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Local Craftsmen Keep Art of Saddlery Alive
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Jolynn Sweatt
Western pleasure. Barrel racing. Team roping. These terms may sound like rodeo events, but actually they are various versions of the western saddle.
How many of us realize that not all saddles are ready made? Of course, a number of riders do choose to purchase a "store bought" or a manufactured saddle. However, a large number of riders want more than what a manufactured saddle offers, so they choose to purchase a custom-made saddle.
Saddlemaker Jake Woofter in his shop. Photo by Jolynn Sweatt
Texas historically has been known for its vast ranch lands and the cowboys who maintain the cattle and land. The large number of cowboys and their horses brought about a need for the saddlemaker in early western towns. The saddlemaker of the past was in great demand for the saddles he made and other items necessary to the frontier way of life.
The western saddle evolved from an earlier adaptation of the Spanish saddle called the vaquero, or Mexican cowboy saddle. The vaquero saddle worked so well for the cattleman's work that its popularity spread quickly through Texas, New Mexico and California.
According to historian and biographer Sandra Myres, the vaquero saddle had one piece of leather that was split at both ends to fit around the horn and the cantle, the upward-curving rear part of a saddle. However, cowboys in Texas had different methods of working cattle than their Mexican counterparts, so changes to the Mexican saddle were made.
Myres writes that in early western towns, the needs of the ranchers and cowboys put the saddlemaker in high demand. Saddlemaking is a fine art and true experts in this line of work are few. Samuel Dale Myres was definitely a master at his craft.
Samuel Myres opened his first saddle shop in Sweetwater, Texas, in 1897. Knowles Peterson writes in the Quarter Horse Journal that Myres is credited with making what some considered at the time the "most beautiful and most expensive saddle in the world." The saddle was made for J.C. Miller of the 101 Ranch Rodeo at a cost of $100,000 and was publicized as far away as New York and California. Myres' hand-tooled designs of butterflies, gold bugs and large Texas longhorn steer heads were on the saddle, along with 156 diamonds, 120 sapphires, 17 rubies, and 15 pounds of gold and silver.
In 1920 Samuel Myres relocated his business from Sweetwater to his location in El Paso on East Overland Street. He saw great opportunity here because he saw the border as a larger market place for his saddles. After the move, he found that his reputation as a maker of crafted saddles had preceded him. His store became a meeting place for ranchers, cowboys and horsemen from all over the world.
Myres' ability as a saddlemaker was also well known to Hollywood celebrities. In 1936, Myres made movie star Jack Hoxie a saddle which featured cowboy paintings by Charles Russell copied in hand-tooled leather. He also made saddles for Gene Autry, John Wayne, Tom Mix and Wallace Berry, Jr. During the Depression when money was scarce for farmers and ranchers, orders from movie stars for saddles and other western equipment kept Myres Saddlery in business.
A civic-minded person, Myres also donated his talents to an event which became known throughout the Southwest. Through his generosity, he helped establish the Kids' Rodeo in 1933. Wallace Perry, editor of the Herald Post, thought up the idea of the Kids' Rodeo and went to Myres to ask him how much it would cost to make a saddle that could be given as first prize for the best contestant. Myres, who was always eager to help youngsters, said he'd donate the saddle.
A master advertiser, Myres started selling the Kids' Rodeo idea to the Southwest. The event attracted contestants throughout the Southwest and continues to make and donate a saddle to this event until he died.
Saddlemakers in the El Paso area are still carrying on the traditions of their trade. However, several factors are at work that could make the saddlemaker in this areas as extinct as the dinosaur.
Local saddlemaker and owner of Morris Saddlery, James Morris has been making saddles for 25 years and credits much of his success to his six years apprenticeship with the "old timers" of saddlemaking in this area. Morris sadly reports that the "old ways" of saddlemaking were certainly better, but they are no longer being taught. As a result, Morris contends that the art of saddlemaking in this area is on the decline.
His craft is definitely an art, Morris says. A highly respected artist both locally and nationally, Morris has never had to do any conventional advertising. Word of mouth has brought more orders for custom-made saddles than he's able to fill.
The western saddle is the only kind of saddle that Morris makes. The majority of his customers are ranchers who want a comfortable custom-made saddle and are willing to pay prices which start around $2,000, depending on the features the rider requests.
Another contributing factor to the decline of the saddlemaker in this area is that there aren't as many cattle in this area as there once was, Morris says. Consequently, there are fewer ranchers who order saddles.
Because their number is few, local saddlemakers have as much they're able to handle. If left alone to do nothing but build saddles, Morris could make a great deal of money. However, he isn't able to devote the time that he'd like to his craft because besides making saddles, Morris makes custom chaps and belts. His shop also sells English riding apparel, gifts and silvery jewelry. Therefore, the majority of his saddle building must be done when his business is closed.
Jake Woofter, a saddlemaker at Mountain Pass Saddlery, says that the chances of finding a manufactured saddle that fits all the specifications of a rider are extremely slim. A custom-made saddle is superior to the manufactured saddle, not only in materials and workmanship, but in the fit of the saddle to the rider and his job on a horse. The aversion many riders have to the manufactured saddle causes the few local saddlemakers in the area to be in great demand.
The 22-year old Woofter was only 17 when he sold his first saddle. For years before that, he repaired tack and saddles. He learned the craft of saddlemaking from Chuck Dennis of California and his grandfather Robert A. Graves.
Woofter maintains that along with being a craftsman in the art of saddlery, one must establish a name in the business and he's certainly done a good job at that. Locally, he's respected for making custom western saddles for cowboys, horse trainers and team ropers.
Thanks to the catalog and magazine advertisements, Woofter has also been able to build a prosperous mail-order business across the country. Good advertising has enabled him to sell his saddles and tack to film companies, and he dreams of one day being able to work for a film company on location and doing exclusive repair work for them.
Woofter makes an effort to purchase leather locally, which allows him to go through stacks of hides and select the best sides of leather. He uses two and one-half sides of leather in building a saddle, which makes a stronger saddle than one which is made from the usual two sides of leather.
Most of Woofter's customers won't settle for less than the best, including those customers who are at least able to afford a custom saddle, the cowboys who make their living on the back of a horse.
Woofter agrees that the craft of saddlemaking is an art, but says that the art was more recognized years ago. "This area is economically depressed. People around here will price a custom-made saddle, check prices around town, then they buy a manufactured saddle." The economics of this area seem to be connected to the decline of saddlemakers in this area.
Though there seems to be a justified fear among some saddlemakers that many of the older methods of saddlemaking are being lost or that they've been set aside for faster, easier methods, the art of custom saddlemaking is still alive on the border.
Riders living in this area who custom-order saddles not only reap the benefits from saddle made to fit them but also help to maintain a treasured craft, the art of saddlery.