary. Hyer began making shoes out of his home to supplement his income in 1875 and later opened a small boot shop in Olathe. According to Olathe Boot Company lore, Hyer’s reputation started when a lone cowboy rode up to Hyer’s shop in 1876 wanting a new boot design. With a pointed toe, raised heel and a scalloped top, the new boots were proudly worn to the Colorado range by this nameless cowboy, who told others about the fine boot maker. As demand for his boots grew, Hyer’s brother Edward and later his three sons joined in the boot making company, changing the name to C.H. Hyer and Sons. In addition to family, Hyer employed and looked out for many European immigrants as well as former deaf students. Hyer was soon a major employer in Olathe.

Fun factoid: Hyer’s cowboy, riding and army boots have served a long list of legendary customers throughout history including presidents Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt; outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid; illustrious cowboys Buffalo Bill Cody, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Will Rogers.

     Check out this vintage pair of Hyer cowboy boots owned by the Kansas Historical Society. 

While this is one story about the invention of the cowboy boot, there are others. Here's one that credits cobblers in Coffeyville, Kansas, with coming up with the iconic footwear

Then there's the story of T.C. McInerney of Abilene, Kansas. He also made the American-style cowboy boot.  And he may have even made one before Charles Hyer. A picture of McInerney's boot is listed in an ad in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle, dated December 7, 1871, several years before Hyer supposedly made one for that mysterious cowboy headed to Colorado. The true history of anything can be hard to nail down and the history of the first cowboy boot is no exception.

Check out more Kansas Trivia here in KPR's online archive.


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