He can fix just about anything constructed with leather, but family ties and tradition are the heart and soul of what Jim Horinek does at his Family Shoe Repair shop in Pilsen.
“I kind of got an epiphany on what to make the grandkids this year for Christmas,” Horinek said, as he free-hand cut a moccasin sole from a supple piece of cow leather, last week. “I’ve made lots of moccasins before from a pattern, but these are going to be special. I am making them from scratch.”
Horinek fills most of his free time with leatherwork in his shop when he is not at his full time job as a machinist at AGCO in Hesston.
“I enjoy this much more,” he said. “These are going to be knee-high moccasins made from deer skin so they are soft. Just the bottoms will be the stronger cow hide.”
Lining the wall behind Horinek’s workbench are pairs of boots he resoled for customers, some of whom traveled far to find his services.
“I’m the only shoe repair shop around here I know of,” he said. “There isn’t one in Marion, McPherson, or even Newton anymore. I guess I am a dying breed.”
Horinek learned his leather skills at Green Country Technology Center in Okmulgee, Okla., and graduated from there in 1986 with a degree in shoe, boot, and leather repair.
“I had a cousin who went there before me, so that is how I found out about it,” he said. “My grandfather was a tailor and handmade a lot of suits in his day. I guess working with my hands is kind of a family deal.”
Horinek and his wife, Norma, moved to Pilsen in 1992 when he took a job as herdsman at the Klassen dairy near Hillsboro. He opened up his shoe repair shop in 1993, and since then has worked on thousands of leather projects, including special items for his family.
“I made Norma these boots when she was sick,” he said, holding up a special pair of dark brown, side-laced, deerskin, cowboy boots. “Her legs were swollen and she couldn’t wear her favorite boots so I split them on the sides and put in lace-up plackets.”
Horinek said it takes about 30 hours to hand-make a pair of cowboy boots. He uses a curved needle machine to sew the soles on, a specialized WWII finisher machine to sew the sides together, and a larger sander/cutter machine to even the edges.
“I learned the basics at the school in Oklahoma,” he said. “But after that, I have just had to figure everything out on my own. I learned the hard way and broke a lot of needles.
In addition to working on boots, Horinek repaired a saddle, designed a harness for miniature ponies, braided leather belts, created flashlight holders, gun holsters, and even pockets for a pool table.
“Leather lasts forever,” he said. “That’s why I like to work with it.”
Horinek also made wallets last year for family Christmas presents. He used colorful orange and black manta ray skin and braided the edges together with black leather laces. He has a piece of silver and blue manta ray skin waiting for use in a wallet or billfold project.
“My kids have the coolest billfolds,” he said.
Horinek usually uses deer and cowhide in his projects, but he enjoys finding and working with exotic leathers and skins too. He created wallets and boots from snakeskin, kangaroo hide, lizard skin, elk hide, Asian anteater skin, and ostrich leg.
“Probably the most interesting has been Japanese bullfrog skin,” he said. “I needed eight bullfrogs to patch together a pair of boots. The skin looked black at first glance, but it had a red sheen when you held it up to the light.”
A pair of boots handmade by Horinek might cost a customer $600 or more. He sometimes sets up a table or booth at gun shows, but does not sell many of the higher priced boots.
“I put too much time into them to take less,” he said. “I like making boots, because it really is a lot of fun.”