Western craft meets practical need while preserving tradition

When tourists embark on a mule trip from the South Rim, chances are they give little thought to the seat they'll occupy for seven hours. Fortunately for them, the man who crafted their saddles does.

"Lives depend on these things," says leathersmith Jack Stewart, who works for Xanterra's mule operation. "If they're not made properly, someone is going to get hurt or worse. The livestock will get hurt too."

Stewart has been a professional leathersmith for about 25 years, working for himself and then during the summer for the livery operation starting in 1992. He went to work for the Oklahoma Historical Society in 1999, but came back here in 2001 and has been working for Xanterra ever since.

Though factory-made saddles have become the norm, the livery operation at Grand Canyon has for years relied on the handiwork of leather craftsmen, like Stewart, who turn out saddles one at a time.

"The lion's share bought and sold are a factory style," Stewart said. "They are deficient in nature. They are usually prone to breakage and materials are second rate."

Here, the only thing pre-manufactured is the tree ­ a wooden frame covered in rawhide and sewn with deer gut. While special trees are made for mules, Stewart said those designed for quarter horses work better because of how they distribute the rider's weight.

"Quite honestly this is the roughest terrain a mule is going to get used on, up and down that trail," he said. "This is a good proving ground out there. If we used mule bars, we would be soring them up."

Stewart said that like a good foundation, a well-made tree is essential to a quality saddle. From there, his approach is more traditional than most ­ he cuts, finishes, embellishes and sews each piece of leather by hand.

While he can turn out a saddle in nine days, it's not a pace he's comfortable with. For a basic model, about 14 or 15 days is reasonable.

"Some saddles take four times that depending on how intricate they are," he said. "It depends on the bells and whistles that come with it."

While a hand-made saddle can seem extravagant ­ to make one to order costs about $2,600 ­ Stewart said that here, they make sense.

"With 150 mules ­ we have pack mules, we have dude mules ­ this equipment fails all the time and it needs to be repaired," he said. "If you throw this in a corner and say you're going to buy another one, it's not cost efficient."

With proper care, a well-made saddle can last 20 years.

He started in leatherwork not as a craftsman but out of necessity when, at 18, he joined a cavalry re-enactment group.

"In those days, we were using original equipment," he said. "What we're talking about is saddles that were at least 75 to 125 years old back in the 70s. They all needed work and nobody knew anything."

In 1979, when he went to work at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, for the Arizona Historical Society, he became immersed in a deeper tradition.

"That just opened up a whole new world," he said. "In their collections, they had some of the most beautiful leatherwork, southwestern attributed. I just rubbed shoulders with the people who knew what it was and knew I wanted to be around that kind of thing and do the same kind of work ­ keep the heritage alive."

He recalls the advice an old saddler gave him in 1982, when he left Sharlot Hall to go into business for himself.

"He said 'It will take you 10 years,'" Stewart said. "I thought, I can go to medical school. I can be a surgeon in 10 years. But he was right."

Saddle making schools do exist, but Stewart doesn't put much stock in them though he does recommend seminars to learn about certain aspects of the craft, like how to put in a seat or do a particular decorative technique.

"The way that I do it is a waning craft," he said. "There are very few people in the United States who do it like this anymore. They want a quicker, industrial machine that will cut the pieces out for them. It is time consuming to hand cut everything."

There are some advancements that have been good for the craft, he said ­ stainless steel, for example ­ but not all new materials are better, even those seeing widespread use in factory-made saddles.

"Plastic doesn't work," he said. "It sets and gets hard. But leather, wood, rawhide are natural. On hot days, they expand and contract. They breathe naturally."

The saddle-maker's craft is rooted in dual traditions. One is that of the Spanish-Mexicans who designed equipment that would hold up to harsh and remote conditions of the Southwest.

"The saddles that Euro-Americans brought over and were using in the colonies were ­ I can't really use the word 'bad' but they weren't suitable to the west," said Stewart. "People with some experience in the west, they said we ought to start using what these Mexican guys are using. It's a lot better piece of equipment. We're using their technology."

The other is in what he calls the American cowboy's "Victorian ethic."

"The guy making the saddle, he's not hurting anybody. That cowboy, he's not hurting anybody," Stewart said. "The guy who takes his hat off when he meets a lady, he's sincere and a gentleman, the guy who says 'yes sir' without being a smart aleck ­ I always feel like all that is being lifted up when you go to work and do this kind of stuff. This is the last of the Victorian culture."

He also finds the world a bit poorer for the advent of the automobile.

"Eighty or 90 years ago, everybody was accustomed to being around livestock even if you were a city kid, because your coal, your milk, your ice ­ everything came up in a wagon," he said. "Little kids were told, in downtown Brooklyn, don't run up to that mule on Mr. Jones' team. It's something that we're so far away from that now it's unreal. This place has a noble duty to perform and that is to keep these traditions alive. Hopefully there will always be one or two who see the beauty of it, the goodness of it."

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