LAMPASAS — It’s a cool November morning and a man enters the tiny shop of John Jass, custom boot maker. The man plops a sagging pair of cowboy boots on the counter. Left heel dangling, sole flapping. He asks if the boot can be saved. Jass looks inside the boot and reads aloud, “Made in China.”
Repairing forlorn footwear such as this is the only way a pair of imported cowboy boots would find its way into John Jass’ shop.
“The ones you get at a store,” Jass said, “they put ’em out like popcorn.”
About a mile away on a side street, Jass’ brother, Pablo, hunches over one of his handmade boots cradled in his lap. The top is tucked under his chin like a fiddle. Pablo runs a piece of sandpaper across the toe box, holds the boot up against a light, squints and sands some more. He says a pair of his custom cowboy boots, if properly cared for, can last between 20 and 30 years.
Since the 1980s, the Jass brothers have been building cowboy boots the old-fashioned way, one step at a time.
Customers from New York, Washington, D.C., and California have made their way to this Hill Country town to order one-of-a-kind boots with signature toe stitching that harkens back to noted Lampasas boot maker Ray Jones.
Pablo and John Jass — and brother Mike, making boots in Ballinger — learned their craft working in Jones’ shop. After returning from Vietnam in 1969 with shrapnel wounds and a Purple Heart, Pablo landed a job with Jones and worked his way up to foreman. He said workers there built about 20 pairs a week. At one point, customers had to wait up to five years for a Jones handmade pair.
Jones’ boots were simple and sturdy. Turn one over and you would see three rows of lemonwood pegs, one row more than typical. They also were noteworthy for white piping running vertically down both sides of the upper boot and stitching on the toe called a bug or flower.
When Jones retired in 1983, the Jass brothers struck out on their own. But they wanted to continue the Jones trademark toe flower.
“Even though it wasn’t protected, we asked to use it out of respect,” John Jass said. “For a while, we were the only ones doing it. Anyone wearing a boot with a toe flower, people would know that it was a Lampasas boot. For years, you got those in Lampasas from either John or Paul.”
Unlike the Chinese pair a man brought to John Jass, these boots don’t collapse in the closet corner.
“Ray Jones boots are visually sturdy, not tough … sturdy,” Jennifer Jones wrote in “Cowboy Boots, the Art and Sole.” “They have what I call a standy-uppy quality that other boots don’t seem to have, even after 30 years.”
In 2008, Lampasas folks chose to honor local boot makers with a mural. The arts committee of Vision Downtown Lampasas organized a boot roundup. More than 100 pairs were piled together and photographed. Colorful cowboy boots swirling in different directions were then photographed and hand painted on the side of a stone building at the corner of Fourth and Western streets.
A pair of Jass boots cost about $1,000 and take six months to make. But you get a choice of several types of leather, imported from France or Italy, Pablo Jass said. Ostrich, buffalo, calf and pigskin are popular. And you get to choose the leather color and stitching. Over at John Jass’ shop, a tanned alligator hide hangs on the wall, ready to use on two pairs for a local customer. Ranchers sometimes have their initials or cattle brands sewn into the leather.
Jass boots are 100 percent leather, except for wooden pegs, a neoprene heel and the shank that is hammered out the old-fashioned way from a steel spike. For a new customer, Pablo builds from mesquite blocks a wooden replica of the customer’s foot, called a last. After careful measurement, he sands and files the last to the appropriate size and shape, then builds the boot around it, sewing and stretching and nailing. One of the final steps is to pull the last out of the boot. Two walls in his shop are covered with lasts (they look like little wooden shoes) hanging in wait with customers’ names on them until they return for another pair. He’s sold up to 25 pairs to a couple of men, one now living in Mexico, the other Central Texas.
A pair of Pablo Jass’ boots was displayed at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station several years ago. It was part of a display that honored Texas cowboy boots.
In a town the size of Lampasas, population 6,700, the Jass brothers work independently, yet sometimes refer customers to each other.
“We all have our own styles. Pablo has his own style. I have mine,” John Jass said. “Competition is good.”