Epsom’s historical shoemaker helps re-enactors step up their game

  • Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes in his workshop in Epsom with a pair of size 16 Colonial shoes.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Colonial shoetops that Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes of Epsom is making in his shop.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Above: Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes includes a belt buckle into the design of a pair of Colonial-era shoes. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes holds a belt buckle to one of the Colonial shoes he has made.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bruce Graham holds a buckle to one of the Colonial-era shoes he has made. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes stands in part of his workshop in Epsom. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • One of the Colonial shoes that Bruce Graham has made at his Gossville shoe.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/31/2016 3:04:25 AM

They say an army marches on its stomach, but it also needs to wear something on its feet. All too often, in the opinion of Epsom’s Bruce Graham, Colonial-era re-enactors march in Nikes.

Graham is one of a rare few who makes historically accurate 18th-century footwear, and he does it in the old-fashioned way of a cordwainer, in a shop next to his home on Route 4 with only the help of his wife.

His company, Gossville Shoes, is in the midst of a renaissance. He went into business making shoes nearly 30 years ago, slowly learning the trade and finding that too many customers were appalled when they learned the cost of what they’d commissioned. They left their orders on his shelves and he went out of business, he said.

But in recent years, he’s found a new way to make a go of it. He and his wife, Penny, travel on a circuit of re-enactments, as close as Charlestown and as a far away as Ohio and Virginia, where they set up a period-accurate store and show off their work. Graham said, “Nobody in this area needs a pair of handmade shoes,” but some re-enactors – decked out in costume – are embarrassed of what’s on their feet.

“All of these people are historically correct from head to ankle, and they’re wearing black Nikes with gaiters, spats, over them to cover up the fact that they’re wearing Nikes,” Graham said.

That’s where he comes in. He said he’ll tease passers-by – “Hey, don’t think you’re getting away with anything, here! I see what you’re wearing on your feet” – and sometimes they’ll check out his work and take a pair home. The shoes start at $250.

There are some competitors for 18th-century footwear, Graham said, but they’re generally made in a factory in Canada or Mexico or overseas.

Another vendor at some of the same events, Royal Blue Traders, sells historically accurate reproduction clothing. The Chelmsford, Mass.-based company’s owner, Ian Graves, said in a phone interview Tuesday that a full costume – minus shoes, socks and hats – can range between $600 and $1,000.

There’s plenty of companies that make clothing accessories, Graves said, but finding the historical footwear to complete the ensemble can be more difficult.

“As far as I know, (Graham) is one of about three or four people in the U.S. making them commercially,” he said.

Perhaps that rarity helped Graham secure one of his proudest orders recently: seven pairs of shoes to outfit mannequins in a yet-to-be-established American Revolution museum planned in Philadelphia.

He met the museum’s founder at the Battle of Bunker Hill – that is, the 1,000-person re-enactment last year in Epping – and made an impression.

The founder “is incredibly well-known in the hobby,” Graham said, “so he publicized the fact that he used Gossville Shoes to outfit his mannequins in the museum. I’m pretty chuffed about that.”

At events, Graham lays out a range of his shoes in order of how much machine stitching went into their production. The top of the line is a completely hand-sewn pair, at a cost of $800, which serves mostly as a model of what Graham’s capable of making – if only he had more free time on his hands. He’s never sold a pair of that model.

People will arrive at his table, he said, and marvel at the details of each pair. When they come to the top of the line: “They’ll take this one and they’ll go, ‘I love the craftsmanship. These are beautiful shoes. How much for these ones? $800? I’ll take these (the $250 pair).”

Sometimes people will spring the extra $50 for straight lasts – in other words, the lefts and the rights are identical – for the utmost accuracy. According to the reports Graham said he’s heard back from his customers, they’re still comfortable from the get-go.

These days, Graham is hard at work preparing for the upcoming season. He’s working on a pair of size 18s, which required him to adapt from the standard equipment he’s picked up over the years, including through buying out three shoe-repair shops.

On March 19, he sold two pairs at an expo in Portsmouth of the New England Colonial Trade and Craft Show. The big show, however, is coming up next month at the four-day 22nd annual Fort Fredrick Market Fair in Maryland.

“At this event, there’s like 150 people selling colonial wares,” Graham said. “This is where you go at the beginning of the season to outfit yourself for the season. Yeah, I want to be there.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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