Friday, November 4, 2016

Sewing Saddles: An Interview with Leatherman Ken Smith

Ken Smith of East West Saddle Shop, Athens, Ohio, repairing my Tex Tan Hereford Saddle
First publication Florida Equine Athlete October 2016 Issue
No duplication without permission

Sewing Saddles
An interview with Leatherman Ken Smith

Ken Smith knows saddles. The proprietor of East West Saddle Shop on Keirns Road, Athens, Ohio, Ken is a seasoned equestrian, saddle maker, wrangler, and more. Driving to his shop just north of Athens, off State Route 550, is a scenic drive, one that is quintessential to the Athens area. The small workshop reminds me of an old western store; welcoming porch, Blue Heeler, squeaky screen door, and hitching posts. Ken greets me with a cowboy handshake and a wrangler’s mustache - a suave mustache, the kind that says cowboy.

Ken’s father, John Wayne Smith, was a saddle maker, too. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, Ken created his first saddle at the age of ten. In 1981, the Smith family moved to Athens. In 1994, Ken’s dad passed away of cancer, leaving the legacy to Ken; tools, technique, sewing machines and memories.

Now the proprietor of his own shop, Ken keeps busy refurbishing saddles, making saddles, belts, holsters, hitches, and almost anything leather. Entering the shop, the aroma of leather permits the space, an aesthetic almost as blessed as the smell of a horse. It’s a place where a cowgirl can hang out for an afternoon. But, I was there for business.  My Tex Tan Hereford saddle was in need of repair and I was bringing it to Ken for a go-over; new strings, padding, and straps. Infatuated with the old tools, leather sundries, and horsey-tack hanging from the rafters, I decided to interview Ken about his life and all things cowboy. The morning sun beams into the shop as Ken and I begin our conversation. He ends most of his sentences with on to it, a true sign of a seasoned wrangler.

GM: When was your first encounter with a horse?
KS: That was so far back, I can't remember. I grew up around horses. The family horse wasn't a horse, he was a Shetland pony, Redwood. Redwood was in his upper 20's when we rode him.  I know he didn't make it to 30, but he was old. All of us kids learned to ride on him. 

My dad and brother always traded in horses. My dad raised Palominos. I think at one time we had 20 some odd head of horses. When we were kids we made our spending money on ponies. This was back in the 60's going into the 70's. There were tons of ponies around. Someone would get a pony that would get barn-sour, or learn bad habits. We would trade those, or tune up the pony, and then turn it around and resale it. We would get them for free up to $15, and we would sell them for $35 up to $50. We had several Palomino mares, but the ponies were mine and my brother’s business. My brother would get on a pony, it would buck him off, then we both get on it, and it bucked both of us off. We just kept ridden it until it quit bucking.

GM: Sounds like a great childhood. So, you began as a horse trainer?
KS: I was more of the assistance and my brother was the trainer. The movie Ben Hur got us into trouble more than anything else. When you put a pony cart onto a pony, you can't slide sideways like they do in those chariot races. You can't use bicycle tires on a cart because they don't hold up at all. We had wrecks. One time we had two carts and two ponies and all of a sudden they all just rolled over. It was fun.

GM: Living by a major amusement park like Cedar Point is every kid’s dream. How did that work out?
KS: When we were kids, the main road going into Cedar Point was two lanes wide. It was a big long stretch of people waiting in line. We would go to the side of the traffic lanes and give pony rides. We could charge anything we wanted because the parents wanted the kids out of the car. It was bumper to bumper traffic. The kid would get out of the car, we'd lead them around a little bit, and then walk back to their car. It was kind of fun. Eventually, they widen the road and made it four lanes, now its seven lanes through there. The last year we lived there we spent at least 20 minutes trying to get into our driveway.

GM: The move from Akron to Athens must have been a transition for you. Was your dad always into saddlery?
KS: My dad had a dairy farm. He got out of it before I came along. My older brother David, who was involved in horses, and my dad started the saddle shop here in Athens. Then David and my brother-in-law Merrell bought a feed store in Montana. David was always swapping and trading saddles and tack. I spent most of my summers in Montana since '70. We would do saddle repairs through the feed store. David would buy all the saddles he could find, and we would sell them here in Athens. This is in the late '70's when they came out with the polytrees, the light saddle trees. Everyone wanted the lightweight saddles; they didn't want grandpa’s old heavy hard seat roping saddle. That's what our outfit was after.  

GM: And then you finally moved to Montana?
KS: After I graduated from Alexander High School in '79, I moved to Montana. One of my sisters lived in Missoula. She said they had an extra room if I wanted to come out. I loaded up and moved out there. I liked it out there. When I brought my wife to Montana, we ended up in Missoula first. We had an agreement to stay there for one year. I took a town job in Missoula. We lived outside of Drummond with is about an hour away, just the right distance, and then drove it every day. If my wife decided we could live out there, then I would have set up a saddle shop.  

GM: Saddles, horses, Blue Healers. How did you get roped into becoming a cowboy?
KS: When I went out to Montana to live with my sister, I began working as a logger for the National Forest Service. The first true ranch I had was a job in Wyoming. I was working for the Grand Teton Lodge Company. I had worked in Grand Teton National Park for YCC. President Jimmy Carter brought the YCC back. It was labor positions for the park service. It was a nice area; the Coulter Bay area. The Grand Teton Lodge is one of the oldest ranches in the area. It’s where the Oregon Trail cuts off. It's really not dessert, there's good feed for the livestock, but at that time there was no water. It was a three-day haul without water. If you go out there today, you can still see where the wildfires killed the sage.

GM: In the wintertime you worked feeding stock, in the summertime you were a wrangler. What was it like?
KS: We would run the ranch from the 3rd week of May through the 2nd week of September. That’s when elk season comes in, the end of November. In December I worked at the Matador Ranch in Dillion feeding stock over the winter. They had close to 10,000 head of cattle. There were three of us on a crew. The supervisor worked me into the dirt. The supervisor, who was in his 60's, would drive the tractor, load hay on the tractors. It was an all day job. Sometimes, I got to feed with teams of horses with hay sleds vs. a tractor and trailer. The cattle we were feeding were a mix of pure longhorns, Hereford, Angus or Black Baldies. You had to go out on horseback, if you went on foot, the bulls would nab you. If I could have stayed with the cows, I would have.

In the summertime, working for the Grand Teton Lodge company, my main job was to take people out on the trails. They would show up, we would put them on a horse, take them out, come back in, water the horses, and then take the next load out. We rotated horses. We had a breakfast ride that went out in the morning which was a two hour ride; three hour rides and four hour rides in the afternoon. The work was summer seasonal. You have to be highly portable. I could fit everything I own in the back of a truck. A lot of the guys I worked with were college kids working the summer.  It’s a fun job.   

We made a lot of trails. It was a funny deal; it wasn't the only deal, on to it. There was a Washington outfit that made trails, too. But, I remember the trail grader we used. When I went out to Montana last time, I went up to Lincoln and asked them if they were using it. Not only were they not using it, it was no longer there. They didn't know where it was. The graters were homemade using a hillside plow and a harness. I can buy a hillside plow; they're all over back here in Ohio. I would sell plows to the forest service guys that were in the Lochsa District and the other wilderness areas for building a plow. Two passes with a plow, two passes with a grader, and you have a trail. You can't buy the grader. The graders were made for the forest service back in 30's or 20's. They quit making them. If I could come up with a grader, I could go back out there and contract to make trails. That would be an outstanding job. I would do that in a heartbeat. 

GM: Wow! A great adventure for a young horseman. Any memories that stand out during your time at the ranch?
KS:  There were many memorable moments. The one thing that I had wished I had done was get a world map. There are not many countries that I haven't met. There was always fun stuff going on. Even though there were forest fires, we had to take rides out. We were on standby evacuation for two weeks. Besides the fires breaking out, we were cooling off, getting some rain. I was the head wrangler, in charge of horseback riding. 

One year a lady from Scarsdale New York volunteered to work with the forest service. It was really cool to be green back then. She knew people who had volunteered and went out to save the environment, and that was what she was going to do. She didn't stay with us for very long. We worked 10 day hitches; 10 days on, 4 days off. That was ruining her social life. She was a good kid, but it was like going to the back side of the moon for her I guess. She made a comment one night that I’ll never forget. We weren't tired yet and we were just sitting around the fire talking. She was looking around and said, “Oh, this is so pretty.”  She wasn't used to seeing the stars at night because of the pollution. Out west the stars are so bright that you can see to walk by the starlight, not even a full moon. She said, “It’s just so quiet you can hear the stars.”  At first I thought it was a funny statement, but then, the more I thought about it, it was a profound statement. That’s one of my benchmarks. I want to be where it's so quiet I can hear the stars. The celestial sound; no sound. You can hear the fire pop or something, but you can’t hear anything else.

GM: What horse did you ride during that time?
KS: The last year I worked for the Tetons, Tulsa was my horse. He was a stocky mountain horse, a horse that was good horse. I had him in the summer, and a hunting camp had him in the winter. He liked to elk hunt. All the wranglers leased their horse.

GM: Your hitching work is beautiful. How and when did you learn to hitch?
KS: Hitching is a lost art that is being revived. When I was learning how to hitch, there was nothing out there. I was working at the Grand Teton Lodge Company when a friend of mine, Paul, was working for the forest service. Paul was coming down to the corral at night and getting horse hair. I caught him one night and said, “What are you doing with that?” He said he was braiding. Paul had a reprint of a book that was printed back in the 30's. There were a couple of pages in it that pertained to hitching. We got to looking at it and I told him I would supply the horse hair if he supplied the book and we'll both learn. I was telling everybody that I taught Paul and Paul taught me. His style is different than mine. I do a lot of keepsake hitches for horses that have died or moved on. You don't have to have enough for horsehair for the entire hitch; I can buy hair to add to it. If you had a favorite horse or a favorite horse, and you want something made, you provide the hair, and I can make it. If you want a diamond pattern, each diamond takes about an hour and half to make, then each button takes about an hour.  

GM: The tooling on your saddles is stunning. Do you create your own tooling patterns?
KS: A hand-built saddle can have as much as 40 to 50 hours’ worth of tooling. I have my own tooling pattern. I don’t' copy from anyone, but I will adapt other people's work. I change it up to what I like, something that is unique. It’s a trademark for the creator. Pretty much everyone that has done tooling has adapted a style. When you go to a saddle making school, they always suggest that you apprentice out/work for at least 3 other saddle makers before you start on your own. My dad always said when you see someone doing what you like, watch what they are doing because you can always learn something. There’s a way you can incorporate other's work to come up with your own.  

GM: What are your views on saddle making and the art of saddlery?
KS: Saddle making is a reviving art. There used to be a core of saddle makers out there, but now you are starting to see people who know the difference between production saddles and hand built saddles. For the cost of a high-end production saddle, you can get one built. The high-end parade saddles, the production saddles, are pretty much junk for $5,000 to $6,000. The high-end saddles I have seen do not have real silver. The sheepskin wasn't even sewn on to it; it was glued on to it. Riders ride the saddle around a ring, come out, and take it off the horse. For what you are paying for one of those, you can have one built and have a real saddle. Different parts of leather have different uses. Ragging pieces are flexible, etc. In a small shop, like mine, one person makes a saddle. I use nails and screws vs. staples. When I do repairs, I have to match each piece. There are tricks to it.

GM: Do you see yourself returning to Montana in the future?
KS: Where I lived out west, my nearest neighbor was about a mile away. I couldn't see his place. I could see his security light at night. That’s close enough for me. Here, in Ohio, we are a little closer. I often tell people I want to live out far enough that I can go out on my back porch and take a leak and not have to worry about it. When my wife’s dad passed away, he left her this place. So we settled in Athens. When my youngest kid graduates from college and he walks across that stage to get his diploma you are going to hear a pop in the background. That pop is filling the vacuum from where I was sitting - I am out of here.

GM: Do you miss Montana?
KS: Only twice a day now.

Connect with Ken Smith…

Gina McKnight is an author and freelance writer from Ohio USA.

Ken Smith in his shop putting the finishing touches on my Tex Tan Hereford Saddle.

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