By Western Hands: Saving Traditional Western Crafts from Extinction
September 25, 2019
By LAUREL DELP
If you watch the video at the end of this story, done by Lisa and Loren Skyhorse, two custom Western saddle makers in Durango, Colorado, it’s easy to be inspired by their skill, and touched by their decades of dedication. But the film ends on an uneasy note, with Lisa Skyhorse saying, “In this day and age, Western saddle-making is a dying art.”
Enter By Western Hands, a Cody, Wyoming, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving traditional Western crafts by focusing on today’s key craftspeople, helping them to maintain their businesses and train their successors. The organization’s guild of 35 master artisans, including the Skyhorses, ranges from furniture makers to silversmiths, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and more. All are masters, but more than a few are slowing down after decades of exacting, all-consuming work.
In June 2019, four years after its founding, By Western Hands (BWH for short) threw open the doors of its first permanent building, which contains a hands-on museum, a theater, an archive, a gallery, a shop, and a workshop studio. This move was the culmination of nearly three decades of struggling attempts by the artisans to keep their various crafts viable, and it met with acclaim. But will it succeed where previous efforts have failed?
Cody, a small, northwestern Wyoming town about 50 miles east of Yellowstone, was founded in part by Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody at the turn of the 20th century, and it has attracted Western craftspeople ever since. Two of its most famous craftsmen were Thomas Molesworth, who ran his Shoshone Furniture Company from 1931 to 1961, moving from early, rustic work to elaborately decorative furniture pieces, in the Western tradition, that today can command six figures; and Edward Bohlin, a Swede seduced by the myth of the West. Bohlin opened his first saddle shop in Cody in 1920 before migrating to Hollywood to craft custom saddles for filmdom’s biggest cowboy stars, from Tom Mix to Ronald Reagan.
This year’s Rendezvous Royale, a week in Cody each fall dedicated to celebrating Western art and crafts (this year’s took place September 16 – 21), attracted people from across the country. Kristin Bonk Fong, Executive Director of BWH, was clearly delighted when some 400 people crowded into the BWH gallery. “This was wonderful,” she says. “I met people from Florida, Tennessee, California. I think interest in craft is continuing to gain momentum.”
One of BWH’s most ambitious programs is a partnership with Northwest College in Cody. The program allows students to work toward an associate’s degree in Applied Science by combining an apprenticeship to a master artisan with business and marketing courses. “When they embark on a business career,” says Fong, “they’ll know how to make a livelihood out of it. It’s something the craftsmen involved in our organization wish they’d had, and because so many are nearing retirement, they’re thinking about how to make sure these traditional crafts endure into the next generation.” That fact inspired the artisans to help BWH develop the program.
At this point, only three students are enrolled in the partnership program, all in woodworking and furniture-making. Because many of the guild members are scattered across the West, BWH hopes that students will eventually take courses online and apprentice wherever the masters reside. It’s an ambitious plan, and Keith Seidel, of Seidel’s Saddlery in Cody, isn’t sold on it quite yet. One reason is simple economics: While the master artisans are paid a small amount by BWH to take on an apprentice, with funding from the Wyoming Arts Council, it’s “more a token of our thanks,” says Fong.
“The jury’s still out,” Seidel says. “In concept, it’s a really great program. I’ve trained fifty-some saddle makers over the years, but that was for selfish reasons, because they were working for me. But apprentices can’t work for free.” To make it worth his while, Seidel says, “I have to have the money to cover what I’m going to pay them, and for all their mistakes.” Once he adds in his time to provide training, he says, his annual costs for one apprentice rise to roughly $30,000. “For me to hire someone,” he says, “you’d have to have at least 100 saddles under your belt. I won’t even talk to you at less than that. At this level, mistakes can’t be sold, they have to be tossed out.”
Then again, when Seidel started he didn’t have that kind of experience, either. He became interested in leather working at age 12; at just 13, he borrowed money to buy his first “stitcher” — a heavy-duty leather-sewing machine. Before long, he was working after school in a local saddle shop. He had spent his youth riding his family’s Morgan horses and had a fair idea of how a saddle should fit, but still devoted a decade to apprenticing under master saddle makers.
Beyond the intricacies of leatherwork and stitching, saddlery involves a multitude of skills. There’s making the tree, the wooden skeleton of a saddle, which requires an ability to subtly shape wood. Another example is skiving, one of the fundamentals of leatherwork. The technique involves thinning leather so that it’s easy to bend and mold, or graduating an edge so it can blend smoothly into another piece. “You have to skive for hours and hours and hours, over many months, to develop those skills,” Seidel says. “So my issue with the college system is, it’s entry-level people hoping to be apprenticed by masters, and we can’t do it for free. It’s a double-edged sword. If you don’t train them, the industry dies.”
Seidel says he’s handmade around 1,500 saddles over the years, sometimes working up to 100 hours a week. At 54, he’s over working that hard.
John Blair, of J.L. Blair Saddlery, takes a sunnier view of BWH’s apprenticeship program. Blair apprenticed with well-known saddle maker Tony Holmes and, like Seidel, has been handcrafting saddles for four decades. In his view, the two basic components of his craft are eyes and hands.
“When I worked in Holmes’ shop, he would close his eyes and run his fingertips over the wood tree and find any bumps. Also, if there was something he didn’t like, it would wake him up in the middle of the night, and he’d come back into the shop and change it. It might just be the feel of it.” The moral of this story? “You have to take care of your hands,” Blair says with a laugh.
Blair has already taught a few classes at the organization’s workshop; one was planned for grade-school kids. “It was just a basic leather-carving class to see if we could hook them in for the pleasure of it, and maybe one or two of them would be pretty good.” None of the youngsters showed up, but some adults did, so Blair was fine with it.
Like Seidel, Blair has no direct successor, but he’s intrigued by BWH’s apprenticeship program. On his property outside Grey Bull, he has a separate space for an apprentice to stay during the months that training would require. He says he’d prefer working with the college to having an independent apprentice because the program would teach some basic business skills.
As for BWH, “What sets us apart from earlier attempts to organize is that we’re a nonprofit now, and we’re education-minded,” Fong says. Siedel agrees that having a central nonprofit organization is key, noting that past efforts to unite the artisans may have struggled partly because they were riven by egos and competition. Over the years, he thinks the craftspeople have gotten used to the idea of joining forces to preserve their shared legacy.
Of BWH’s 35 guild members, only four are saddle makers; between them, they have too many awards to list, and all have created saddles for celebrities. All are also continuing to work, but none are as driven as they once were. Now the guild is united behind the evermore pressing need to pass on their skills as its members age.
To that end, the Skyhorses have traveled to Mongolia twice, bringing leather tools and medicine to remote areas; twice to the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia; and once to Peru. At the moment, they’re in Morocco on a grant, exchanging knowledge with some of the country’s leather crafters. Seidel is teaching fundamental classes in Cody and continuing to work hard, but without a staff, his production is limited. Blair says his plans are to challenge himself with “some really neat” leather pieces. “I’ve always liked doing something I’ve never done before that makes my brain hurt,” he says. “Without that hurting brain, I know it’s not a challenge.”
You could pretty well say that about all these artisans: They’ve dedicated their lives to handcrafting functional pieces of art, and to making their brains hurt in the process. And prospects for a new generation of artisans doing the same seems to be suddenly looking up, thanks in part to BWH. “If you’d told me two years ago that By Western Hands would get the sponsorship and support and funding it’s gotten,” Seidel says, “I’d have laughed at you.”