By Danna Burns-Shaw
They say first impressions are everything. My first impression of Bob Klenda occurred at the CSMA Winter Seminar, held at Burns Saddlery in January of this year.
The room was full of all levels of leather artisans; my seat was the stairs because all the chairs were taken – giving me a wonderful opportunity to observe the attendees.
My first impression of Bob Klenda was watching him attentively observing my son, Braydan Shaw, giving a presentation about business practices. Bob’s posture was erect, his attention undivided and he seemed to be soaking in every word, like a freshman at high school orientation.
At that moment, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to meet this remarkable gentleman so graciously learning from a man nearly half his age.”
My instincts were spot on. I knew he was a remarkable leather craftsman; but in the three days that followed, I would come to know what an exceptional human being Bob is as well.
Bob Klenda grew up on a Kansas farm where he learned the significance of hard work. His love of tooled leather began with a gift his brother had sent him – a wallet he had made in the Army craft shop. Bob coveted that wallet and knew when he was drafted he also wanted to work with leather in the Army craft shop.
By the time he was discharged from the Army, Bob had made several wallets, purses and belts and had even started a saddle, under the tutelage of Kermit Lyons. Bob stated, “That first saddle was definitely a challenge.”
In 1957, Bob moved to eastern Utah. There he became acquainted with ranchers and cowboys from the canyon country around Green River. These folks taught Bob about range cowboying, and instilled in him an appreciation for top-quality saddles. “There is a lot of rich history in this canyon country, as well as neighboring western Colorado. The people, coupled with the history, whet my appetite to become a saddle maker.”
In 1961, Klenda began working for the notorious saddle shop, Newton Brothers in Vernal, Utah. Duane Sodaquist owned the shop and agreed to hire Bob for $5 a day. He provided him a room to rent for $2 per night, food for about $1 per meal. If he only ate two meals a day, he would be a buck ahead, three meals was a break even.
In 1962, Bob moved to Fruita, Colorado, and decided to go into the custom saddle building business himself. Newly married and starting a family made for hard financial times, however, being raised in the Midwest with hardworking core values, he just kept working his way through every challenge.
During the next few years, Bob went into ranching and riding to subsidize his income, but he still made saddles in the winter months. In 1969, he moved his family to Prescott, Arizona; a great location to expose his art to the Porter Saddlery Influence. Jim Bramlett, a prominent western artist, ordered a custom-made, fully-carved saddle from Klenda. But tragedy struck the night after he finished the most beautiful saddle he had made to date; some thug broke into his shop and stole the exquisite saddle. In true Bob fashion, he told Bramlett what happened and then proceeded to make him another saddle.
Arizona was good to Bob. He was fortunate enough to gain acquaintances with very prominent western artists: people like Helen Milton, Ray Renfro and George Phipen. But Colorado kept calling him back; so in 1977, he returned with his family to the place he calls home today.
Family is Everything
Fifty-five years ago, Bob met the love of his life, Ann, and together they raised six children: Michael, Gregory, Leslie, Jennifer, David and Jeff. Raising six children on a saddle-makers income was difficult, so over the years Bob subsidized the family income by taking ranch jobs and even full-time government work.
As the children grew, they started to branch off on their own. Michael took what his father taught him on the farm and continues to farm. He is also a tractor mechanic; he has his own mechanic business at his home. He and his wife, Kristen, have two children, Owen and Faye.
Greg ranches and has a cattle trucking business that he operates from his home. He is married to Tracy and they have a daughter named Laura, who recently made them great grandparents to a granddaughter, Ciada.
Leslie is a cost accountant for Emerson Electric, her husband is Dick. Jennifer is a homemaker and a hotel manager.
Bob and Ann’s son, David, is a career Navy Seabee; son Jeff is in the Colorado National Guard and works in Special Services for the State of Colorado. The Klenda’s have a great posterity, but currently Bob is the only saddle maker in the family.
Bob began helping with 4-H soon after arriving back to Colorado, sharing his knowledge and experience with the local kids that had an interest in leather crafting. With Bob’s amazing teaching ability, it didn’t take long before the kids started to excel in the artistry of leather tooling…and began winning awards of their own.
Klenda worked with the leather craft club and was awarded the Leader of the Year Award in 2007, with many of his kids winning grand champion awards at the state fair.
Kasey Rosendahl is one of the many students that Klenda has mentored; he started working with Bob when he was 9 years old. In the spring of 2017, Kasey received the prestigious Ann Stohlman Award for youth leatherworkers, for his exceptional leatherworking and his selfless character.
The Ann Stohlman Award is a prestigious award given to a youth leatherworker who is willing to use their skills to help others. Klenda himself received the Al Stohlman Award for adult leatherworkers in 2010, for his exceptional leatherwork and his willingness to share his leatherworking skill with the youth of Meeker County 4-H.
Bob began showing his work in 1991, first at the Colorado State Fair, and then at the Trapping of the American West art show in Flagstaff, Arizona; the Dry Creek Art Fellowship show in Sedona, Arizona; the Elko Poetry Gathering Saddle Show in Elko, Nevada; and The Art of the Saddle Maker show at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame…just to name a few.
Since 1992, Bob has taught many seminars and has been influential in increased attendance at these events. In 2005, he made a saddle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Denver National Western Stock Show; they auctioned it off to benefit the National Western Scholarship program and it sold for $19,500. He also made a saddle for the Marlboro Company’s 50th Anniversary.
Additionally, Bob won “Best of Show” at the RBC Fair for his intricately-tooled, leather heart –a tribute to his friend and fellow saddle maker, Mike Brennan, for his generous volunteerism to the local 4-H club and others in the community.
Of all the awards that Bob has received, he is very proud to have been awarded the Howard Munsell Award given by the CSMA (Colorado Saddle Makers Association), for his exemplary dedication to the mission of the CSMA. Bob has served for many years as president of the CSMA.
In 2009, Bob participated in the World Leather Debut; he showed a saddle in the “basket and geometric stamped” category, winning the category with his first entry.
In 2016, Klenda was named Saddle Maker of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists, at the 21st annual Will Rogers Awards dinner and show in Ft. Worth, Texas.
When someone has put over 50 years into a career, it is natural to ask them about retirement. When I asked Bob about retirement, this is what he said…
“So far I have not made any plans to retire from saddle making; it is something I need to face up to because the time is coming when I won’t be able to do it anymore. I hope I can continue long enough to be able to write a book about making saddles before I do retire. Right now my hope is to make a few more saddles and to begin progress on my book.”
Luck Favors the Prepared
If you are lucky in a 50-year career, you may be recognized for a job well done. Bob Klenda has been awarded the highest of accolades by his peers and anyone he has worked with and mentored.
Hundreds of children have learned leather crafting because of Bob’s willingness to share and care. He has not only taught them a skill, but also how to be disciplined, responsible and kind human beings.
Bob’s impeccable skill, humility and selflessness have earned him the respect of an industry…and his community. And lucky are we that have been fortunate enough to sit a spell with the amazingly wonderful, Bob Klenda.
Klenda Custom Saddlery
33323 Hwy 13
Meeker, CO 81641