News South Alabama Boot Maker Preserving Rare Trade

South Alabama Boot Maker Preserving Rare Trade

South Alabama Boot Maker Preserving Rare Trade
May 2, 2024 |

By Tanner Hood

Sitting on a worn cushion surrounded by tools, Bill Nordan molds and glues a seemingly simple yet skillfully stitched set of boots. 

Nordan’s weathered hands guide decades-old tools across the unfinished bottom of the ostrich skin shoes, which will take days to complete. 

“It takes me around 60 hours to make a pair of boots,” said Nordan, 75. “The boots in other stores today will not be made like this. We’re retired. Boot making is a hobby now.”

Boot making wasn’t always the path Nordan wanted to travel on. A Vietnam War veteran, Nordan was injured while serving and came back to the U.S. where he started shoeing horses. 

That’s how he met Vicky, his wife of 53 years. 

They opened a farm feed store where Nordan started repairing leather goods. This inspired him to craft saddles, and the opportunity presented itself in the form of a magazine ad. 

“One day I was looking in a quarter horse journal and there was an ad for Oklahoma State University (OSU) Technical College,” Nordan said. “I applied, was accepted and went to learn to be a saddle maker. Boots intrigued me, too. My wife and two children stayed in south Alabama, and I went to OSU and learned to make both.”

Nordan graduated from OSU in 1980 and came back to his family’s farm in Robertsdale. He started repairing everything from saddles and shoes to baby dolls and belts.

Bill and Vicky Nordan craft award-winning boots and handbags, preserving the increasingly rare trade of shaping leather goods. 

Vicky’s job as a nurse supported her husband’s boot making and leather repairs. Harnessing customers in small-town Alabama wasn’t easy, Nordan said.

“I did all the repair work to get clients, but my passion was saddles and boots,” Nordan said. “Most boot makers are in Western states, so I had to build a customer base. That’s why I got started in orthotics.”

Nordan started making orthopedic footwear, serving clientele who couldn’t wear run-of-the-mill shoes from big box stores.

“I helped a man from Jackson who had a foot deformity from polio,” Nordan said. “He wanted a Western-style boot that didn’t show his deformity, so I worked with him and made one. That led to me making orthopedic footwear for 20 years.”

Nordan said it was challenging to get locals to buy custom boots, but leaving Baldwin County was never on the table. 

“I’m from a foster family, so I never had a home until I met Vicky,” Nordan said. “We made this our home, and that’s why we’re still here.” 

The Nordans farm over 100 acres and have been in the cattle and hay businesses longer than the boot business.

Nordan said even if he stops making boots, quitting work isn’t in the cards. 

“We have about 30 cows, and we put up around 1,500 square bales and 150 round bales every year,” Nordan said. “We do it all on our own. I’m never going to stop and sit in the chair. I can get up every morning and go do farm work.”

Nordan’s passion for boot making was creatively captured in a poem his daughter penned in grade school.

In his prime, Nordan made over 30 pair of boots a year while building saddles and making repairs. Now in retirement, he makes 12 to 15 pairs a year, and every customer must have an appointment. Nordan said if he takes another order now, he won’t fit the customer in until 2025. 

Vicky is a craftsman, too, and fashions handbags from leather scraps for sale at their shop, Bill Nordan Custom Boots and Vicky’s Handbags on the Baldwin Beach Express in Robertsdale.

Nordan’s passion is evident in the boots. His deft stitches and skillful designs earned him three best boot awards at the Boot and Saddle Makers Roundup in Wichita Falls, Texas.

“I’ve beat boot makers from out West in their own backyard,” Nordan said. “Making boots is an art and a science. If you don’t have fit and function, it’s not any good. It’s being able to read a foot and read a human being.” 

Although Nordan hopes to eventually pass the business to his son and grandson, he said it’s difficult stepping away from a lifelong passion.  

“This has been 44 years of my life,” Nordan said. “No one new is getting into this business. I’ve watched videos and read articles about new methods and styles, but I always come back to the way I know how to do things.” 

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