Gokey proves Missouri-made footwear can compete
President Theodore Roosevelt wore them. So did Ernest Hemingway. Grandpa Jones liked to show them off on “Hee Haw.” For more than 170 years, Gokey has been the choice for those who demand quality footwear. Yet most Missourians have no idea these handcrafted boots and shoes come from a small factory in Tipton.
Plant Manager Stacy Doss believes in his products so much he’s been known to step into a pit full of live rattlesnakes to prove his boots are tougher than anything the great outdoors can throw at them. “We’ve been to the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas a couple times,” says the Co-Mo Connect member. “I did demos in the pits with rattlesnakes. You had to clear a spot to stand. My boots are over there in a box in the corner. They have literally been bit thousands of times. And you can’t even tell it.”
The business got its start in 1850 when Noah Gokey began making boots in New York. His factory caught fire and burned, taking an entire city block with it. It was rebuilt in upstate New York, then sold and moved to Minnesota where it would remain until 1992. That’s when Stacy’s father, Jerry, moved the operation to the former Stride Rite plant in downtown Tipton where it was owned by Orvis and now Boyt Harness Co.
“My father was working for Stride Rite in Fulton,” Stacy recalls. “One of the guys he had trained over the years was the plant manager here for Stride Rite. When this plant was closing he contacted my dad and said, ‘we’ve got like 400 people here that’s going to be out of a job.’ The building is owned privately. They were wanting to keep a business in it.”
Where Stride Rite once turned out 5,000 pairs of shoes daily, Gokey puts the emphasis on quality for the 100 to 120 pairs it makes in a week. One model of its boots has 500 stitches, all put in by hand using an awl and a pair of needles.
“It’s very high quality,” Stacy says. “It takes about a year for us to train somebody in the shoe and boot department to where I consider them halfway trained. If I hire 20 people, I might keep one. It’s a skilled labor job. When you see the people do it, it doesn’t look hard at all. But I will let you try. I like letting people try because they are like, ‘I can’t even punch that through the leather.’ ”
Stacy learned the trade himself starting at age 14 when he sewed footwear for his dad in the attic of the family home. Save for a short time when he left the company, he’s worked for Gokey ever since.
He still crafts all of the custom footwear that is one highlight of the business. For an extra $100, customers can have their footwear made to perfectly match their feet, flaws and all.
“For people who truly need custom footwear it’s a unique company that does this for them,” Stacy says. “One guy had his toes cut off in a motorcycle accident. Now where are you going to buy shoes to fit both of your feet like that?
“As people get older their feet change. They have to buy a size 12EE to get the width they need. And they are really only in an 11. Or they have one foot different than the other, or their insteps fall. There’s all kinds of things people have wrong with their feet that we build for.”
What makes Gokey footwear so unique is that it is designed to last a lifetime — or maybe two lifetimes. “I have customers call me and say, ‘hey, these were my dad’s. They are a little small, can you stretch them?’ Yeah. They went through his lifetime and now they are going through the son’s lifetime.”
Stacy explains that most shoes have an upper that is glued to the sole by a small flap of material. When the sole wears out, there isn’t enough material left to attach a new one. Gokey shoes and boots use a full leather vamp, with soles sewn on using stitches that don’t leave holes in the leather. Owners of Gokey products can return them for a full rebuild. “You can take a boot that looks like it’s on its last leg and when we send them back to you, they look almost brand new,” Stacy says.
When Stacy took over the company from his father, he surveyed Gokey customers and found that while they loved their footwear, they didn’t love it until after a lengthy break-in period. In response Stacy asked his suppliers to add more oil to the leather for a more supple feel. He switched to blown rubber soles and made the insole to the same specs as Thermacell heated inserts. The result was a more comfortable boot right out of the box.
Other changes include a line of women’s shoes to go with the men’s boat shoes, oxfords and moccasins offered in off-the-shelf and custom-made options. Gokey also makes a line of luggage and accessories that are changing to match the high-end products sold by Boyt.
“None of this could be achieved without the vision of our parent company, Boyt Harness, its president Tony Caligiuri and the skilled Gokey associates that are dedicated to making quality products right here in the USA,” Stacy says.
Those who buy its footwear include law enforcement officers, farmers and blue-collar workers who need a boot they can depend on. Gokey sells many boots to utility lineworkers, foresters and firefighters who battle wildfires in the West and need protection from snakes and thorns.
The best seller is the lace-up hunting boots such as The Supreme favored by upland game hunters.
This quality doesn’t come cheap. The Tipton work boot, a chocolate leather boot with 6-inch uppers, sells for $369. Those wanting the original Gokey Botte Sauvage boots worn by professional hunters, guides, woodsmen and four U.S. presidents will shell out $649 for the 17-inch-tall leather boots with a metal buckle. They may be the last pair they will ever need to buy.
“I’m a real stickler on quality,” Stacy says. “That’s why we charge as much as we do and that’s why people expect to have the best when they get it from us. We deem ourselves the best in quality that there is. That’s exactly what sets us apart.”
Gokey products are available through the company’s website at www.gokeyusa.com or in person at the plant in Tipton located at 300 E. Moniteau St. The company is expanding and would like to hire more workers. Apply in person at the plant.
This is one of nearly 500 Missouri companies that are part of the Buy Missouri initiative created by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. To find Missouri-made products or to enroll your business visit www.BuyMissouri.net.