Jim Bultsma was born in Chicago in 1959. Jim met Jana Birdsall in 1983. They were married in 1985. Gradually, through Jana, Jim came to appreciate the work of her father, Monte Birdsall. Monte was a bootmaker, then living above and working in his store, Stockman Boot Shop in Rapid City, SD. Jim wanted to learn the trade and Birdsall was a willing teacher. Birdsall’s own two sons, Jim and Jeff, had already learned boot repair and custom boot making from him.
Bultsma made his first pair of custom boots in 1986. He also learned how to repair boots and then teamed up with Monte in 1993 to work at Stockman Boot Shop. He learned how to make regular cowboy boots from Monte and then taught himself to do build Packer boots, a lace up type of cowboy boot.
Bultsma points out that there are a few schools for learning bootmaking. These are, however, only the beginning of the learning process. “You have to pay your dues, make the boots and make the errors and figure out why something doesn’t work.”
“I’m benefiting still from my father-in-law’s knowledge,” he says, “and I’ve also done a lot of research to better my skills and product.” Since learning customer bootmaking and boot repair, he has expanded to custom saddlemaking and saddle repair.Jim took over the business in 1998. He added a new name; Stockman Boot and Saddlery to reflect the addition of saddle making to the business.
Bootmakers are rare in the United States. “Custom bootmaking appears to be a dying business,” says Bultsma. “There are only a few people who are doing it.” Part of the problem, he says, is that many people are interested only in saving money. As a result, most of the boot and shoe making has gone to China and other foreign countries. Along with that shift in the industry has gone the knowledge and the equipment. The lasts, the devices used to shape the boot to the foot, are difficult to obtain in the United States. “If we ever go to war with China, we’ll have to go barefoot,” he jokes, but only partially.
There are still enough people who appreciate good fit and will accept the extra cost to get it. This keeps a few custom bootmakers at work. Working full time on a pair of boots, Jim can complete a pair in about 25 hours. But this must be done along with other leatherwork such as building custom saddles and doing saddle and boot repair as well as making suspenders, belts and other horse equipment.