March 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Although their professions and proclivities may differ a bit, astronauts, bikers, cops, movie stars, presidents, fighter pilots, polo aficionados, members of San Francisco’s leather subculture, tank commanders, and Teutonic toughs all seem to agree on one thing—The Dehner Boot Company of Omaha makes one fine custom leather boot.

On a walk through the factory near 36th and Martha St. with company president Jeff Ketzler, the Dehner ethic is quickly apparent. Artisans cut and shape leathers with hand tools smoothed and patinaed from decades of use. Leather uppers are sewn to soles with antiquated, belt-driven, black-enameled machines. Indeed, the factory floor could just as easily be a living-history museum of the cordwainer’s art circa 1930.

But Dehner continues to exist precisely because most of the world has passed the company by.

“We refuse to change how we do things,” Ketzler says. “We are known for craftsmanship and quality. I would close this factory before I allow us to become just another company that cranks out junk.”

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Little has changed during Dehner’s 130 years of existence. The tech revolution never happened here. The equation is simple: Determine exactly what the footwear needs to do. Take exact measurements of the feet the footwear needs to service. Once you know these details, find strong, supple leather and have men and women, most with decades of experience, use heavy-duty materials and mostly centuries-old techniques to craft the final product.

If it’s a Dehner, you will be comfortable in this timeless piece of footwear long after your other shoes have turned to scraps.

Using this formula, Ketzler and his father and grandfather before him have built a resume unmatched among American shoe manufacturers. NASA turned to the company to build some of the first boots to go into space. General Curtis LeMay looked to Dehner to design and build the perfect boot for the quick-strike flight crews of the Strategic Air Command. Horse buff Ronald Reagan often talked up his Dehner riding boots. James Dean wore Dehner boots. Leaders throughout World War II, including Gen. George Patton, wore Dehners. The Thunderbirds. The Blue Angels. Ketzler just shipped off a pair of military-style boots for Brad Pitt to wear in an upcoming movie. In time, you realize an impressive chunk of 20th century American history was made in Dehner boots.

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Ken Hedrick, owner of Stompers Boots in San Francisco, one of the largest retailers of Dehner Boots in the world, explains why Dehners are sought when the best is needed.

“There are really only two makers of very serious custom boots left in this country—Wesco and Dehner,” he says. “With the Dehners, what you come to realize—and what a lot of people have come to realize—is that nobody anywhere makes anything as good. They have some secret sauce or something. People have tried to copy them, but nobody can pull it off.”

Dehner once hovered around 40 employees in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The company has tended to employ closer to 20 in recent years, but they are doing much better than many other small custom shoe companies.

“We are doing pretty well while so many other companies like us around the world have gone out of business,” Ketzler says.

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Still, Ketzler does have plans to explore new markets. His latest idea came to him last year after his father passed away.

“It got me looking back, thinking how much he had been involved in, how much the U.S. had been involved in through that time,” he says. “It seemed like a history that should be celebrated.” So Dehner boots now has a “Reenactment Line.” If you or a group wants the exact boots worn by any number of historic figures, Dehner can make them for you for somewhere between $500 and $1,000 a pair.

“We still have all the designs in our files, and we still use all the same equipment and all the same leathers,” he says. “You get the exact same boot.”

In the front office of the Dehner building sits the lineup of Dehner products past and present. Here, longtime company everywoman Mary Rushing provides the tour. In her 18 years here, she has run done everything from finishing boots to running the shipping department and front office.

Today she gives a detailed, inside-the-craft, foots-on tour of a dozen or so of Dehner’s most historic artifacts. The black and white NASA boots worn in space by astronauts such as John Glenn are, back here on earth, just about the coolest things ever.

“I’m pretty proud to be a part of all this,” Rushing says. “It’s a unique company with a great history that stands for quality. You can feel like you’re doing something pretty cool here.”

The trick moving forward, Ketzler says, will be to stay true to the company’s history while trying to grow—carefully—in a world that “may not appreciate what we do as much as in the past.

“This company has a 130-year history of making a superb product,” he adds. “I’m just not going to be the guy who destroys that kind of legacy.”

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