Cowboy Beauty

At King’s Saddlery and Ropes, Ranch Tools Become Art

September 8, 2015 Travel and Adventure By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Downstairs at King Saddlery they’re making lariats on a home-made loom that resembles something out of Mad Max and looks as though its gears and pulleys and rubber tires are about to fall off at any second. Runs smooth as glass. It paces back and forth along the length of the concrete floor, tensioning and weaving strands that seem to be made only of increasingly smaller ropes down to the core, which looks like strings of DNA. In the corner is a home-made heat room — an oven, really — where the ropes are stretched and straightened so they’ll fly cleanly through the air in search of a horn or a back leg. Coils of polymer rope turn the floor into an ankle-breaking maze of concentric circles; dried wax clots the far wall where ropes receive their coating. This operation beneath the main saddlery floor turns out lariats (not lassos, please) for world-champion steer ropers, though it looks like the hobby den of some eccentric uncle who might have nefarious S&M underpinnings.

Saddle shops are supposed to be unexceptional hutches off dirt backroads that smell like old stable hay. King’s, a monolithic establishment in the downtown of modern, quaint Sheridan, population 17,000, has its own scent (tanned leather and fresh nylon); its own office space (it is enormous and warehouse-like, with hundreds of mounted animal heads peering down from the walls, a museum in the back and the hellshop-lariat-loom downstairs); its own reputation. This is an institution for farm implements in a state that’s zoned 91 percent rural. It seems King’s needs small-town Wyoming to exist, and Wyoming needs King’s, too. Without it, Wyomingites might have to use shit lariats, and might get second-best repairs on their saddles. They might never fully realize the potential beauty of their tools.

The mechanical engine downstairs makes an impression, but it’s the human engine that makes King’s Saddlery what it is. King’s, it seems, only hires savants. This might be why their name brings a knowing smile of envy from every Wyomingite we speak to, why their craft never strays from sublime art. Considering their main fare is ranching equipment, this is an unparalleled feat.

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A saddlemaker at his workbench.

Upstairs, a nervous-looking man building a saddle on a lit workbench strains to lower his genius to my basement level of knowledge on the subject. You start with sizing so that the pommel… well the pommel, that’s the nub on a Western saddle… well yes, there’s Western and then English… no, no German that I’m aware of… well nationality is less important, I suppose… Finally I beg off the matter and ask how many he makes in a month. He settles on two to three a week, which is — here he hesitates for a minute before going on into self-compliment — very fast. The saddles are beautiful hulks, their layered guts of gleaming leather and simple stitches laid bare on the table. The army of them this man has assembled hang to the high ceiling on racks like the taxidermied trophies they face. Seeing a saddle made is like seeing a canyon carved by water out of rock in fast-forward. They’ve always simply seemed to exist, objects above creation, mined out of the ground fully complete. The man sews on, building a mount to last a lifetime or two.

King’s, it seems, only hires savants. This might be why their name brings a knowing smile of envy from every Wyomingite we speak to, why their craft never strays from sublime art.

Back in the museum is where James Jackson, the world-class leather tooler, works. He is the shop’s creme de la creme, a destination all on his own, the man who makes the other artists of King’s eyes light up like headlights. Jackson has snow white hair and forearms roped with muscles. He stands behind his bar-style workbench, explaining his work with clear eyes and a philosophical bent. He is an artist with Wyoming blood, a painter and a tooler who speaks at the pace of a man who takes his time, getting everything exactly right as he wants it to be.

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While he talks, he tools a half-finished belt saturated with leaves and roses, fully grown, some still blooming, some ghostly outlines, some just beginning to grow on the empty animal skin. He’s not cutting anything away, he explains — just depressing the leather. His tools are differently shaped awls and a hammer that looks like a paint roller, or something discovered at a neolithic dig site. He paints in the belts‘ finishing by hand to fill out its dark hues and black spaces. The beauty of his finished work is measured in drips of time. “That’s six and a half hours of carving here, and that’s about four and a half hours,” he says, pointing to two belts of differing intricacy. They look like they could cost several thousand dollars, but they cost several hundred. They are ordered from around the world. These two will go to customers in China.

Jackson fell asleep as a kid to the beat of his fathers’ sewing machine as he made saddles. He admits his father wasn’t as good as the true saddle tool artists of his youth, but he was more prolific, a strong worker. Jackson got his start oiling saddles, the skill already in him, writhing to get out like a snake in a linen bag. At Kings, the tooler caught him watching and told him to try it. He did, and the owner saw his work, and told him he had a job on the spot. And there was his life, laid out like the surface of an untouched leather belt, ready to be shaped.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction that goes along with building things for people,” he says. Watching silently as he works in the hushed back room of the shop, its leathery air filled only with his simple taps, it feels like he’s told us the secret to happiness.

There’s no time to glean more wisdom. Gary Mefford, a manager who’s worked at King’s for 40 years, is taking us to his ranch for the open roping practice he holds every Tuesday. There, saddles await, tooled with their own vegetative intricacies; waxed lariat loops are ready to slip through the air toward the escaping horns and hooves of cattle. King’s tools will do their job the way they’re supposed to — artwork in motion.

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