These Boots are Made for Fences

American Artisans, Hometown Heroes, People
on June 10, 2001

Neils Anderson decided to give his 580 acres near Perry, Okla., a kick-start of sorts nearly 14 years ago. The retired Noble County commissioner began decorating his propertys fence posts with upside-down, worn-out cowboy boots.

Now, 500 pairs of Western boots line two miles of posts at the ranch about eight miles east of the town of 5,300. The toes point onto Andersons land.

Anderson got the idea for Boot Country, as he calls the ranch, in 1987. He and his wife, Collene, traveled to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. While topping a hill in the western part of the state, they spotted a patch of boots lining the road on the fence. I can do that, Anderson said to his wife, so he went home, took out the six pairs of boots lying in his truck barn, and went to work.

All the boots were stolen the first night. Anderson soon found a way to remedy the thievery by splitting the boots along both sides and securing them to the fence with hog rings. He hasnt had a problem since.

Anderson says he doesnt really know why he was moved to put the boots out, or what the symbolism might be for some. He asked locals in South Dakota about the significance of the boots, but no one knew. In 1988, a historian turned up a report of another row of boot-topped fence posts east of Mount Rushmore. Those boots were said to have belonged to ranch hands who quit.

In 1987, Anderson placed an ad in The Perry Daily Journal seeking worn-out boots. More publicity followed from TV stations and statewide newspapers, and by 1988, 80 pairs of boots lined the property.

I never thought it would go this big, admits Anderson, who often finds donated boots left in a bag in his front yard. They sometimes appear on our front porch or in the bed of his pickup, adds his wife, Collene, who scours flea markets and thrift shops for worn-out boots.

The boot-lined fence posts are sacred to Anderson. They bring em (boots) to me. Nobody puts nothing out there but me, he said. A few of his buddies did slip several pairs of tennis shoes onto some of the fence posts just for a joke, Anderson says. The tennis shoes came down quickly.

He accepts boots in any condition.

They have to be Western cowboy boots, he says. The soles can be worn plum out. Current fence-toppers include red Justin Roper boots, black Tony Lama boots, and even a brown pair of fur-lined boots. Some came from noted Oklahomans such as the late state Sen. John Dahl and famed rodeo announcer Clem McSpadden.

A couple in Bakersfield, Calif., sent a pair they claim once belonged to country singer Buck Owens. The only Western cowboy boots rejected were a pair of camel-colored ostrich boots that belonged to Andersons son-in-law.

Theyre too nice to put out, he says.

Some of the boots put up in 1987 are barely hanging on through wind and harsh weather. Were in the process of replacing many of them, says Anderson, who recently added 13 new pairs. Hes received close to 600 donated pairs of boots over the years.

The Andersons property, which they have owned since 1963, is a popular destination for visitors to Perry. Everyone in town brings their relatives by to see Boot Country, Collene says.

Alf Heppler is one of the locals who gets a kick out of the boots. He took junk and made something of it, Heppler says. Arthur Brown, a retired doctor, agrees. He gave Anderson four pairs of boots. They were pretty worn out, he says.

Anderson says his fence post decorations provide new life for boots that might otherwise be thrown away. Theres still a place for em, even after theyre worn out.