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Shuffling Off in Buffalo Shoes

by George Everett

The way that Harrison Trask tells his story, it begins with a trout fishing trip on the Madison River inside Yellowstone National Park.
 
At that time he was a regional sales manager for Reebok taking a break from the business he had been in his entire career. Watching a herd of bison grazing on the bank, he thought back to a time when Native Americans across the continent coveted foot coverings crafted from deerskins and bison leather.
 
"I had been in the shoe business all of my life and I had never seen shoes made out of bison leather," says Trask. "It turns out that bison leather is a material that is really a phenomenal leather. It is soft and mellow but wears like iron."
 
A great idea for a new company based on a very old idea was born. Trask launched his company H.S. Trask and Co., Inc. in 1994 and today the 35-employee Bozeman, Montana company sells an extensive line of footwear and accessories made from bison, with a smaller line made from elk and longhorn cattle also being commercially raised for meat. These are not mocassins, however.
 
"We are one of the fastest growing men's shoe brands in America and we're not even five years old yet," says Trask. "We're in about 800 of the finest shoe stores around the country with national distribution and a few accounts in Canada."
 
H.S. Trask & Co., Inc., shipped its first orders in October 1994. In 1995, it shipped 45,000 pairs of shoes; this year it expects to ship 200,000 pairs. The company is aiming at the $1.5 billion rugged/casual dress footwear market, with particluar emphasis on men ages 35 to 60 for whom Trask shoes may evoke the romance and freedom of the Old West, Trask says.
 
Trask points out that no wild animals are used in the business. "Our bison leather is obtained from a broker who arranges with ranchers all over America to supply hides from commercially raised bison herds."
 
These growers are in the business to meet a growing demand for buffalo meat and the hides are a byproduct. According to Sam Albrecht, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, there are about 190,000 bisons in herds scattered across the country in all 50 states.
 
Hides come from suppliers such as the bison herd on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana and from herds that are members of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, a coalition of Native American bison growers on reservations throughout the West.
 
"All of our shoes are made in the USA," adds Trask, "at a time when only 5 percent of all shoes sold in this country are made in the USA."
 
Trask attributes the success of his shoe line to the trend toward more casual wear in the workplace. "Our shoes are a perfect fit for use with khakis and other casual wear."
 
Trask shoes are sold in Butte at Wein's Men's Store in Uptown Butte.
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