Michael Jordan Steel Toe boots
HELENA — Mulish perseverance and defiant self-sufficiency are as much a part of a craftsman’s longevity as flair and skill.
Helena bootmaker Mike Ryan, a native of Brusett, has never been one to put his fate in others; his fate stays in his own hands.
Those hands — resembling the stubby, muscular claws of a bear — turn, twist and shape boots on his assembly line of one. Those sawdust-discolored, rock-solid paws peg the soles, rather than nail them, with beeswax-covered wooden pegs. Those hands look incapable of exhaustion.
“I look forward to work here every morning, and that’s something most people don’t do, ” Ryan said. “You got to have your freedom, your independence. I know what I’m facing every day, and that’s why I like working here. I don’t do it for the money. My freedom. It’s a cool deal.”
Ryan’s shop at 919 Euclid Ave. is a bit of a joy ride: there is the momentum of concentrated work in a setting of blackened tables and vintage heavy machinery. And there is laughter, there are visitors, there is the sustained banter with his daughter and assistant, Chris.
When locked in his work, however, Ryan is never distracted. He stands alert against the backdrop of rows and rows of boots, stacks of old-fashioned lasts (shoe and boot molds), and vintage industrial-strength tools and machines. On his homemade work bench there are seven pairs of boots in many stages of assembly — one requires the attention of the sole-stitchery, then a pause, and then another is worked on with a stretcher. Then Ryan is on to the next boot.
Lining the shop wall, there are approximately 1, 200 pairs of lasts, including ropers and pointed toe, narrow and round toe, square toe, narrow square toe, wide square toe, as well as loggers and packers.
“Most people don’t know the difference, ” Ryan said, pointing to a pair of steel-toed boots he is resoling for a local trucker who works in the North Dakota oil fields.
Ryan is a throwback to the days of finger-dialed phones and face-to-face conversations.
“I’m a mechanic, a marriage counselor, all the things you need to be qualified for shoe making. People come in and bring up that this happened and that happened. You need to step aside and listen.”
He scoffed at the conventions of a throwaway society.
“It’s all disposable, ” he said. “Microwaves and appliances go to the dump because it costs less than repairs. Shoes are the same way.”
Boots made in Ryan’s shop are the antithesis of disposable, the enemy of temporary. Their exacting detail is impressive, but their longevity makes them even more valuable.
“They will outlast a boot made in a mass-produced factory by seven times, if taken care of, ” he said.
Ryan, 62, was born and raised in Brusett, northwest of Jordan in Garfield County. He remembers receiving an Acme boot catalog in the mail in 1962. That catalog planted the seed of later exploration. He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1973, then used veterans assistance programs to help subsidize bootmaking courses in trade school.