Charlie Dunn
Charlie Dunn

Charlie Dunn was probably the best known bootmaker in the world, thanks in part to the popular, namesake country song Jerry Jeff Walker wrote about him in 1972. He was born September 19, 1898 on a houseboat on the White River between Newport and Batesville, Arkansas. He died September 23, 1993.

One of ten children, Dunn was the last of several generations of bootmakers. His great-grandfather immigrated to America from Ireland in the early 1800s. A few years after he was born, Charlie's family moved to Texas in a covered wagon, settling in the small town of Glory, near Paris, Texas. The day he turned seven, Charlie began making boots as an apprentice to his father and Ed Lewis, a one-legged master craftsman bootmaker in Paris. Leaving public school after the third grade, Charlie began working for Lewis at age eight. He finished his first pair of boots when he was eleven as a birthday present to himself. As a young man, Charlie studied art in Memphis, Tennessee, and incorporated that training into his bootmaking craft.

He went on to work in various boot shops in West Texas, settling at Fort Sam Houston in the 1930s. Beginning in 1945, Dunn worked at the Capitol Saddlery in Austin until his retirement in 1973. It was there that his reputation spread for making perfect fitting boots of original design. He had customers ranging from the rich and famous to common folks. Among his famous customers were singers Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte, Rusty Weir, Carole King, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ernest Tubb; writer J. Frank Dobie, football great Bobby Lane; and actor Peter Fonda.

After a three-year retirement in Mesquite, Texas, Charlie was lured back to bootmaking in September 1977, when two young Austin businessmen offered to set him up in his own Austin shop. He lived in a house behind the shop with Cecile, his wife of 60-plus years. He supervised and told jokes to his own apprentices there until his death. Characteristic of the stereotypical artist, Charlie Dunn always wore a beret even while indoors. But according to Charlie it wasn't because he was an artist. He said he wore it to cut down on the glare from his head.

"Charlie Dunn" by Jerry Jeff Walker:

Well...if you're ever in Austin, Texas, a little run down on your sole.
I'm going to tell you the name of a man to see,
I'm going to tell you right where to go.
He's working in Capital Saddlery. He's sewing in the back of the place.
He's old Charlie Dunn, the little frail one with the smilin' leathery face.

Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.
Charlie Dunn boots that are on my feet
It makes Charlie real pleased to see me walkin' with ease...
Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.

Well...Charlie's been making boots over there,
he says about 50 some odd years.
Once you wear a pair of handmade boots,
you'll never wear a store-bought pair.
Charlie can tell what's wrong with your feet, just a feelin' them with his hands.
He can take a look at the boots your wearin'
...and know a whole lot about the man.

Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.
Charlie Dunn boots that are on my feet
It makes Charlie real pleased to see me walkin' with ease...
Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.

Now Buck's up front he's accountin' up his gold.
Charlie's in the back patchin' up a sole.
There are other people coming in smilin' at him,
...they all wonder how's old Charlie been.
Old Buck's a makin' change, he never sees no one.
He never understood the good things Charlie done.

Yeah, old Charlie never had his name on the sign.
He never put a mark in a boot.
He just hopes that you can remember him the same way that he does you.
He keeps your measurements in this little book,
...so you can order more boots later on.
Well, I'm writin' down some on Charlie's size, 'cause I'm makin' him a song.

Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.
Charlie Dunn boots that are on my feet
It makes Charlie real pleased to see me walkin' with ease...
Charlie Dunn, he's the one to see.

Bibliography: Sharon DeLano and David Rieff, Texas Boots, pp. 119-124; Robyn Turner, Austin Originals: Chats With Colorful Characters (Austin, Texas, 1982), pp. 22-26; Steve Weiner "Charlie Dunn At Last" (Austin, Texas: Steve Weiner Productions, Inc., 30 min. video documentary, 1983); Wendy Brabner, ed., Texas Monthly Texas Characters Datebook 1985 (Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, 1984). Carrlyn Miller, Letter to Richard Bartholomew, Sept. 21, 1999 (Texas Traditions, 2222 College Ave., Austin, Texas 78704, 512-443-4447, TexasTrad@aol.com); "Charlie Dunn" music and lyrics by Jerry Jeff Walker, Groper Music Company.