MILLSAP, Texas - Wearing a red sleeveless shirt and Levi's tucked into a tall pair of red-white-and-blue cowboy boots, Stephanie Ferguson seems completely at home in this rural stretch of Parker County, Texas, the oft-proclaimed "cutting-horse capital of the world."
And she is, though Ferguson grew up in far-off northern Ohio, riding English style rather than Western, and settled in Millsap only five years ago.
She moved here because she makes custom cowboy boots, and where better to build boots than Texas? But despite her interest in horses, and despite the tough-as-nails boots on her feet, Ferguson's creations rarely see the inside of a stable or corral.
Her boots are destined for finer things maybe the Cattle Baron's Ball, or an exhibit at the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, either on the feet of a well-heeled patron or as part of the exhibit itself.
Ferguson is part of a new wave of custom bootmakers, many coming from other vocations and other parts of the country, each with an appreciation for the romance of the old West, each with specific ideas for expressing that in new ways.
Many, Ferguson included, say they were drawn to the craft by "The Cowboy Boot Book," written by Tyler Beard and considered one of the bibles of the art. (Gibbs Smith; $19.95)
"That's the book that started this resurgence in bootmaking," Ferguson says. "It brought in people like me who decided they were going to make boots. We owe it all to Tyler and Jim Arndt," who photographed "The Cowboy Boot Book"; its sequel, "The Art of the Boot"; and the upcoming "Cowboy Boots," to be published by Gibbs Smith in October.
"No one can take a picture of a boot like this guy," Ferguson says.
Something similar might be said of her.
Not every bootmaker strives for artistic statement with each pair. Some prefer stout work boots and offer just one or two stitch patterns and a few color choices. Their customers love them.
"And then you have people like Stephanie and some of the other custom bootmakers who are making boots that are more fashion accessory than a work necessity," Beard says.
For Ferguson, that was a natural path.
Long before she even thought about making boots, she was making clothing, often with classic Western themes.
"I was doing evening wear, leather evening wear there's nothing like a leather dress," she says. "It was original wearable art. Then it became leather-inlay art, leather jackets and things like that. That led to saddle work.
"Then I picked up Tyler Beard's first book on boots, and I thought, 'I've got to try that.' "
She noticed in "The Cowboy Boot Book" that Jack Reed, one of the legendary figures in bootmaking, taught the craft at his shop in Burnet, Texas.
Reed, who retired a few years back, focused on the process of making boots, breaking it down to 372 steps, some requiring brute strength, others extreme delicacy. Reed has an impeccable eye for the shape and line of a boot and standards so high that even he never considered any of his boots perfect.
"When she went to Jack Reed's that first day, she had the design in mind and she was doing it, skiving the leather for an inlay, all of that," says Judy Ferguson, Stephanie Ferguson's mom and office manager.
"And by the end of the day, her hand was so swollen that she had to sleep with it in a bucket of ice, just so the swelling would go down enough so she could go back the next day."
After that hands-on introduction to the art, she went home to hone her skills and quickly won recognition for her designs, which were included in cowboy boot museum exhibits in Colorado, Nebraska and Texas.
One pair, and perhaps her best-known design, depicts 3-D ruby throated hummingbirds "the bodies are 'poofed' out," she says sipping nectar from red leather flowers arrayed across creamy yellow boots with sky-blue piping.
"Those took me almost a month," she said. "They were enough to make me think I was going to quit."
Instead, she went to work for Bo Riddle, one of the young stars of bootmaking then based in Nashville, helping to execute his extraordinarily detailed designs.
In 1998, she set off for Oklahoma State University to study pedorthics designing and making boots and shoes that alleviate various foot problems.
A year later, Stephanie Ferguson and her family moved to Millsap, 40 miles west of Fort Worth. She lives there with her mother and 14-year-old daughter, Desirae.
Right around that time, Beard published "The Art of the Boot," featuring several of Ferguson's designs, including the hummingbirds. She was one of 26 bootmakers profiled.
Her boots now sell for as much as $5,500 a pair. They've appeared in three of Arndt's popular boot calendars and have been displayed at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
A neighbor soon became one of her best customers, buying boots that allowed Ferguson's artistic soul to run wild.
She did one pair in rich tropical green and aqua ostrich skin, with inlaid flamingos and palm trees along the outer seam, with the fronds flapping loosely over 3-D coconuts.
Another, in blue ostrich full-quill vamps, smooth on top features lily pads and dragonflies. A third pair, complete with horsehair manes, depict the owner's favorite horses.
"She considers her boots to be jewelry, and she wears fancy boots to do just about everything," Ferguson says of her neighbor.
"That fits in with her theory that eating on her best china every day makes every day something special."
And so many people stopped the neighbor to ask about the boots that she asked Ferguson to add a little pocket inside the boots, "so she could carry my business cards," Ferguson says.
Another client, Carolyn Frost Keenan of Houston, had a particular vision for her boots.
"My partner and I have restaurant franchises in Houston and Dallas called Red Robin, and I'm an alumna of the University of Texas, so I wanted something that involved both of those," Keenan says.
She and Ferguson designed the boots with blue ostrich vamps and kangaroo tops. ("I had some oil interests in Australia," Keenan explains.)
Inlays included the seal of the Houston chapter of the Texas Exes and the logo for her restaurants, a red robin in cowboy hat and boots, with a rope leading to Bevo, UT's longhorn mascot. Along the top, Ferguson stitched the "brands" Keenan created for other companies she owns.
"Best of all, from the day we put them on, they were exactly like cowboy boots should be they feel like house slippers," Keenan says.
Ferguson spends hours talking with customers about their ideas.
"I had a lady come by, and she was here for two-and-a-half hours," Ferguson says.
"She likes bluebirds and butterflies, and she said she wanted a plain boot, but it really won't be a plain boot at all. But that's how it works people come with an idea and I draw up a bunch of things and we go from there."
And when she's sorting through a box of vivid ostrich skins or talking about the superb quality of farm-raised alligator hides from Louisiana, Ferguson's imagination bubbles.
"We need to promote alligator and our Louisiana alligator farmers and the alligator tannery there," she says. "I think I'm going to do a pair of boots in red alligator, with a lot more yellow roses on them and maybe the Texas flag and maybe some gold and silver barbed wire inlaid over them. How's that sound?"
Now, Texas flags and Lone Stars and yellow roses aren't radical subjects for cowboy boots, but the execution of Ferguson's designs reflects the increasing sophistication that Beard sees from some of the industry's most creative bootmakers.
"I've always thought the '30s and '40s were the golden age of cowboy boots," he says. "And this is the platinum age.
"Still," Beard says, "there are only a handful of people who can do this. Out of 150 custom bootmakers who say they're making boots full time, maybe half are actually doing it. And out of those 75, there may be 20 who can do the really flashy, fancy work."
Sometimes, of course, a customer really does want a plain boot, so Ferguson puts all her attention into the leather, the stitching, the tiny details.
One customer ordered three pairs of full-quill ostrich-skin boots in conservative, business-suit colors for about $11,000 for the set. But the skins are perfect, the boots exquisite.
Less-exotic leathers carry significantly lower price tags. Ferguson says her boots start at $850 a pair.
A bargain, Beard says, considering all that's involved in making custom boots.
"I remember when custom boots started at $300 and people said, 'Oh, my gosh, that's so much money.' And I said, 'It takes a guy 30 to 40 hours to make a pair.' Then you factor in the cost of the materials. Some that Stephanie makes might take a couple of weeks."
It's hard work.
Making cowboy boots requires both strength and delicacy, the skills of a craftsman and an artist's soul. And as members of this particular little world like to joke, "You'll never meet a rich bootmaker."
Ferguson knows the highs and lows of her chosen vocation, lessons learned over 10 years.
"It was hard starting out, extremely hard, and sometimes it's still hard," she says. "If I'd known how hard it would be, I probably wouldn't have done it. But there's something so special about it, too, and I guess something about me that keeps me going."
Want a pair? You can find out about Ferguson's work by calling (817) 341-9700.