A True Texas Legend
By Gene Fowler
“Where’re you from!?” exclaimed the late actor and writer Sam Shepard to his interviewer, a film reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. The fresh-faced scribe had just inquired about Sam’s ostrich-belly cowboy boots and when Shepard said they were from Leddy’s in Fort Worth, the reporter followed up with a faux pas.
“Leddy’s…is that a famous brand?”
A little De Niro-style understatement might be in order for that question. “A little bit famous, yes, just a little bit.” In fact, folks from Hollywood to the Grand Ole Opry, the White House and the chic sheikdoms of Qatar have been known to wear custom-made Leddy boots. And thousands of ranchers and working cowboys have something in common with folks like Prince Charles and former NFL quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. They all ride Leddy saddles.
The British newspaper the Telegraph dubbed Leddy’s “a western version of Ralph Lauren,” and Southern Living proclaimed the store “the Neiman Marcus of Western wear.”
Whenever I drive or stroll through the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, Leddy’s Texas-size neon, cowboy boot sign helps to reassure me that the modern world has not completely gone to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. And I’d wager the big boot sign on the San Angelo Leddy’s functions as a similar beacon in the landscape.
The Leddy legend goes back to around 1918, when drought hit the McCulloch County cotton crop and M. L. Leddy, the oldest of eight brothers, headed into the county seat of Brady, where he apprenticed in a saddle shop. M. L. also learned how to repair and make boots and by 1922 he owned the shop. During the Texas centennial year, 1936, M. L. Leddy’s was moved to San Angelo; in 1941 brothers Frank, Silas and O. C. Leddy opened the store at the corner of North Main and West Exchange in the Fort Worth Stockyards. An experimental-minded Frank Leddy attached saddle fenders with ball bearings and built a saddle with no horn. When a man rode a Longhorn from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. as a publicity stunt, Frank made the saddle.
Today, boots are made at the San Angelo location and saddles are made upstairs from the Fort Worth store, with Hermann Oak leather from St. Louis. Orders are taken at either site and the Stockyards outpost carries a distinctive line of Western wear. Now owned by M. L.’s grandson, Wilson Franklin, the company employs its fourth generation of Leddy family members. But kinfolk or not, worker loyalty and treating folks the way you’d treat family remains a big part of the Leddy legacy. And in a big family company like Leddy’s, people tend to gravitate to roles for which they were uniquely wired.
“My grandfather M. L. Leddy had three children: Joyce, Dale and Hollis,” says Beverly Franklin Allen at the San Angelo shop. “And my father, Jim Franklin, married Joyce and worked in sales at Leddy’s. He had a charismatic personality and knew how to treat people. My Uncle Hollis was good with the bottom line and handled the orders and money. At a Leddy reunion one time, I told the story that Dad would order 100 hides and Hollis would come along and cancel 25. Hollis fell out laughing and said it was exactly like that!”
When bootmaker Arch Baird retired at the age of 91 in 2004, he had worked in the San Angelo shop for 63 years. “I stepped off an oil truck and started working for Leddy’s at one o’clock on January 23, 1941,” Baird told the local press.
Arch had first met M. L. as a boy, when Leddy repaired the leather and padding on the leg brace he wore due to osteomyelitis. When Baird became a bootmaker himself, he specialized in fitting people with foot or leg abnormalities. Even after his retirement, he would often stop in to mentor younger bootmakers or solve some equipment problem. “He’d ride his electric wheelchair over from the retirement home,” recalls Beverly Franklin Allen.
One piece of arcane knowledge shared through generations concerns the unique shank on Leddy boots. “M. L. developed this in the early 1920s,” says Mark Dunlap, vice president and general manager of the company. “We take a 40 penny nail, clip the head off and flatten it. It makes a much stronger shank. Far as we know, we’re the only company that does this.”
Another innovation, noted in the 1981 book Texas Boots, the “Henry Clark toe” is named for a customer who started the popular “round, sloping-off toe” in West Texas. Though the “Alvin Barnett heel,” described as “a high, underslung heel for bronc riding,” is somewhat less popular with today’s Leddy’s customers, some who work on horseback still want a taller heel. “I damn sure don’t want to get hung up,” rancher Pete Bonds told a reporter when ordering a new pair in 2007.
The main attraction, of course, is that great fit. A sign that used to hang in the San Angelo shop summed up the Leddy fit: “Tough as a bronc, neat as a pin, easy as a rocking chair.” And Arch Baird put it this way, “Boots that are made right are the most comfortable thing you can wear. You realize you hardly got anything on your feet.”
“Leddy boots are recognizable from 50 feet away,” opined my late amigo Tyler Beard in his 1992 tome The Cowboy Boot Book. Mark Dunlap confirms that the company still uses traditional stitch patterns introduced back when television was yet a spark in Philo T. Farnsworth’s dreams. “In fact,” Mark adds, “the older patterns are the most popular.”
But that doesn’t mean the Leddy bootmakers can’t deliver whatever imaginative design a customer may request. For Dallas art dealer Ron Hall, who moonlights as a Palo Pinto County cowboy, Leddy’s made a pair of ostrich and kangaroo boots with multi-colored inlays and overlays depicting Ron’s interpretation of a Picasso cowgirl.
“I had more than 50 pairs of boots at one time, including a pair of signed, solid ostrich boots made for me by the famous Charlie Dunn,” Ron says. “None ever fit like my Leddy’s. I’m thinking about wearing my Picasso boots on the red carpet at the L.A. premiere of my movie, Same Kind of Different as Me.”
Another unique pair was made for a fisherman. “Each panel around the top featured a different type of fish, all hand-tooled and hand-painted,” says Mark Dunlap. Those boots are beautiful works of art themselves.”
Many customers, of course, want a more basic custom boot in ungussied cowhide; those start a little south of $1,000. More expensive hides, such as the farm-raised alligator, can run up to around $13,000. The San Angelo shop finishes about 10 pairs a day and the wait for a custom pair is about 10 months to a year. If you’re in a hurry, though, both shops can sell you ready made boots, straight off the shelf. And as most customers will tell you, the price might be a little higher, but Leddy boots will last anywhere from five years to a lifetime.
Downtown San Angelo shoppers can stand on the sidewalk and look in through large picture windows to see 15 to 20 Leddy employees making boots by hand, with tools and machinery used in the 1920s. The Fort Worth boot-fitting room contains rows of ledgers that hold customers’ foot dimensions and outlines going back to the 1940s. Outside, visitors can take in the colorful history of the Stockyards National Historic District.
Folklorist John Avery Lomax collected lyrics and melodies of cowboy classics like “The Old Chisholm Trail” in the Stockyards in 1908. I first heard the esteemed cowboy balladeer, Don Edwards, singing his versions of those songs in the Stockyards in 1986, when I was performing in a monologue collection called In the West in the upstairs theater at the historic White Elephant Saloon. Edwards was singing in an adjacent beer garden, and when I wasn’t onstage I got to hang out on the saloon theater’s second-floor stoop and drink in those songs of sunset and sage.
There’s currently talk of a redevelopment in and around the Stockyards that some feel might compromise the district’s historic character. Whatever change may come, it’s unlikely to alter or tarnish the Leddy legacy. As Wilson Franklin and extended family begin to muse about celebrating the company’s 100th birthday in 2022, they also work to finish up a book, Fine Handmade Boots & Saddles – The M. L. Leddy Tradition, that rounds up a century of Texas legend and life. The volume was originally scheduled for a spring 2016 release.
“That’s the problem with rustling up such a big subject,” says Mark Dunlap. “Every time we think the book is completed and ready to go, somebody remembers another great story!”
Saddle Portraits – Capturing a Leddy Legend
When Marshall K. Harris returned to his native Fort Worth from the Northeast in 2010, his resume included an MFA in Sculpture from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and four years as a defensive lineman in the National Football League.
“I had been working on life-sized nude figure studies and soon recognized that big drawings of naked people were not going to be very marketable here,” he says. Then in 2011, while wandering around a Cutting Horse exhibition at Will Rogers Coliseum’s Amon Carter Exhibit Hall, Marshall’s artistic eye was drawn to some “amazing historic saddles that were equally as interesting and intricate as the human body in all of their details and nuances, scuffs and scars, and various textural qualities.”
Marshall even had some early experience with saddle art, having studied leather craft in junior high school. “I learned some of the tooling techniques and know the difference between a seeder and a veiner, and I know proper beveling techniques.” One of his first projects was a miniature leather saddle kit from the Tandy Company, and the little saddle sits on his drawing table today.
“Saddles are fascinating because each one is unique. A saddle is a combination of artistic vision, craftsmanship and discipline. Making a saddle and crafting the design is as individual as the cowboy who rides it. And the wear and tear patterns can tell you a lot about what sort of work that saddle, the horse and the cowboy performed. It’s those tiny details that I love to try and capture in my drawings.”
Walking past the Fort Worth Leddy’s store one evening, a vintage saddle seemed to “almost jump out of the window” at the artist. The maker’s mark on the stirrup said M.L. Leddy, San Angelo, Texas, which meant that it would have been made sometime after 1936. Marshall photographed the saddle and went to work. “This particular saddle required three months, working six to eight hours a day.” All of Harris’ saddle portraits are actual size. Their detail is so uncanny that the artist received the prestigious Hunting Art Prize in 2013.
A while back, as Marshall was talking with some ranchers and non-ranching folks about his work, someone in the latter group asked, “Aren’t you afraid that the ranching industry is going to become mechanized and horses and saddles will be replaced by ATVs?”
Before the artist could answer, one of the cowboys looked up from under his hat and quipped, “You ever try to sneak up on a cow in an ATV?”
“So I think horse culture and saddles will be around for a while,” Harris adds. “And I keep discovering more and more beautifully designed saddles almost everyday. There won’t be enough life left in me to draw them all.”
For more Marshall Harris Saddle Portraits see: http://marshallkharris.com/drawings/saddle-drawings.