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When The Gumboots Come Marching In

The most essential accessory in the garden farmer’s wardrobe is a pair of gumboots. This is the most practical piece of footwear ever invented. You can slip gumboots on your feet easily without having to bend over or without straining your guts while pulling them on. They are made entirely of seamless rubber and reach up to just below the knee. No strings to tie, no zippers to zip, no buckles to buckle. They fit loosely, so you can also slip out of them without slipping a disc in your back. Their loose fit means that walking in them produces a clomping sound not unlike what a Belgian draft horse would make coming in last at the Kentucky Derby.

More civilized people refer to these boots as Wellingtons after the first Duke of Wellington who popularized them a century or so ago. When the British were going through their turn at trying to run the world, soldiers and officials going to Africa to save all those people from sin and ignorance often wore Wellingtons, which the natives called gumboots since they were made out of gum rubber. Why we farm kids of the middle 20th century in Ohio also called them gumboots I do not know. We wore them regularly and so, human beings being what they are, gumboots became a symbol of our country culture and we were ridiculed for wearing them by town brats. Even as a young man who often went to town wearing gumboots, I was teased, usually in good humor, but the barb was always there. The city slickers didn’t realize that gumboots were very fashionable with the British aristocracy in the early nineteen hundreds.

I chanced upon a tennis court once (in Iowa, honest) where there was a rule that only tennis shoes could be worn. But an exception was made for gumboots. The sight and sound of a bib-overalled farmer clomping around the court in gumboots while brandishing a tennis racket made for a better clown act than I have ever seen.

Gumboots are perfect apparel for garden and farm work, especially this year when the rains won’t stop. They won’t keep your feet warm in winter, but I still wear them through the snow to the barn when I know I will be back in the house in a half hour or less. They are so much easier to slip off than insulated boots without coming into contact with the manure on them. Even on summer days, the pasture grass often remains dewy until nearly noon, so it’s on with the gumboots even in fair weather.

The only problem is that the gumboots coming out now are so cheap they can develop leaks almost before you reach the barn the first time. The answer of course is to buy more expensive models. But I have discovered a way to beat this system. My dirt cheap gumboots are roomy enough that I can wear the right one on the left foot and vice versa. For some reason, my left boot will invariably sport a hole in about three months but the right one will go on for two years if I’m lucky. I must list slightly to the left when I walk. Can’t figure it out, but I get my money’s worth out of the deal because most of the time I’m wearing two right-footed boots.

Gumboots are right for garden farmers for another reason. The Africans developed what became known as gumboot dancing after the British tried to stop them from dancing to the beat of drums. African dancers found that they could stomp and stamp around in gumboots and produce a sound not unlike drumbeats— as any of us who wear them easily understand. Some of the gumboot dances actually made fun of the way British officials would pompously stomp around in their Wellingtons. It became a not-so-silent way to ridicule, protest and undermine officious bureaucracy. I think of those old gumboot dances (Paul Simon has even recorded some African gumboot music) whenever I read the latest absurdity from our Department of Agriculture about subsidized farming. I stomp and stamp to the barn with more noise and spirit that is actually necessary. Maybe I stomp harder on the left boot and that’s why it wears out quicker.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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