(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

WHEN TRAVELING NEBRASKA, there are a few things that I see often. Deer bounding in front of my vehicle is one of those things. Spectacular sunrises and sunsets are a given. And I can't forget to mention the one-fingered wave. But one of the oddest of Nebraska’s roadside wonders has to be those old cowboy boots slipped over the tops of fence posts. Without wanting to look like a heel I ask: "What's the deal?"

Often it's just a single, solitary boot, cruelly separated from its partner. Elsewhere I will see a mated pair. Some homesteads might display a dozen or more, many of which can be weathered and left dangling, barley clinging to the post.

I asked my friend, Terri Licking, about this strange cowboy custom. Terri ranches cattle in the Sandhills with her husband, Wayne, near Thedford, and she offered a couple of explanations as to why a cowboy’s footwear often ends up on display by the side of the road.

She says the nonromantic explanation of the tradition is that the worn-out boots are simply placed there as decorations. This seems to have caught on as people buy up small parcels of land and want to "fit in." The other version of the story, which is the one she prefers, is that a cowboy's old boots are placed on the fence posts bottoms up “so that the, 'soles' of cowboys go to heaven.”

The story I’ve heard that makes the most sense to me is that long ago, boots were placed over fence posts to keep water from settling on the post and ruining it prematurely. Seems plausible to me. Cowboy logic says that one or two protected posts is one or two less that will need to be replaced. Just think of how many posts a family could protect as cowboy boots handed down to the next child were outgrown, wore out, and slipped over the nearest post.

It has been said, and is probably true, that on occasion, a passerby ambling down the trail would see a pair of boots near the road that were in better shape than the pair on his calloused feet. Boots can be repaired and last for years, but eventually, every cowboy needs an upgrade. There was no harm done when the traveler swapped his own ragged pair for the bargain-priced posted boots from the roadside display.

In the story that Ivan Schneidereit has heard, no exchange was necessary. Old boots were put on posts as a way to pass them on to someone else that could use them. Ivan and his wife, Amy, live and work on the family's 127-year-old ranch north of Brewster in German Valley. Some of Amy's horse friends say that boots are slipped over metal t-posts so that horses don't hurt themselves when rubbing up against them.

Mrs. Schneidereit herself has been known to adorn a fence post or two with her husband's ragged footwear. "I simply put them on the posts so Ivan will stop wearing the old worn ones and start wearing the new pair I bought him," Amy says. She admits that Ivan has been known to take boots off of the posts because he thinks they still have some good left in them. But she counters that "I just think that those old boots look better on the fence than they do on my husband's feet." 

The most convincing tale I have heard for why cowboy boots punctuate fence posts is one of technological necessity. Before cell phones, pagers, iDevices and all of the other gadgets that keep us connected today came to be, how was a hard-working rancher to let visitors know where he was if not at home? Notes didn’t last long in the persistent Nebraska wind, but cowboy ingenuity, as it does for every situation, came up with a solution.

If the rancher was cutting hay in the south pasture, he’d put a boot on a post near his soddie or dugout, or near the mailbox, and turn the toe of the boot toward the area where he was working. If he was helping the neighbor brand cattle, he’d turn that boot toward the neighbor’s place. He’d point the toe out as he was leaving, and turn it back toward the house, or take it off altogether when he returned home. On occasion, a boot toe left pointing away from a home inadvertently let bandits know that the coast was clear.

A meaningful tradition for some is that when a family member, or hired hand passes away, his or her boots are ‘posted’ as a memorial. A rancher might even put his own boots on the post when a favorite horse gallops into the wild blue yonder. And others have told me that worn, smelly boots are placed on posts near chicken coops to keep coyotes away.

Hmmm. I don’t know. Seems like there’s a lot of reasons afoot to slip your old boots over the nearest wooden fence post.

And whatever the reason really is, I sure do get a kick out of seeing them out there along the road. 

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(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)