A quarter of a century ago, I was recruited from my native west to Durham, North Carolina, where I still live in retirement. Unlike today, back then there wasn’t a place for a native westerner to provision cowboy boots or a good Stetson.
But a new acquaintance told me of a place thirty miles west which had been frequented a year or so earlier by actors and film-makers producing the movie Bull Durham here.
Off I went early one Saturday morning in a venerable Porsche 911 to find Tom Baily’s Pony Express.
The postal service, which long ago began to purposely ignore the importance of aligning delivery addresses with actual physical locations, took me the long way in the days before GPS.
The store isn’t in Graham, but I’ll bet that is where the carrier picks up the mail for delivery.
It is actually located on NC Route 87, a third of the way down to Pittsboro about a half mile above the Cedar Cliff cut-off and only three miles from Saxapahaw, which it seems would have been a more accurate postal designation.
Not even 50 years old when we met that day, Tom Bailey and I found a lot in common including his handcrafting of custom saddles and American Quarter Horses. I became a frequent visitor.
A month or two before I retired five years ago, a friend and I stopped there to replace some boots and to show Tom, my new Harley Cross Bones and were stunned to learn he had passed away a few weeks earlier.
He was just the age I am now now.
The store is still there but it isn’t the only connection between the western wear of my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho where I ended four generations of ranchers going back to territorial days.
If you cut 38 miles southwest through Snow Camp and then up the highway to Greensboro, you arrive at VF Jeanswear, the headquarters of Wrangler jeans.
Wranglers came along the year before I was born but in 1904 the company started in Greensboro as Hudson Overall Company, about the time my great grandparents and post-frontier grandfather were homesteading ranches along the Henry’s Fork River.
Note their dress in the 1907 photograph shown in this essay.
Westerners didn't begin wearing jeans and cowboy hats until the 1870s and even later along the western slopes of the Rockies, shortly after after they adopted cowboy boots.
This was many decades after my ancestors began to settle the west and about the time westerners gradually began to dress like tourists from the east expected them to, based on Wild West shows and Dime Novels.
Before then, they wore wool pants in the winter and canvas pants in the summer with possibly a variation of wellingtons and bowler and/or slouch hats.
Western snap shirts didn’t come along until 1940 or so, a few years before bolo ties became common.
In my part of Idaho, bolo it is pronounced more like “BOWla.”
By the time I came along, my grandfather always dressed in a Stetson, khaki pants and khaki shirt buttoned to the top but like my dad had after returning from WWII, boots patterned more after those worn by GIs during the war.
My dad, by then, had also shifted to wearing ball caps, a habit picked up in the army and to my horror, overalls, like he had worn as a kid such as the predecessors of Wranglers and sometimes overalls.
During my early years, 50s TV westerns such as Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Roy Rogers and Death Valley Days were the arbiters of what ranchers were meant to wear.
I still prefer Wranglers, slim fit boot cut. Jeans aren’t what they used to be. Even Levis seem paper thin. But looking back on western wear, it may be that it never was what it used to be.
One thing is for sure, just as it is today from Greensboro, near where I live, western wear originates as much from the south and east, while the west, as it has always been is exploited and despoiled by easterners and their enablers for natural resources.
But I miss Tom.