As inexorably interwoven in the mythos of the American West as its intricate wild rose motif is sculpted into leather, the Sheridan-style saddle elevates a once-utilitarian cowboy artifact into a museum masterpiece.
For nearly 130 years, local saddlers have crafted the beautiful, highly recognizable Sheridan-style saddles through such masters as Otto and John Ernst, Rudy Mudra, Lloyd Davis, Reuben Bloomberg, Don King, Billy Gardner, Joseph Crackenberger, Chester Hape and Bob Johnson, constituting a tight-knit, intergenerational guild of craftsmen who made Sheridan a mecca for saddles.
Interestingly, the classic Sheridan style known and respected worldwide is locally only practiced by a handful of saddlers working mainly out of their houses and shops instead of the legendary King, Ernst and Mudra saddlers that graced downtown. Except for King’s Saddlery, such store-front saddleries have gone the way of the horse and buggy.
“Sheridan was an epicenter of saddle making in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but most of them have retired or died. There are still saddlemakers doing quality work, but they are hidden in the wood work,” said Bruce King, whose father, Don, developed the classic, wild rose Sheridan saddle style from 1955 to 1985, according to folklorist Timothy H. Evans in his book “King of the Western Saddle.”
To understand the trajectory of the Sheridan saddle from basic Western accoutrements to high-end collectibles commanding tens of thousands of dollars is to return to the dusty, humble beginnings of the Spanish conquistadors and the development of the Mexican vaqueros and saddlemakers. The Texas saddle evolved in response to the needs of the Great Cattle Drives from in the 1800s that headed West, reaching up into the High Plains and Wyoming. Early saddle and leather workers followed the cowboys, cattle and railroads as new towns opened up. Early on, Wyoming was drawing saddlemakers such as Cheyenne’s Fank Meanea, credited with developing the Cheyenne roll cantle style. In Sheridan, Andy Eads opened the town’s first saddlery and harness shop in 1890. Other pioneering saddlers were George Parmeter, and Frank Morrow — a Sheridan County sheriff — and Otto Ernst, who first partnered with John Buckley in 1902 then opened his own shop in 1907, where Otto hired his brother John Ernst as his saddlemaker. The family saddlery stayed in business until 1975. Reportedly, Joe Crackenberger Jr., under his father’s guidance, made the last Otto F. Ernst Incorporated saddle, according to Ana Gorzalka in “The Saddlemakers of Sheridan, Wyoming.”
With the closing of the frontier and the waning of the Wild West, a national interest and nostalgia for this vanishing part of Americana was fueled by such venues as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and cowboy pulp culture and penny dreadfuls. This fed into Sheridan’s great wealth, British aristocracy, horse culture and sprawling ranches to encourage the rise of dude ranches such as Eatons’, Paradise, Horton’s HF Bar, PK Ranch, Spear-O-Wigwam and Bones Brothers. Evans estimated that there were nearly 40 dude ranches within a 50-mile radius of Sheridan by 1939, all feeding the need for saddlemakers, leather crafters and outfitters.
“It was a perfect storm for the saddle and leather making industry,” said Jim Jackson, an artist and master leather craftsman who learned from his father and Ed of Ernst’s Saddlery. “That shop (Ernst) was a focal point — Chester Hape, Don King, Joe Crackenberger and my dad were all out there. My dad was the head saddlemaker at Ernst’s saddlery. He must have made 400 to 500 saddles.”
During the ‘20s and ‘30s, Ernst, Reuben Bloomberg, Ed Krenz, and the legendary Rudy Mudra were the go-to saddlemakers of the dude ranch heyday, followed by a Depression-era decline until a post-World War II resurgence with Don King (mentored by Mudra) who perfected the classic Sheridan style from 1955 to 1985 through such creations as his RCA (now PRCA) trophy saddles. The Sheridan style consisted of a wild rose motif, deep carving with emphasis on lines instead of shading and a scroll- like layout of flowers surrounded by leaves and stems, Evans said.
“Don developed the Sheridan style,” said Clint Gibson, a local saddlemaker. “If you look at the style, it flows in circles. You can’t see where the design begins or ends.”
Besides King and Ernst, other great local saddlemakers included Billy Gardner, Lloyd Davis, Chester Hape, Bob Douglas, Ed Jackson and Joseph Crackenberger Sr., all interpreting and articulating the Sheridan style during those decades.
Around the 1970s and ‘80s, the “young traditionalists” emerged, such as Bruce and John King, Fred Dooley, Lonnie Gorzalka, Joseph R. Crackenberger Jr., Wayne Hape — Chester’s son — and Don Butler as the next generation of saddlemakers, Lonnie’s mother Ann Gorzalka said. More recent saddlemakers include Link Weaver, Paul Van Dyke and Dusty Smith.
After so many decades, those “young traditionalists” have aged. Some are still making saddles on a limited basis, along with other leather crafts or specialty tools. Others have stopped, and others are dead. Saddlemaking is a demanding art not amenable to pains and infirmities of old age.
“It’s kind of sad. When I go, when Bob Douglas goes and the others, who’ll be left?” Lonnie Gorzalka said.
“The Sheridan style has outlived its usefulness. It was really hot 30 years ago. Everybody was stamping them. Now people want leather bling,” he continued. The growth of weekend cowboys; changes in ranching, customer demands and pricing; decline of apprenticeship, along with the rise of the “Japanese quarter horse,” four-wheelers have impacted saddle making, he said.
“The want for good handmade, nice saddles is still there,” Lonnie Gorzalka said, “but they’re more art works than a using tool back in the day.”
One saddlemaker, Kate Johnson, 31, has been apprenticed with Gorzalka for several years. She sees the value of that venue for young people learning the craft.
“Lonnie is very generous with his time and expertise,” Johnson said. “Some saddlemakers want to keep their techniques secret whereas Lonnie believes you should share your knowledge so as to keep saddle making going.”
Keeping the art of saddlemaking vibrant, alive and relevant are the challenges leather craftsmen face within cultural, economic, technological and geographic changes as custom saddles have evolved into objets d’art. What was once a localized, downtown craft now has a global reach and impact through technology and the internet.
“Saddlemaking is a distinctly American folk art that started in America and has spread through the whole world and is still evolving,” said Wayne Hape, Chester’s son, saddlemaker and leather craftsman.
“The saddlemakers now are about keeping the art form alive,” Hape said.
While downtown Sheridan has lost most of its downtown saddlers, Sheridan has not lost the saddlers’ art, nurtured by residents and visitors love and reverence for the cowboy culture.
“It’s not like the old days,” said Jackson about today’s leather artists. “They want their own shop to do their own thing.”
“It’s really unfortunate we’re losing a lot of these old leather shops but places like King’s will survive because of the history and the community that surrounds it.”
Editor’s note: This story was published in 2019 Destination Sheridan, Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Read more online, pick up a complimentary copy of the magazine at The Sheridan Press or find it in businesses and racks across Sheridan County.