What’s with the saddle shoes?

A long, fun walk in black & white saddle shoes

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

I’ve been wearing black & white saddle shoes since I was in sixth grade back in Shenandoah, Iowa, and that was a long time ago.

I’ve always been convinced they were going to come back into style at any moment.  They’ve frittered up close to being in style a couple of times, but never closer than in the late fall of 1994 during the late-great “Back in the Saddle” campaign I conducted in my column in The Des Moines Register.

As a result of that campaign, and continuing today, about 4,000 Iowans have discovered just how happy their feet can be.

In the late summer of ’94, the Bass saddle shoes I’d work for eight years gave out.  My shoe repair person then, Linda Hart, “The Country Cobbler” of Conrad, Iowa, had re-soled them twice, but she refused to do any more.  So I set out to find a new pair.  Several shoe stores in Des Moines said they hadn’t carried B&Ws for years.  The Bass outlet store on I-35 near Story City didn’t have any in stock, and in fact didn’t show any in their catalogue.  So I called G.H. Bass & Co. Shoes in South Portland, Maine, and tried to order a pair direct.  They laughed!

I was told that they hadn’t made black & white saddle shoes for 10 years.  No demand, they said.  I asked if they’d special-make me a pair, and they explained rather snootily that they are a major shoe manufacturer that doesn’t special-make one pair of shoes.  When I asked how many of my friends I’d have to round up to buy specially-made ones, they told me I didn’t have enough friends to make it worth their while.

Feeling challenged, I enlisted the help of readers of my “Iowa Boy” column in the Register.  I asked for letters trying to persuade Bass Shoes to start making the saddles again.  Finally, after a barrage of four columns filled with funny letters, Bass “surrendered,” as it was put by Mitchell Massey, Senior Vice-President/Retail.  One time only, he said, they’d take orders from me and my friends in Iowa for saddle shoes and they’d make them.

I had to round up checks and shoe sizes from my readers, telling them “it’s time for you to put your money where my mouth has been.”  Then I begged my wife Carla, who was in the midst of finishing her master’s degree at Iowa State University, into handling the orders.  Neither of us had any idea what was coming.  Two weeks later, we bundled up orders for 675 pairs of men’s and women’s B&W saddle shoes and checks made out to Bass Shoes totaling $48,000.

Well-well!  This had suddenly become an entirely different matter!

Bass got excited and put the first 10 pairs they made on the feet of their sales force heading into the New York City Shoe Show, the biggest shoe show in the world.  The Bass sales people told the story of what was happening in Iowa – they called it the “Iowa Buy” – and shoe dealers put in orders for 10,000 pairs!  Bass decided to put the shoes back into regular production, and that landed the story on page 1 of the New York Times fashion section.

Meantime, they re-tooled their factory and started making B&Ws as quick as they could make them, meeting the demand from Bass President Don Sappington that all those saddle shoes would be made and delivered to the customers in Iowa by Christmas Day.  In fact, some of them were special-delivered on Christmas Day!

Iowans were still ordering saddle shoes from Bass a decade later, proud of the fact that for once, folks here led a fashion trend!  Wearers include Governor Terry Branstad, University of Okoboji co-founder Herman Richter, former Buena Vista University President Keith Briscoe, opera singer Simon Estes, University of Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, Sioux City Journal columnist Tim Gallagher, Tennessee sage Douglas T. Bates III, Internet sports columnist Ron Maly and a lot of other fashion leaders.

For nine years, Carla and I bought a pair for the head coach whose team won the annual football game between BVU and Loras College, two schools where we’ve been on the faculty.  The colleges’ sports information directors nicknamed that game, “The Battle for the Saddles.”

People always ask what I got from Bass for doing so much promotion of their fine B&W saddle shoes.  The answer: Cheap columns and a lot of fun.

You can read a lot of those columns by doing some Googling for “saddle shoes” and “Offenburger.”

So it’s been a long, fun walk in black & white saddle shoes for me.  I still wear them several days a week, and nearly always when I dress up.  They not only make my feet happy, they make me look about as cool as an Iowan can possibly look.