Bootmaker uses detective skills at Fort Ligonier to unearth shoes’ stories
In a quiet, second-floor room at Fort Ligonier , surrounded by bins and sealed plastic bags, journeyman boot and shoemaker Brett Walker worked to unravel the mysteries of more than 200-year-old shoe leather.
In the parking lot below, children arriving for a field trip noisily exited school buses, heading for the museum’s new history education center.
One day they — and their children’s children — may view the conclusion of Walker’s long-term project examining, cataloging and making a graphic record of Fort Ligonier’s vast collection of archaeologically-derived shoe artifacts.
Dates and battles and muskets are important, said Walker, 50, of Gloucester, Va. So is learning more about the people whose footwear — or pieces of footwear, 260 years old — was discovered in a preserved state in a stream bed during a major archaeological excavation at Fort Ligonier in the 1960s, he said.
Shoe leather detective
Walker, proprietor of Bt.W. & Co., is a living historian who depicts a Royal American Regiment soldier for events including Fort Ligonier Days.
He apprenticed at Colonial Williamsburg from 2008-17 as an artisan/historian.
Under renowned colonial shoe expert and master shoemaker D.A. “Al” Saguto, he researched 18th century shoes and made accurate reproduction footwear.
Walker was named in 2008 as one of Early American Life magazine’s top 100 craftsmen.
“About 35-40 percent of what I do is make boots and shoes for re-enactors, private museums, movie companies. I also teach students DIY (shoe making) techniques,” Walker said.
As funding becomes available, he returns to Fort Ligonier, where bins full of shoes and shoe parts await — pieces of a puzzle he is working to solve.
“This is donor-supported research,” Walker said of his work at the museum, which he began almost five years ago.
His wife, Wendy, lends 21st century skills, updating a shoe collection database.
Fort Ligonier’s collection represents a deposit of archaeological shoes from the mid-18th century. Their burial at the site helped to preserve the shoe leather, he said.
“This is a huge puzzle. A lot of pieces were separated from each other during the conservation process. We are trying to figure out what goes with what,” Walker said.
Organic material being inherently unstable, he is compiling a detailed graphic record, as well.
Preserving the past
“These are shoes that marched 300 miles from Philadelphia into wilderness to drive the French out of Fort Duquesne,” Walker said.
He is fascinated by the stories the shoe remnants still hold.
“These people, long gone, give a human dimension you don’t find in a history book. It’s like being a history detective,” he said.
Walker recently sketched a slipper that, judging by its size — 3 1 ⁄ 2 — he estimates was worn by a young girl.
“Why is a 9- or 10-year-old girl 300 miles in a vast wilderness in the 1750s with a traveling army?” he asked. “To me, that’s a story.”
Unlike some unfamiliar artifacts, Walker said, shoes represent a “short bridge” for people to cross in understanding historical objects.
Erica Nuckles, Fort Ligonier’s director of history and collections, agreed.
“Our shoe collection is a great gateway for people to make a personal connection with the history of Fort Ligonier,” she said. “How did it get here? Who wore it? How did it end up in a trash heap? You realize people walked here in those shoes from Philadelphia.
“Brett Walker is certainly a top expert in the field of historic footwear, especially from the 18th century. To have somebody with that very specific knowledge and skillset is crucial to try to reconstruct the shoe leather we have,” she said.
“This is one of our most important archaeological collections … obtained from our grounds since the first dig in 1947. … People are lucky sometimes to find one shoe in a bog. We have a huge cache,” said Nuckles, who intends to digitize the collection.
An eventual online exhibit, she said, can help to both reach a broader audience and attract visitors curious about the collection to the museum.
Fully reassembling as much as possible is a years-long effort, Walker said.
He hopes to write a scholarly book about shoes and shoe making in early America. His work at the museum is providing plenty of research material.
“I would like to do an entire chapter on Fort
Ligonier, bringing out the idea of the human story that is told here,” Walker said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaryPickels.