RUPERT • When the phone rings at Hoggan’s Custom Canvas & Leather in Rupert there is no telling what kind of story Kevin Hoggan may hear from his potential customer.
“I had a customer call me after the oil spills in New Orleans and ask me if I made dolphin slings,” said Hoggan, who is a fourth generation tradesman. “Dolphin slings?”
Hoggan’s great-grandfather George Hoggan started the family trade and had a similar Idaho business. His grandfather J.D. Hoggan opened Hoggan’s Leather & Canvas in Burley in 1929. The company thrived, making tack to feed the demand of the horse-drawn farm implements and buggies.
In 1956, Hoggan’s father, Bob Hoggan, opened the Rupert store at its current location, and, in 1976, the Burley store closed. Hoggan’s father purchased the Burley store’s inventory and the iconic horse — that still looms above the Rupert store’s front door.
Each generation of owners had to learn to adapt and change according to the business climate, Hoggan said.
“I grew up working here with my siblings,” said Hoggan, who is now the sole operator of the business. “I learned the trade from my dad. There was a time — if your father was a shoemaker — you became a shoemaker.”
Earl Corless, member of the Rupert Historic Preservation Commission, said Hoggan’s has been a staple on the town square for decades.
“It’s always been a place to get backpacks and other items custom-made,” Corless said, who has used the talents of the Hoggan family to custom design items.
Audrey Neiwerth, former Rupert mayor, said the business custom-made several items for them, including an awning they used for weddings in their backyard.
Hoggans made the coverings for sheepherder wagons for the Minidoka County Museum, she said.
“It’s really nice to have a business here locally that does that kind of work,” Neiwerth said.
When he retires, Hoggan does not know if any of his four children will continue the business.
“A couple of them would like to, if they could make enough of a living from it,” Hoggan said. “They all grew up in here, working.”
However, he said, just because someone can sew does not mean they have the skills for the leather and canvas trade.
When he was 6 years old, Hoggan was sweeping the shop and taking out the trash and by the time he reached 11, he learned to sew.
“I don’t even like to sew,” he said. “But, I really like to design. I always said in high school that I’d never use geometry, but I use it all the time, now.”
Early in life, Hoggan wanted to be an artist and he now finds satisfaction in custom designing the various goods the store produces.
“The main thing is learning to keep your fingers out of the way when you’re sewing because the machine is turbo speed,” Hoggan said.
“Now we mainly do canvas work because the machine is not geared-up for leather,” he said.
The demand for products varies from year to year. One year, he’ll make 40 wall tents, the next year he won’t see a single tent order.
One item in demand right now is fold-up cots used in early American war reenactments.
He relies on good specifications from the customers on all orders, especially the war cots, because the cots grew longer as time went on.
“There’s a 6-inch difference between the shortest cot and the longest,” he said.
Another one of his top-selling items is a horse backpack.
Years ago, the horse teams gave way to gasoline-powered tractors and the company started repairing tractor seats and making truck tarps.
In the 1980s, the store carried multiple lines of Western wear, including 12 lines of cowboy boots and often there were as many as 30 duster-style jackets in stock, Hoggan said.
“Now we don’t carry any of those,” Hoggan said.
In the 1990s, the store launched a website advertising its custom-made canvas goods. Today, 90 percent of the sales come through the Internet.
The remaining 10 percent is walk-in customers.
“We still need that 10 percent, though,” Hoggan said.
He also negotiates contracts for multiple items and is currently working on manufacturing custom canvas bags used by missionaries.
Hoggan said his custom-made items also have an international appeal due to lack of companies willing to custom-tailor items.
One client from England asked for a custom-made bag for a stepladder that bow hunters use to climb trees.
“I’d never heard of anything like that. But, I’m always making something weird like that,” Hoggan said.
He also made a custom bag for the corner bumper pads used in kickboxing and a client from Puerto Rico wants bags for his drum set.
“There are other companies out there doing this, but there are not many,” he said. “It’s kind of like shoe repair; those skills are being lost.”