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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Sole men: Shoes are just the beginning of craftmanship men share

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Atridus Thrower show Nelson Berbling how a Civil War soldier's shoe was constructed.
SIKESTON -- It's easy to miss the shop run by Nelson Berbling at 105 N. Kingshighway in Sikeston. There's no flashing neon lights or even a sign out front. It blends in between Kirby's Sandwich Shop and another business to its side.

But as passers-by like Jennifer Rivers learn, once inside, visitors immediately take a step back into time.

"I didn't even know this place existed," Rivers said as she marveled around the small building. "I love western stuff and I saw the leather products in the window so I thought I'd come in."

From authentic Civil War and other pre-1900s war uniforms, weapons and leather work hanging on the walls to the 1940s machines and 1700s tools Berbling uses to make and repair shoes, he has created a mini museum inside the shop he calls Twin Rivers Leather Works.

"I like to make things," Berbling said simply.

In October 2000, Berbling and his wife, who is originally from Bloomfield and Morehouse, opened the shop in downtown Sikeston basically as hobby, specializing in leather boot and shoe and saddle repair.

Often his mentor, friend and former shoemaker, Atridus C. Thrower, 91, of Sikeston will visit or help Berbling with any problems he may be having.

In addition to making shoes, the duo is connected through the old shoe machines Berbling uses -- they were initially owned by Thrower.

In 1990, Thrower sold his machines to Jim Young, and Berbling purchased the machines from Young about two years ago.

Since the machines are so old, parts are not available in the United States and are very hard to come by so Berbling calls on Thrower to help him when something needs done such as changing the felt on a machine.

"I spend a little time out here," Thrower smiled, looking around the shop. "I don't miss the work. I miss seeing people because people are more important than work, you know."

Thrower comes from a family of shoemakers. His family owned Throwers shoe repair service located across from the former Missouri Department of Transportation building in Sikeston for years. They also had shops in DeSoto and Rolla.

Thrower estimated he's made and repaired millions of shoes throughout his life. Working for International Shoe Co. for 44 years is among the shoe jobs Thrower had in the business.

"We spend a lot of time together," Berbling said about his friend. "I wouldn't be able to run this shop without him."

Replaced by a computer-generated industry, shoemakers like Thrower and Berbling are a dying breed, they said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002, there were approximately 16,000 shoe and leather workers and repairers and only 6,600 shoe machine operators and tenders.

Employment of shoe and leather workers is expected to decline through 2012 due to growing imports of less expensive shoes and leather goods, increasing productivity of U.S. manufacturers, and the more frequent tendency to buy new shoes rather than repair worn or damaged ones.

"We live in a throw away society. It's just so disposable," Berbling said.

Often times consumers must make the choice between buying a new pair of shoes or paying to have them resoled. Many times, they'll opt for a new pair of shoes, Berbling noted.

"If someone has a $700-pair of cowboy boots, it's worth it to pay $50 to get your soles redone," Berbling explained. "But if it's a $25 pair of plastic shoes, and it costs $35 to resole them, then you have to ask yourself how much you like that pair of shoes."

And shoes aren't made quite as sturdy as they were years ago, Thrower said.

"I think they try to make shoes as cheap as they can today," Thrower pointed out. "They use man-made materials instead of raw materials. They use the plastic synthetics now, too. It used to be all leather."

A former teacher of engineering at Murray State University in Paducah, Ky., and a registered blacksmith, Berbling has even made authentic uniform replicas for the Lewis and Clark Expedition and is known all over the country for his gear, he said.

Berbling is a retired Civil War re-enactor and custom-makes authentic pre-1900s war uniforms, saddles and weapons. Other items he produces include haversacks, leather goods, artillery, cavalry, bridles and lots more.

A man of many trades, Berbling even builds rifles from scratch and has a working shop in Cairo, Ill. But he noted the things he sells the most of are his southlery items. "I've always been interested in making things. I wanted to learn how to make them rather than buy them," Berbling said.

Despite his wide range of services, Berbling admitted he doesn't get a lot of business from the area, although he has sold a lot of his items on eBay.

But Berbling isn't in the trade for money -- it was never about money.

"I just like old things," Berbling said. "I like history." Twin Rivers Leather Works is open daily beginning at 9 a.m. For more information, contact Berbling at (573) 380-2559.