Once a staple service, shoe cobbling has fallen in demand as modern consumers opt to replace, instead of repair, worn shoes. But a small contingent of footwear enthusiasts keeps the craft alive in Wyoming. At Backcountry Cobblers in Fremont County, craftsmen refurbish cowboy boots, resole climbing shoes and tackle all manner of creative requests.
Founder Jay Halford got into shoe repair while searching for a sustainable career path. He had studied business, but disliked the field and ended up bartending to support his climbing passion. He moved to Lander in 2016 and soon identified a need: “It always blew my mind that there was no resoler around since you can climb year round and people come from all over to climb here.”
Halford learned to resole his and his wife’s climbing shoes, then expanded his services to friends and word-of-mouth customers. What started as a climbing-shoe side gig in his garage launched as an LLC in 2018. As new requests for shoe projects came in, Halford said, he learned how to tackle them. “It just kind of snowballed.”
Though it’s a trade traditionally handed down intergenerationally, Halford is self-taught. That education entailed “a lot of on-the-fly learning, a lot of archaic textbooks that I had printed out and a lot of YouTube,” he said. He learned to grind rubber, temper glue, form toecaps, mold them on a last and replace old components.
Inside the shop on a recent day, the smell of glue sharpens the air and an assortment of shoes — Chaco sandals and fringy black ankle boots, weathered sorrels and well-creased leather Lariat boots — fill racks, hanging trees and cubbies. In the spirit of the operation, much of the industrial equipment is decades old, used and refurbished.
The work suits Halford; he enjoys nerding out on the technical aspects, figuring out how to preserve the value of well-loved possessions and creating art that has utility. Customers bring him dog-chewed shoes to salvage, ask for bespoke orthopedic adjustments and wonder if he can put climbing rubber on Crocs.
“I don’t ever foresee it being as prolific as it was in its heyday,” he said of cobbling. “But I do think that it will continue to be a viable industry. And it’s so much fun … Typically I’m very excited to come to work.”