What can cops, bikers, astronauts, movie stars and equestrians possibly all agree on? Boots: Quality, handmade boots by The Dehner Company. Family-owned, with a history that dates back to 1800s, Dehner is headed up by company president, Jeff Ketzler, now the fourth generation to take the reins.
Carlton Dehner started the company in 1875. Business was bustling, as he and his partners supplied custom boots to cavalry officers. After a couple of moves due to expansion, one founding partner passed away, and Carlton decided to buy out his other partner, and relocate from Wichita, Kansas to Omaha, Nebraska, taking several employees, and his new partner, son-in-law, Harold Ketzler. After expanding, yet again, Carlton died, and Harold Ketzler took full control of the company, followed by Donovan “Van” Ketzler, and today, Jeff, each with his distinctive leadership style.
While some shoe manufacturers have altered their practices to increase output and cut costs, Jeff stays true to the methods, machinery and craftsmanship that garnered praise for Dehner boots and shoes for over a century. Artisans cut and shape leather with decades-old hand tools, and the machinery used to sew leather uppers to soles would qualify as antiques. Indeed, a walk through the factory is like a walk back in time. But the dedication to craft shows in the product. Long known to those who participate in equestrian sports, the Dehner name carries with it a legacy of quality, comfort and practicality.
Famous past customers include Ronald Reagan, Gen. George Patton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Dwight Eisenhower—even James Dean and Brad Pitt ordered boots to wear in respective movies. Dehner also supplies boots for numerous law enforcement agencies, branches of the military, and has made boots for astronauts starting in the early years of NASA through the beginning of the space shuttle program.
What drew you to your chosen craft?
I was born into it. I am the 4th generation to run the business.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
I enjoy working with people to get what they want. Custom work is satisfying. To see the people when they put on their shoes or boots. The smiles are more than worth it.
Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?
It seems like it is a lost art. Most people can’t even change a tire or repair a simple plumbing problem. I enjoy the feeling of fixing things and making things. There is a sense of accomplishment in doing a job and looking at it when you are finished.
In what ways are handmade goods better than those that are mass produced?
With our products, the differences are vast. We put a personal touch in everything we make. We are big enough to make large runs of shoes, boots or leather goods, but small enough to make each one separately. You can’t get a custom design with a mass produced product.
What does the future hold for your type of work?
It is always a struggle to find parts for our machines or to even replace the machines we do have. But, I think there will always be a place for high quality footwear and leather goods.