Lee Miller from Texas Traditions talks about bootmaking legend Charlie Dunn in the 2nd part of his interview with The Hanger Project. Charlie Dunn worked in many shops throughout the United States before getting an offer to settle down and set up a shop in Austin, TX. By the time Lee met him in 1977, Dunn was 79 and an established icon in the trade. Today, his work lives on through Lee and Carrlyn Miller at Texas Traditions.
Charlie was born in 1898. He was born on the White River in Arkansas. He was always very proud of the fact that he wasn't born on land like a mere mortal. He was born on the water. They lived on a houseboat.
So anyway so Charlie's father and grandfather were shoemakers from Ireland. And so Charlie was a third generation. I believe it's third, either third or fourth. But Charlie worked with his dad in the trade until I believe he was about fourteen and then he packed his bags and left home. By that time he was living in Paris, Texas. So he left home and he grabbed his tool kit and he started his travels. And he traveled from shop to shop all over the country learning how to make boots and shoes. He worked in Memphis, Tennessee, Denver, Colorado, in Wyoming. He literally traveled just him and his tool kit. And he went from shop to shop learning, trying to get methods to continuously improve what he was doing. Charlie was working for Capitol Saddlery and he worked there for many years and that's where he was working when Jerry Jeff Walker wrote a song about him that I heard years later in Rutland, Vermont sitting in my driveway listening to that tape. So when I met him in 1977 he was 79 years old and two businessmen had opened the shop and brought him out of retirement to go ahead and to "please hire young people and train them so that when you're gone the craft would continue". Dr. Counts and Steve Weiner just said "Charlie you've got to come back to Austin. We'll set you up on the little shop, we'll hire young people, you can train them". It was their vision coupled with Charlie's that created Texas Traditions and if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here.
Charlie was not a very big man. He might have been 5'6 weighed 135 pounds. He wore a beret that was his trademark.
He was bald, and leaving World War I,e was wearing a navy cap, a sailor's cap and somebody handed him a beret and that became his trademark. So he wore beret always. So that kind of gave him a little Parisian flair.
Well Charlie was, as I said, he was very artistic.
I mean he was a tremendous artist. But he studied human anatomy. And he told me that when he was living in Memphis, Tennessee, I don't know if it was 1930 or something like that, he knew a lot of starving artists. And he said he decided then and there he was going to put his artistry in his boot making so he would never starve. And that's what he did. And that's kind of why he became known for what he was known for being an incredible fitter, having a good understanding of human anatomy, and also his boots were very artistic.
What was artistic, I mean, was it the sculpture the design and the bootleg?
You know boots, I mean footwear is in a sense sculpture. And so a boot is a very long beautiful elegant sculpture. And so it's those lines that kind of made him stand out. No I mean he was doing all of his design work. You know behind me we've got cactus boots that, you know, that's all his artistry. It's one thing to go ahead and to just do fancy stitching, you know. But it's when you start taking it beyond that to where you literally are drawing something of beauty like a cactus or a barbed wire or or any iconic symbol. And putting it together and kind of like a it's like a painting of leather.
Do you find that that shared kind of intersection and the craftsmanship that technical trade and the artisanship and the artistry of it is kind of what allowed you and Charlie to connect so well? Because your background in art is so evident and just seeing your work-
Well when Charlie told me the story about how he was going to put his artistry in his boots. I thought that was incredible because that's what I wanted him to do.
As an artist, that was my goal. So I thought wow I met a kindred spirit.
Not only a kindred spirit but somebody who of course was older and wiser than me and I could learn a lot from him and I did. I was. I was always bugging him. "Why do you do this? Why do you do that?" you know "show me this show me that" and little by little without me knowing it I became his protege.
Charlie died in 1993. We were with him on his ninety fifth birthday. And he was doing very well. He fixed me a drink. And he Charlie liked to drink rum and coke. So he made me a rum and coke and it was so powerful, I mean I was instantly drunk you know. And then afterwards we got out we walked around on his place. He lived in Smithville and he had built a cistern and he had built a water tower to hold the cistern. And I said "Charlie why don't you let me help you build it?" He says "I don't need your help". He was 95 and he didn't want my help. I was young, he was not.
But he was a tremendous artist and he was a tremendous fitter.
It was those things that kind of made his boots stand out. And he made boots for movie stars and politicians.
People really sought Charlie out.
Oh yeah and if you ever met Charlie who was him he was described by many as being a magical elf-like creature.
And so being in his presence I mean you you knew you were you. I mean you know I was astonished to be working for him. Because it was like you were working for a figure right out of history, like a Picasso.
That's the way he came across. I'm Kirby Allison, founder of The Hanger Project, and we love helping the well-dressed take care of their wardrobes. Thanks for joining us today here at Texas Traditions, I hope you enjoyed learning about Lee Miller. If you have any questions about what you saw in the video today, feel free to ask in the comments section below. I enjoy getting back to all those questions personally. Most importantly, if you enjoyed the video let us know! Give us the thumbs up or subscribe to our YouTube channel so you can receive future notifications. I'm Kirby Allison founder of The Hanger Project, and thanks for joining us.