Re-tooling: Saddle makers hang on as their craft shifts from profession to hobby

2012-11-04T00:10:00Z 2012-11-04T21:42:04Z Re-tooling: Saddle makers hang on as their craft shifts from profession to hobbyBy JAN FALSTAD jfalstad@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montana saddle makers may work in one of the most tradition-bound industries around, but local craftsmen are as adaptable as anyone to changing markets and tastes.

Local saddle makers say there are fewer traditional tack stores today, but the number of pros or hobbyists building saddles at home has jumped to several hundred in the Billings area.

As he has for 30 years, Ben Swanke of Billings handcrafts custom saddles and cowboy gear with his longtime assistant K.T. Monson, who makes saddles and helps run Swanke Saddlery at 219 N. 15th St.

In 1996, Swanke started learning how to make the heart of a saddle — the wood-and-rawhide trees — that now make up half of his annual sales.

“The tree business really worked good for me because the guys making a saddle in their basement need to buy a tree,” Swanke said. “So it’s not all bad that these hobby guys are out there.”

On Thursday in his Lockwood shop, Swanke was sanding down poplar that he ships in from the East Coast to build a tree bound for Switzerland.

Next door to Swanke’s shop is Buckaroo Business where Scott and Staci Grosskopf sell traditional horse gear and custom saddles built for their customers by area craftsmen.

The heyday of saddle and harness making was the early 1900s when homesteaders flooded into Montana, all needing gear for a horse-powered economy. In those days, Butte had some 50 shoe repair shops, and Billings and Miles City each supported a handful of saddle shops.

“The Miles City Saddlery did over $1 million in 1918 dollars that year and had 14 to 15 people making saddles and harnesses,” local saddle maker Mike Witt said.

But horses gave way to cars, and riding and driving horses became more of a hobby than the way most Americans made a living, Witt said.

So in January, Witt closed the saddle and tack shop he ran for three decades on First Avenue North in Billings, and downsized to a smaller store at 407 E. Main in Laurel. Today he rides the Internet, filling orders for custom-tooled leather purses, briefcases and cellphone cases and occasionally building saddles.

Three generations of Witts have been gunsmiths, so Mike Witt makes some of his own metal tools, a skill he said he just picked up from his kin.

When he moved to Billings from the home ranch near Big Sandy in 1978, Witt said there were half a dozen saddle makers in town. Now there are probably 50 or so in the Billings area and 300 within a 200-mile radius of Billings, including northern Wyoming, Witt said.

“I estimate the local demand for custom saddles is about 1,000 saddles a year,” he said. “If you have one hobbyist making one saddle each year, that fills up the market.”

In June, Bill Bernhart closed his Bill’s Custom Leather shop in Billings and started making saddles at home in Roundup.

Some of the other local saddle pros who work out of their home shops include Chas Weldon, Will Cato, Ross Brunk and Joe Hartkopk, who runs Drover’s Supply in Lavina.

The quality of custom saddles and the raw materials including leather, trees and tools have improved greatly in 35 years, compared to when he started, Weldon said.

"It's at a zenith now," he said. "These young guys are coming out of the woodwork and they're so skilled."

One of the world famous saddle shops is King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyo., where master saddle maker Don Butler won a Governor’s Art Award in 2009.

Connolly Western Wear & Tack of Billings is marking its 100th anniversary this year and, to celebrate, the owners hired a Texas saddle maker to produce saddles bearing the Connolly stamp. The business now at 486 S. 24th St. W., made saddles for nearly seven decades at its Montana Avenue store.

Wes Schenk, who also started making saddles three decades ago and runs Schenk’s Shoe and Saddle Repair in Harlowton, said cheap shoes that can’t be fixed brought about the biggest change in his business.

“In 1980, probably 75 percent of my business was shoe repair, 25 percent saddles. Now it’s just exactly the opposite,” he said. “That’s why shoe repair shops don’t exist today is shoes aren’t repairable.”

While logging six day weeks at his shop, a decade ago Schenk also expanded his skills and added value to his horse tack by learning how to engrave silver, a trade he said is not easy to master.

“Till death do us part. I will be dead before I figure it out,” Schenk said with a laugh. “It’s kind of like the saddle-making business, you never quit learning.”

Cheap imported saddles from Mexico, Brazil and China have significantly squeezed profits out of the U.S. equestrian tack business while prices for leather and saddle trees have jumped. Some imported saddles sell for less than the price of just the raw materials he buys, Schenk said.

Today, a tree that cost Schenk $30 to $40 about 30 years ago runs $400 to $500. A half hide of leather costs $200, instead of $60.

In 1980s, Schenk sold his first saddle to local rancher Arvil Lamers north of Shawmut for $675. Today, his base price for a plain saddle starts at $3,000.

Schenk makes about 15 to 20 custom saddles each year, focusing on crafting more affordable chaps and repairing boots and other gear.

“In reality, I probably made more cash starting out in the ’80s than I’m making now, and I’m probably handling 10 times more money,” Schenk said.

Saddle making isn’t a dying art at all, Witt said, it’s just in a transition.

“It’s like the horses. They’re used by fewer professional riders today. It’s a hobby now,” he said.

But Swanke said he’s heard that disappearing cowboy statement every year he’s been building saddles, and he’s not so sure.

“I couldn’t tell you if there are less guys making a living with a horse now than in 1980,” he said.

Most of his saddles are shipped to customers living in the East, he said, where there is a Renaissance of Western riding and a surprising number of cattle in Florida and the Carolinas.

“A lot of guys, when they were little, wanted to be a cowboy. A lot of guys created a cowboy job. They didn’t have to do it that way, but they wanted to,” Swanke said. “So I have been real busy for a number of years.”

Swanke agreed with Weldon that the craftsmanship is better today than four decades ago.

“The tooling, flower carving has progressed and evolved and the tendency is to go finer and finer,” he said. “These guys I’m taking about are just artists, real artists.”

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