A California Legacy
By Nick Pernokas
In the gentle rolling hills on the outskirts of Santa Ynez, California, is one of the best kept secrets of the American West. If you follow a residential street to where the sidewalk ends, you will find that transition point where the West begins. Here, in an otherwise typical, rural California home, resides one of the largest private collections of “cowboy gear” in the country.
As I walk into the large, whitewashed stucco hall, a man on a ladder adjusts a picture of a landscape he’s just hung. The picture matches the view from the porch out front and is of the Alisal Ranch, which dates back to Spanish land grants of the early 1800’s, when vaqueros tended cattle on these hills. There is more than historic photos and art here though. Jim Grimm steps down from the ladder and begins to show me the saddle collection.
The great room and adjoining rooms are filled to the ceiling with saddles. Additional gear fills the spaces in between. Most of it is California made, but there are plenty of other areas represented. Jim knows the story of every saddle and who owned it. He rattles off these stories so fast that it’s hard to keep up, and sometimes the saddles’ journeys are more interesting than the makers. There are saddles of almost any West Coast maker you can think of, and a few that you might not know. They are restored to excellent condition. The oldest in the collection is a Forbes from Santa Barbara. The names continue through Loomis, Walker, Visalia, Bohlin and more. There are Visalia chaps, headstalls and a Visalia women’s bareback bronc rigging.
The West Coast gear also has many Hollywood connections. Jim was a friend of famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, as well as his son, Joe Canutt, who lives nearby. They, and other actors and stuntmen, are well represented in the museum. Joe stunt doubled for Charlton Heston; and Heston frequently went hunting with Joe and Jim when he was in the area. Vintage movie posters with Richard Farnsworth, John Wayne and Charlton Heston blend seamlessly with gear that is related to them. There is a mochila from Zorro, a fireplace hood that belonged to Tom Mix and a hat from Nudie’s of Hollywood.
Rawhide braiding is also part of the California western heritage. The museum is home to an extensive Luis Ortega exhibit. Some of this fine work has been featured in publications about Luis Ortega.
Not only are there many pieces of his braided work, including the last Santa Ynez reins that he made, on display, but many of his personal effects as well. His hat, brightly colored neckties, belt and even one of his teeth are some of the memorabilia that fill a showcase. Jim and Linda were friends with Luis. The bronze from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum that Luis was awarded on his induction was saved by Jim from a trashcan after Rose Ortega’s death.
“We love Luis,” says Jim. “He was quite a guy.”
“Rose was an incredible little woman,” remembers Linda. Rose actually tied many of the knots on Luis’s work towards the end of his career.
They tell a story about the aged, infirm Luis Ortega who didn’t think he would be able to make his induction into the Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Rose was determined that he would be there, so she loaded him into their Lincoln Continental and drove him from California to Oklahoma City. The short statured woman had to practically carry him into the motel rooms every night. Thanks to Rose, Luis was there for the ceremony. Stories like this are what make this museum so special. Jim and Linda know the story behind most of the thousands of objects in here.
If you ask, the Grimms may show you their extensive collection of Ed Borein artwork. Ed was a western artist who chronicled the life of the California cowboys when no one else did. Ed was also a friend of Luis Ortega, and is the person who talked Luis into leaving the ranch he was working on in order to pursue his rawhide braiding. An original photo of Ed and Charlie Russell is framed in one of Ed Borein’s etching easels.
Jim wasn’t always a museum owner. At one time, he was a bricklayer with a love of horses. When he met Linda she was a dealer of antique and rare books about horses. Linda had showed horses in the California bridled style, and was an expert in that type of equipment. Linda’s previous husband, Marty Paich, had always wanted to be a cowboy, but ended up being a music arranger instead. One room at the museum is filled with gold and platinum albums that he arranged, like “The Way We Were” with Barbara Streisand and others with folks like Natalie Cole, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra. A cowboy at heart though, he collected bits, spurs and saddles. Although Marty passed away in 1995, his collection became the nucleus of the museum. Jim and Linda pooled their resources to create one of the largest private collections of western memorabilia in existence. They were recently inducted into the National Bit, Spur and Saddle Collectors Association Hall of Fame in recognition of their efforts.
Now in their seventies, Jim and Linda still have one old retired horse on their property, but have many fond memories of the horses they enjoyed.
“I’m proud of what I’ve got,” says Jim.”I’d like to keep a lot of this stuff together. The enjoyment, though, has been in the chase.”
If you’d like to see this fabulous collection by appointment, call Jim or Linda at 805-688-6572.
Museum of the Cowboy
P.O. Box 445
Los Olivos, CA 93441