The Buster & Co. workshop isn’t on the way to anything. In fact, it’s pretty out of the way, but that doesn’t mean that Craig Bartels, owner, doesn’t stay busy. Bartels makes boots, but not ordinary boots. They’re hand made one at a time, and each boot is specially made to fit its owner and no one else. Putting on a pair of Buster & Co boots is unique, he said.
“In my experience it’s really unbelievable,” Bartels said, “because you’ve never had anything that’s specially built for you.”
Bartels starts his boots with a consultation and foot measurement. He only measures in the morning, because by afternoon the customer’s feet have been walking around enough to have settled. If he could measure their feet right after his customers get out of bed, he says, that would be perfect.
Bartels then makes a “last.” He starts with a nylon form and carves it away or adds leather so the shape of the last matches the shape of his customers’ feet. He forms the sole leather to the bottom of the last and builds the boot to fit around the last perfectly.
“About 85 percent of people can be fit right off the shelf, and you come and see me if you’re in the other 15 percent,” Bartels said. However, those 15 percent are likely not the only ones visiting Bartels for boots. In general, his boots last three to four times longer than average boots.
In filing cabinets are numerous stencils for decorative stitching patterns. Often the patterns include numerous side-by-side lines of stitching. Bartels doesn’t use a machine with several adjacent needles, though; he stitches each row individually, one at a time, with an impressive accuracy and consistency.
Inside his workshop west of Pequot Lakes (or north of Motley, depending on your perspective) are antique machines that have been working hard for decades. Many were made in the 1930s, while his sewing machine is from the 50s. One machine is a pedal-powered heavy-duty sewing machine, which stitches surprisingly smoothly through several layers of thick leather.
Before he began making boots, Bartels made saddles. He’d had an interest in leatherwork ever since he was 14 years old, when he was given a leatherworking kit as a gift. He started small, with checkbook holders and billfolds.
“By golly, I’ve always been kind of an artsy guy anyway,” Bartels said. Even today people walk up to him and ask him if he remembers making the billfold or checkbook holder they carry. Before he settled on boots, Bartel’s career was varied for a while, including working for a rancher. While he was working there, he would make and repair leather implements for the horses.
Years later, a couple of Bartels’ friends were hounding him to make them a saddle. He finally found the time and did it, and then made one for himself. In order to get the job done he rented a chicken coop where he set up a workshop. His first four saddles were sewn by hand.
Saddles weren’t enough, though, to keep Bartels busy. He’d bought out his father’s store as well as a shoe repair store, which is where he got the equipment he needed for heavy duty sewing- much of which he still uses today.
Pretty soon Bartels took on shoe repair. He also made leather chaps (which, he points out, are pronounced “shaps”) for cowboys. As his shoe repair business took off, he decided to learn how to make boots. He traveled to Texas to study under a well-known boot maker, Jack Reed.
“I considered him to be the dean of bootmakers,” Bartels said. “I was very, very fortunate.” Reed was 74 when Bartels studied under him, and has since passed away. Bartels eventually moved his boot business to his home west of Pequot Lakes, where his workshop is in a separate building next to his house. He’s one of the only (if not the only) bootmaker in Minnesota. Bartels does know of one shoe maker located in the Twin Cities.
Bartels admits that were he to live a little less off the beaten path, he’d most likely have more business. Perhaps in the nature of a true cowboy, though, he just doesn’t want to live in the city.
“Me and town just don’t get along,” he said. And with his reputation, Bartels is at no shortage for work. He and his wife moved to their current location years ago, raised two daughters, and continue to enjoy life in the country.
A pair of cowboy boots by Buster & Co start at $850. As for the name, Bartels is Buster; company is his dog. To learn more or place an order, call the workshop at 218-397-2401.