Boots with history

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Vancouver Sun's John Mackie writes about the legend of Dayton Boots, and their appearance at the 2007 Pacific National Exhibition.

VANCOUVER - Legend has it that in the '50s and '60s, guys who wore Dayton boots were supposed to break them in by stomping some poor soul until the Daytons were baptized in their blood.

This might explain why apparently there used to be signs in Downtown Eastside beer parlours stating 'no knives, no guns, no Daytons'. 

But hey, that was then. Now, the owners of the East Van institution are trying to reposition the company's hand-crafted leather boots as a high-quality "heritage brand." And they've put up a big tent at this year's Pacific National Exhibition to showcase their wares to the masses.

The Dayton tent is one of 350 vendors hawking stuff at the 17- day fair. You can pick up a hot tub, stock up on miracle chamois, even check out $200,000 lots on Anarchist Mountain near Osoyoos.

Most of the vendors (250) are packed inside the Forum building, which is dubbed Marketplace throughout the fair. Dayton decided to set up a bigger space just outside Marketplace.

Black Beauties at the PNE

Vancouver Sun Diane Rees shows off the Dayton Black Beauty boot at the company's PNE stall with its replica of the Vancouver firm's
original neon sign. The Black Beauty was designed as a riding boot for department store magnate Charlie Woodward but went on the gain notoriety as the stomper of choice for bikers and other ne'er-dowells.

Sales manager Michelle Meijer has been with Dayton only a year, but she's already got the company history down, reeling it off as quickly and passionately as the most seasoned PNE pitchman.

In the 1940s, a guy named Charlie Wohlford repaired some caulk boots (pronounced cork boots) for his logger friends. Wohlford did such a good job, the repaired boots
were better than when they were new.

The loggers urged Wohlford to start making his own logging boots. In 1946, he did just that, naming them "Dayton" because it was easier to pronounce than "Wohlford."

CREDIT: Mark van Manen

Vancouver Sun Lise Carmichael checks out the signs, licence plate frames and the like at the Road Rage booth -- for those who want to make a statement or just express an attitude.

To advertise his wares, he put up a small neon sign of a boot at the company store/factory at 2250 East Hastings. The neon boot (a green outline of the boot, pink "Boots by Dayton" lettering) is still there 61 years later, one of the last great remnants of Vancouver's neon age. For the PNE, the company had a replica made at a cost of $3,500.

The replica neon sign was locally made, which is part of the company philosophy. Every Dayton boot is handcrafted in Vancouver, not done on the cheap abroad.

This explains why the boots are quite pricey, in the $350 range. But this being the PNE, there are lots of specials.

"We have some great deals on Confederates, regular $345, on for $125," Meijer says.

"We've also got our X-boots, which were used in the X-files, on for $99. We've also got some bin specials, the white driver and the red driver boot, factory second stock that we're blowing out at $125."

You get a mini-history with each boot. Today the white and red driver boots are a fashionable item popular with what Meijer calls the "eclectic artsyfartsy kind of crowd." But they were designed in the early '50s for milkmen back when milkmen delivered door to door.

"Milk truck drivers said 'We're scuffing up the bottoms of our white milk trucks with the black leather boots,'" says Meijer. "So [Wohlford] designed this boot, hence the name 'The Driver.' "

Dayton has another worker boot called the Hard Toe Toughie. But the most renowned Dayton boot, the one favoured by motorcycle riders and general ne'er-do-wells, is the Black Beauty, a 12-inch-tall number that was designed with a comfortable "single seam shaft."

"This boot was originally made for Charlie Woodward of Woodward's department store," Meijer relates.

"He came to us and said, 'Every time I jump on my horse I chafe the inside of my leg.' So we developed this boot."

Dayton has been around for six decades, but many of the vendors at the PNE are of more recent vintage.

Vancouver Sun

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