Harmon’s Histories: 1800s Montana boasted cobblers aplenty to mend your shoe
“Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe. Get it done by half past two. Half past two is much too late. Get it done by half past eight. Stitch it up and stitch it down. And I’ll give you half a crown.”
Inexplicably, that old children’s poem became stuck in my brain the other day. It’s probably a waste of time to figure out earworms; they just happen. Anyway, it set me to thinking about cobblers and how few shoe repair shops there are these days compared to the past.
The School of Journalism at New York City University (CUNY) published a report about a decade ago, detailing the precipitous drop in the number of cobblers across the country.
“Only 15 years ago, 60,000 repair shops nationwide refurbished shoes and repaired other leather products. Today, only 7,000 remain in business despite a recession, which caused consumers to watch every penny.”
Back in the 1800s, before anyone conjured cheap, throwaway shoes, Montana newspapers were filled with shoe sales and shoe repair ads.
John Vetter was the man to see in Virginia City in the 1870s if you needed a custom shoe or boot made to order or needed repairs. Vetter advertised, “If you want a good, cheap job, go to the sign of the Little Boot (on) Wallace Street.
“Having re-located in business at my old stand – first door below Content Corner – I shall be glad to receive the favors of all my old customers, as well as the public generally. My work is known throughout Madison County and needs no further recommendation.”
In Elkhorn, Charles Englund called himself the “Practical boot and shoemaker” of the town, having “permanently located” there. Englund specialized in making shoes and boots to order, with “satisfaction guaranteed.”
The Helena Weekly Herald in 1879 had a wonderful description of a shoemaker's shop with its “awls of all sizes, and the smell of new leather.”
The writer continued, “There is no tune like that played by a hammer on a lap-stone. It is the drum beat of diligence. And ah! that lap-stone, licked into shapes and comeliness by the old sea, as a she-bear licks her cubs.”
The Neihart Herald in 1896 reported that “M. J. Median has opened a new shoe shop in the Folmsbee building, opposite Bennett's law office. Here he can be found by all those requiring repair work in the line of boots or shoes. Mr. Meehan also turns out new work, built to measure, and guarantees the best of satisfaction in all his undertakings. He makes a specialty of repairing ladies' fine shoes.”
The Herald also had a bit of fun recalling an old adage, “The toper makes the blue bottle fly, the irate father makes the gad fly, the cyclone makes the house fly, the blacksmith makes the fire fly, the carpenter makes the saw fly, the driver makes the horse fly, the boarder makes the butter fly, and the cobbler makes the shoe fly.”
The Daily Enterprise, Livingston, December 26, 1883 reported, “Nick Milieu, one of the oldest of Montana old timers, died at his residence in Helena on Friday last. He came to Alder Gulch from Colorado in 1863, and went to work as a cobbler. From that he rose to lie a heavy boot and shoe dealer, and one of the wealthiest and most highly respected men in Helena.”
Despite the fact that there seemed to be a cobbler on every corner, there were soothsayers back in the day claiming that true shoemakers and shoe repair men were a dying breed.
The Yellowstone Journal, published in Miles City, quoted an 1893 article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat saying, “There is no sense in calling a shoe-maker of modern times a cobbler. The nearest thing to a cobbler today is the custom made man who confines his attention exclusively to that one branch.”
“Machinery for making shoes in great quantities” was felt to be the wave of the future. “The labor saving wonders of the times,” said the article, “have practically swept this man out of the field, and there are very few members of the trade who are really cobblers.”
The article, as it turns out, was accurate – just more than a hundred years ahead of its time.
Today’s cobblers may be smaller in number than in the past, but they are still in high demand. A person who buys an expensive pair of shoes wants to keep that investment in good repair.
So there you have it – all because of an old children’s poem stuck in my brain.
Let’s just hope I’m not attacked with another earworm, like “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.” I really don’t want to go there!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.