Whether made for working in a rugged forest or walking on a deep-pile carpet, Clemons is Douglas County’s go-to source for custom-made, high-quality boots and shoes.
Story by Brandon Johns, Photos by Thomas Boyd
With a long-standing reputation for rugged dependability, Clemons boots are regarded as a crucial piece of equipment by those putting in long days of work in the forests. Founded on the hunch that Roseburg needed a boot shop, Walt and Bill Clemons’ intuition proved to be spot on.
The father and son’s chief product originally was a logging boot known as a caulk boot (pronounced “cork” around these parts). At the height of the timber industry, Clemons had four people turning out orders, which were mainly shipped to dealers. When logging started to decline, the Clemons decided to sell retail out of their own store.
Then, as business slowed even further, the need to diversify was apparent. Wisely, the Clemonses were able to transition into firefighting boots and keep production going.
“Hotshot crews that came into our area to fight fire would see a pair on a local person, then end up ordering their own,” Bill Clemons says. “Nowadays, a lot of the people who order from us I never meet. We have them take measurements using a form, and then we make the boots. We’ve shipped them as far away as New York.”
Ordering may be high-tech these days, but Clemons boots are still handmade using machines dating back to the 1940s. The tools may be old-fashioned, but the business has evolved with the times. A step inside the store on Main Street in downtown Roseburg reveals other types of custom-made quality footwear on the shelves.
In addition to work boots, Clemons makes western boots as well as fine dress shoes. About 25 years ago, the company bought out a shoe business, acquiring numerous forms and patterns in the process. So they started making a variety of different shoe styles.
Around the same time, a cowboy bootmaker rented a workspace from them. Soon they began trading patterns, and suddenly Clemons was also in the cowboy boot business.
Cowboy styles can be especially difficult, Clemons says, as they have to be built to each individual foot in order to get the fit perfect. Measurements need to be taken every couple of inches. A logging or fire boot, on the other hand, is easier because their laces allow for adjusting.
Learning to make boots and shoes the quality of a Clemons can take years of instruction and apprenticeship. While there are schools that teach the trade, “They don’t always teach the little details that make a big difference in the final product,” Clemons says. “Getting that exact custom fit to a shoe or boot is not easy; it’s something only hands-on experience can provide.”
Just as he learned his skills and bootmaking techniques on the job, Clemons has been passing them along to his daughter, Libby, who has added her own style to the company’s line. Clemons says his daughter would come into the shop when she was small and “wouldn’t stop fiddling with the machinery.” Today, she is operating it herself and doing it well.
"CAP-TOE SHOES, ONCE CONSIDERED AN OLD-MAN DESIGN, ARE NOW COOL AGAIN. YOUNG HIPSTERS MAY BE OUR SAVING GRACE." -Bill Clemons
Libby Clemons is interested in carrying on the Clemons family tradition and keeping the shop running well into the future. “I like the family business aspect,” she says. “I was practically raised in the shop and have a lot of fond memories.”
She works in the shop as much as possible, but she’s also attending classes at the University of Oregon. So her dad is the shop’s constant presence and has been since his father, Walt, died last May.
“At 85, Dad could still work all day with just a lunch break,” says Bill.
Because business is good, and Bill Clemons is currently filling all orders himself, the shop is slightly backed up. But Clemons’ customers are willing to wait for the quality footwear they know they will eventually be sporting.
“Younger people are back buying quality shoes that last,” Clemons says. “Cap-toe shoes, once considered an old-man design, are now cool again. Young hipsters may be our saving grace. Also, people are beginning to buy American-made and locally made goods again.”
Clemons offers boots in caulk, cowboy, packer, roper (slip-on or laced) and engineer styles. Several variations of cap-toe dress shoes are available as well. Each pair is a testament to the skill and dedication that is the long-standing hallmark of Clemons Boot Co.