Saddle makers to gather in Salmon starting Friday

SALMON — Legendary figures skilled in saddle-making will convene Friday in Salmon for a two-day gathering.

The Idaho Saddle-Maker Summit will focus on a centuries-old profession practiced today by artisans with strong ties to the cowboy culture of the American West. The summit, the first event of its kind, is expected to draw more than 30 saddle-making craftsmen, the majority from within the state, for sessions at the Sacajawea Center west of downtown Salmon.

Among those expected to attend are Dale Harwood of Shelley, honored with a National Heritage Fellowship in 2008, and Cary Schwarz of Salmon, who in 2010 was given a silver medallion as a recipient of the Idaho Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

Both saddle-makers are co-founders of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, which is at the center of an annual show and sale at the National Cowboy &Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

The gathering, sponsored by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, also will feature Shep Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather Co. in St. Louis, a fourth-generation manager of a family owned tanning company whose products were sold to settlers in the last wave of wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. Today, its leather is prized by master craftsmen such as Harwood and Schwarz.

Steven Hatcher, director of folk and traditional arts for the Commission on the Arts, said summit goals include strengthening the foundations of an occupation that has withstood the challenges posed by mass production and a throw-away society.

Leather craftsmanship has a rich history in Idaho, along with cattle ranching and cowboys willing to spend a year’s pay on a custom saddle built to withstand the ravages of time, he said.

“Saddle-making is a tradition and it is also considered a folk art for its practice of handing down information orally through the generations through apprenticeships,” he said.

Saddles of the caliber produced by individual craftsmen can be seen as objects of art that have a built-in function. They are just as at home in art galleries or museums as on the horses of working cowboys, Hatcher said.

The summit is designed, in part, to seed ideas and bolster marketing techniques for the up-and-coming ranks of saddle-makers who have not yet been financially able to dedicate themselves full time to the profession.

Schwarz, who has created everything from ornate saddles for collectors — that can cost tens of thousands of dollars — to saddles for ranch hands and pleasure riders, said Harwood is the most important saddle-maker and Hermann the most important tanner of the 20th century.

Harwood, soon to turn 80, opened a one-man shop in the middle of the last century.

“He got into the business during the post-war period when a lot of people were getting out because production was becoming more and more mechanized — and he was able to distinguish himself fairly quickly,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz has an equal respect for Hermann and his leather products, which Schwarz said rely on an old-world process buoyed by a contemporary business plan. Schwarz described the summit as a kind of experiment.

“We’ve never done this before so it’s kind of like building the plane while we’re flying it,” he said.