Enid Justin ("Miss Enid," she was called) started the Nocona Boot Co. here in 1925 and ran it until not long before she died at age 96 in 1990. Her father, whom she called "Daddy Joe," had been a bootmaker in this part of North Texas since 1879, since the last of the great Chisholm Trail cattle drives, and Miss Enid had carried on after him.
"I've seen a lot of plants shut their doors and I've always wondered why their owners allowed it to happen," Miss Enid told a local writer near the end of her life. She was reminiscing about her many years in the boot business. "When you close a plant, the employees are left out in the cold and the town where the plant is located is also hurt. I'm glad I never had to close one."
In Daddy Joe's old shop on a dusty street, Miss Enid founded a company that today makes one of the best-known brands of cowboy boots on the market. By the time she merged her business with a Fort Worth conglomerate in 1981, she had built a 150,000-square-foot factory and warehouse--the economic heart of her home town of 2,800, just across the Red River from Oklahoma.
So naturally Miss Enid was on a lot of folks' minds here recently when the conglomerate announced that it would close the factory in a cost-cutting move and shift production of Nocona boots to El Paso, 500 miles west. When the news hit, it was as if a tornado had blown through. People all over Nocona stood dumbstruck and some of them wept. Nearly all the plant's 160 workers will be let go by next week.
"This would kill Miss Enid, if she weren't already dead," said Herman Taft, 62, who started at the factory in 1965.
It's the fault of modern times. Sales of classic-style cowboy boots have plunged since the early 1990s, industry executives and trade groups said.
In places where sales are dependent on fashion whim--in the big cities of the East, for example--cowboy boots, once a rage, are o-u-t. And what's more unsettling for the industry, its core market also is eroding. Slowly but steadily, executives said, Texans and others in the West are abandoning cowboy boots, leaving a symbol of their history and culture in the trail dust.
Chalk it up to suburban sprawl and Michael Jordan, bootmakers said. Texans nowadays are more likely than ever to grow up not where the deer and the antelope play, but on cul de sacs, feeling as one with the mall, not the land. A generation in the grip of sneaker companies for years has come of age in Nikes and Reeboks.
Athletic shoes (seldom bought for athletics) accounted for 45 percent of the nation's shoe sales last year, according to Footwear Industries of America, a trade group. At the Nocona plant, production of traditional-style cowboy boots has fallen steadily since the early '90s, as it has for the whole industry. Last year, the factory filled orders for 120,000 pairs--300,000 fewer than in 1992.
"What you're seeing is a part of Texas and American heritage going by the wayside," said Joe Gambill, the city manager. Miss Enid's daddy arrived in the West when Nocona was on the route of epic northward cattle drives from Texas to the rail yards of Kansas. "I mean, we made boots for the cowboys on the Chisholm Trail," Gambill said. "Well, the cattle drives are long gone, and it looks like the boot business in Nocona is gone, too. And it's a shame."
In 1980, when the film "Urban Cowboy" aroused the inner bull rider in millions of tenderfoot Americans, the industry's sales rocketed in unlikely parts of the country. From the Manhattan canyons to the frontier of Silicon Valley, necktied wranglers who couldn't have told a bull from a steer ambled into boardrooms in lizard-skin boots made in Nocona.
Like the rest of the industry, Miss Enid's company enjoyed a banner 1981, employing 500 workers and turning out more than 400,000 pairs of boots. Then after the craze had waned, along came country music's late-'80s surge in nationwide popularity, reigniting sales of western wear to urban cowpokes. In 1992, Nocona Boot filled orders for nearly a half-million pairs.
But by 1995, sales were in sharp decline. And manufacturers noticed that it wasn't just the fadsters moving on to something new. Classic-style cowboy boots also were losing their appeal in the cowboy states, Texas being the biggest.
"We didn't have these fancy tennis shoes when I was a kid," said Weldon Parr, 61, who has worked at Nocona Boot since 1964. He and his wife, Patricia, an 18-year employee, are among 20 married couples at the factory. "We had tennis shoes but they were just mostly for sports," Weldon Parr said. "You didn't wear them every day. Most everyone wore boots, or something made out of leather."
The Fort Worth conglomerate's "footwear segment," which owns the Nocona company and three other boot brands, finished last year in the red. Executives said they could no longer justify operating big plants--including Nocona and the Tony Lama cowboy boot factory in El Paso--at below capacity. Soon the Tony Lama plant also will be turning out Nocona boots, which sell for $200 to $800 a pair, a step below the market's top price range.
And the low-slung, beige-brick building Miss Enid built a half-century ago will stand empty alongside Highway 82 here. Last week, as temperatures hovered near 110, employees and others placed small wooden crosses and funeral wreaths on a strip of sun-parched grass in front of the factory.
"I got my first pair from Miss Enid when I was 9 years old," said rancher Bill Henley, 81. "And I haven't worn anything else since but her boots."
Merchants along Clay Street, Nocona's two-block commercial strip, are bracing for hard times after the plant shuts down next week. And like other local officials, city manager Gambill is trying to trim spending. Of the $2 million in property taxes levied annually here, the boot factory contributed about $170,000.
The average age of the workers is 43; hourly wages range from $5.50 to $11. Although local unemployment has been low, the 160 Nocona Boot employees make up more than 2 percent of Montague County's work force. The city's two other plants, which make belts and Nokona baseball gloves, employ fewer people combined than the boot company. And belts and catchers' mitts don't reflect local tradition, as cowboy boots do.
Miss Enid not only was Nocona's biggest employer, taxpayer and benefactor of worthy causes for much of the century; she was the embodiment of Nocona's modern identity and a cherished link to its Old West heritage.
Not far from here is an even smaller town called Spanish Fort. Herman Joseph Justin, from Indiana, arrived there by wagon train in 1879. He went by H.J. Justin and later would be called Daddy Joe. He set up a bootmaking bench and became a craftsman of high repute among the Chisholm Trail cowboys and certain outlaws who drifted in from the Indian Territory north of the Red River.
"My Daddy Joe used to tell me with pride about two men who were hanged," Miss Enid told local writer Dale Terry not long before her death. "They were both wearing boots he had made. He thought they had very good taste."
H.J. Justin moved his Justin Boot Co. to Nocona in 1889, with his wife. Miss Enid was born on April 8, 1894. She was suspended from school when she was 12 for dancing on a Sunday and refused to go back. She decided to learn bootmaking from Daddy Joe instead. That was 1906. By the time her father died 12 years later, Miss Enid was known for her bootmaking abilities. Her three brothers took over the business and, in 1925, announced to Miss Enid that they were relocating to Fort Worth, 90 miles south.
"I just bowed my neck and told them I wasn't going," Miss Enid said. "I told them I was going to stay in Nocona and start my own boot business. . . . I knew Daddy Joe would never have left Nocona."
Miss Enid, who lost her only baby to whooping cough, endured a number of tribulations (including her two philandering, no-account husbands) during her struggle to build Nocona Boot. In Fort Worth, meanwhile, her brothers' Justin Boot Co. grew into a conglomerate, Justin Industries, with subsidiary companies in the footwear and building materials businesses.
In 1981, Miss Enid was 87 and in a wheelchair. "All sorts of people were wanting Nocona Boot, but I didn't want to sell to them," she said. "I wanted it to stay in the family." One of her nephews was running Justin Industries, so they merged, and Nocona Boot joined the other cowboy boot companies in the conglomerate's "footwear segment," which lost $500,000 last year.
There are no Justins in Justin Industries today. But as workers crate the Nocona plant's machinery, it's 1925 again, and Miss Enid is 31, a six-footer like her daddy was, a Texas archetype full of stubborn. Once more she's standing in the hot Nocona dust, watching the factory pull out.
"My brothers didn't leave anything behind," Miss Enid said. "I remember well the last truck leaving, full of Daddy Joe's equipment. Oh, what a sad day that was."