By Jeff Balke
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The master cobbler, who owns more than 50 pairs of boots himself, is asked on a recent day about his own footwear, tennis shoes. He explains that he has been doing some cleaning in the shop. "It's the only other pair of shoes I own," he says.
A doctor's wife enters and gushes at her newest pair of stark white, high-heeled boots. They feature an eagle accented with gold filigree with a tiny touch of green falling from his claw. "That's the same pattern my father made for Dale Evans," Carroll proclaims. The woman is preparing for a rodeo dance later that evening and puts on the newest creations, commenting on how the boots are soothing to her bunions.
Faraway customers who cannot make it into the shop get a Rocky-designed map of the foot, with specific directions on how to measure for the working diagram he creates to guide the boot construction. For a reporter, he shows how he takes five different measurements of the foot. Those are used to fashion what is known as a "last," a Fiberglas or wooden mold that replicates the foot's size. Wooden pegs help bind the leather as the boot takes shape.
The boots are customized as he stitches the leather and does the inlays. Customers can choose from seven styles of toes, six heels and five scallops, along with infinite extras. Colors vary with the choice of material, and that range covers many animals, including reptiles and sea creatures. There's calfskin, baby calf, water buffalo, ostrich, kangaroo, caribou, sharkskin, lizard, snakeskin, ringtail lizard, anteater, elephant, eel and alligator.
In times of high demand, such as the Houston Rodeo days, Carroll farms some of the labor out to what he calls his elves, at an undisclosed workshop off U.S. 290. He boasts that he can go from measurement to finished boot in eight hours. "And [competitors] will tell you it can't be done."
He views his work as art as much as craftsmanship. Carroll says he relies on a sixth sense about customer tastes and uses research to ingrain the personality into the leather ornamentations, giving the boots a character of their own. "I study people," he says. "I believe when you are born has a lot to do with your personality."
Carefully logged are clients' favorite colors, heel and toe preferences and even birthdays: "You're a Gemini with a Cancer cusp, and are conservative," he says to a reporter, stowing his notes away for future reference.
Prices start at about $300, slightly more than the cost of another Carroll exclusive, exaggerated customized clown shoes. The circus entertainers may flop, but Carroll guarantees that their extended toes will not. The boot maker, however, prefers crafting for queens instead of clowns.
For Queen Elizabeth, Carroll carved "QE-2" into her red boots to commemorate the ship named in her honor. She was amazed at the personal touch, he says, and wondered how he knew that red was her favorite color.
He recalls his explanation to her: "Every woman likes red, Your Majesty."
While running in royal crowds comes late in life for Carroll, he inherited some of his fascination with celebrities. His father crafted boots for country-music and screen legends such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Even Elvis got a pair.
The western bar Carroll operated in the 1970s channeled him toward the next generation of country greats. Musician and songwriter Brian Collins recalls seeing Willie Nelson and other stars frequenting the club as an after-concert haven.
Carroll says Nelson entertained the RJ's crowd one night after performing at Gilley's, where owner Sherwood Cryer paid him more than $50,000 a gig. Carroll says he fielded a call the following day from Cryer, wanting to know what it had cost for Nelson's appearance at RJ's.
"Sherwood, you better sit down, because I gave the man four Lone Star beers," Carroll remembers saying.
He relocated his boot shop to Ella in 1979, but that did not end his associations with music stars. Carroll says that may be one reason for the eventual acrimony with Houston Rodeo officials, who declined to comment for this story. Carl Riley, a sheriff's assistant chief, says stars like Nelson, Tanya Tucker and Larry Gatlin would brag on stage about Carroll's boots. That free publicity may have alienated rodeo officials, Riley speculates.
Carroll says he operated a rodeo sales booth for almost 30 years, but a dispute over what he could sell added to the friction. He says he missed one rodeo parade because of illness, and then came the request that he resign his rodeo committee post. But at about the time the rodeo problems were escalating in 1989, the irrepressible boot maker kicked aside his setbacks. After all, the vice president himself was coming to town, and Carroll wanted to meet him.
When the senior George Bush passed along in the rodeo parade, Rocky Carroll dashed out to greet him and give him a business card. But it's not that easy to meet the vice president of the nation, especially when you're a long-haired, bearded stranger, Carroll soon learned. Secret Service agents quickly moved in to stop him.