By Andrew Fitzgerald, Education Intern, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
Nearly every Texan has, at one point or another, owned a pair of cowboy boots. They have become a symbol of the state and its rugged Western history. Big Tex sports a size-70 pair of custom Lucchese boots as he greets visitors to the State Fair of Texas, and movie cowboy John Wayne popularized the “square-toed” boot style in his many Western features.
The boots embody Texan ruggedness, which is why many politicians have worn them to cultivate a like image. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both sported cowboy boots, though neither were born Texan.
Hill Country native Lyndon B. Johnson’s Lucchese boots are still on display at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. And Sam Rayburn, who faithfully served in the United States House of Representatives for almost 50 years, often wore a pair of Justin Roper Boots at home on his farm in Bonham.
According to the company website, the Justin boot business was founded in 1879 when boot repairman H.J. Justin moved down to Spanish Fort, Texas, and opened a boot company out of his home. Spanish Fort’s location on the Chisholm Trail, near the Red River crossing, was ideal. Cowboys embarking on the long cattle drive up north stopped by Justin’s business and put in their orders for custom boots. When they came back through town, Justin would have the brand-new boots ready for them.
Justin’s first customer was a cowboy named Frank See, who ordered a pair of heavy riding boots for $9 (about $260 in today’s money). See would wear the boots until 1905, when he finally retired from herding.
Justin moved his boot shop to Nocona in 1889. A new railroad line passing through the town promised greater business opportunities. Justin’s sons came to work for their father in 1908, and the company saw rapid growth. Handmade craftsmanship gave way to machine production in the 1920s, which tripled manufacturing even as the Great Depression doomed many other companies.
Justin’s boots were known for their intricate and unique styling. Justin was one of the first bootmakers to utilize stitching across the boot tops to stiffen the leather. This creative design brought Justin boots widespread recognition, and by 1915 they were sold in 36 states, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and even Australia. Over the years, many notable American public figures have owned one or more pairs of Justin boots. Bonham’s very own Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn was one of them.
Rayburn always dressed for the occasion. In Washington, D.C. he was hardly ever seen wearing anything but expensive suits and shined shoes. His polished public image as House Speaker was very important to him. Back home in Texas, however, Rayburn dressed much more casually. He wore work shirts, khakis, and these custom-made Justin cowboy boots.
The boots are brown leather, with black heels and soles made from Neolite rubber from Goodyear. The inside of the legs have cloth pull-up straps on each side stitched with “JUSTIN BOOTS SINCE 1878 FT. WORTH TEXAS.” Decorative light-brown stitching on the leg portions form leaf-like patterns.
The boots show signs of frequent wear but are still in remarkable condition save for some discoloration and creasing around stress points. The boots were custom made in size 7 1/2 for the 5’6” speaker. One of Mr. Sam’s favorite quotable “Rayburnisms” held that “the size of a man has nothing to do with his height.” Though Rayburn may have been a small man, the impacts he left on this country and the people who knew him were immense.
While we aren’t sure exactly when Rayburn acquired the boots, we know they were manufactured in Fort Worth. “Cowtown” has been the home of Justin Leatherworks since 1925. Rayburn would not have worn these boots during everyday farm tasks, but likely slipped them on for trips into town or when entertaining guests.
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