The Forgotten Leather
By Nick Pernokas
Don Bailey was checking out the saddle vendors at the Denver Market. Don was interested in saddles in a big way as he was the owner and curator of the Bailey Saddle Shop and Saddle Museum in Simla, Colorado. The museum had around 400 saddles from as far away as Afghanistan, but Don’s main interest was in Colorado saddle makers.
As Don looked around, he started to pass a booth with mostly children’s things displayed. There were chaps, belts and holsters inside. Don started to hurry by, but a voice stopped him.
“Oh come on in,” said the lonely vendor, and Don decided to humor him. The vendor learned of Don’s interest in saddles, and told him that his grandfather had owned a saddle shop right there in Denver. He lamented on the fact that he’d never met a person who had heard of his grandfather’s company. Don was quick and he looked down at the vendors name tag which read, “Wilson Craighead.”
“I think you just met your first,” said Don, “because I think your grandpa was James Wilson.”
Wilson was amazed that Don had put two and two together. Don had a reason for his guess though.
“I was always interested in J.H. Wilson’s saddles because my Dad had one,” remembers Don. “ I still have it, but for years I never saw another one.”
Eventually, Don ran across a couple of J.H. Wilson saddles, but they were scarce. He had studied the history though, and when he met Wilson a lot more pieces fell into place. The two men became good friends, and whenever Wilson found something that the family had stored away pertaining to saddles, he would send it to Don for the museum. Don ended up with many pieces of tack that were made by the J.H. Wilson shop, but never sold. He even loaned Don the only copy of the original J.H. Wilson catalogue to copy. The other thing that Wilson shared was the history of his family.
James H. Wilson was born in Indiana in 1848. His father J.D. Wilson was a saddler for the 2nd Illinois Cavalry during the Civil War, and he taught J.H. how to build saddles and harness. James Wilson worked in his father’s shop in Paxton, Illinois, for several years before joining the Cincinnati Carriage Company. In 1877, they sent him to Denver. James saw a need for saddles in the West, so by 1884 he had opened J.H. Wilson Saddlery in Denver. The shop produced the J.H. Wilson saddles and eventually another line, which they called the Bronco Brand Saddles. They produced high quality products for both wholesale and retail. Around 1919, the Wilson Saddlery Company went out of business due to a severe recession following World War I. During this time period, a former salesman for Wilson Saddlery, John R. Craighead, married J.H. Wilson’s daughter, Jean.
At this time something else was also happening. Men were making a transition from suspenders to belts. This gave John Craighead an idea on how to put the Wilson machinery back to work. He reopened the shop in Denver in 1920, and went down to the May Department Stores Company in Denver where he got his first order for men’s dress belts.
Western Saddle Manufacturing Company purchased the Wilson saddle making tools and equipment from the company, as well as the names of the two saddle lines, which were made into the 1930’s. John Craighead kept the other harness machinery, which could be used for strap goods.
“I’m sure that a lot of people thought they were crazy for keeping the harness end of it at that time,” says Don.
J.H.Wilson passed away in 1921.
The dress belt industry took off, and John’s idea proved to be a good one. In 1929, the Great Depression brought the economy to a screeching halt. John Craighead looked for other products that he could make to keep the company going.
When people are going through hard times, they like to escape, if only for a few hours. The film industry saw a huge boom as people flocked to theaters for cheap entertainment. The most popular thing on the big screen was the Hollywood Cowboy. People longed for the simplicity of a good guy in a white hat who saved the day. Children emulated their heroes, and parents who had the money would indulge them with western toy guns and accessories. John Craighead realized that many of the scraps that were left over from belt production could be used to make children’s holster sets for cap guns. The toy holsters had been around for years, but the market was a good one, and John carved out his share of it. When the cowboy moved to the T.V. after World War II, the demand only increased. In the 1950s, there were as many as 35 prime-time westerns being produced for T.V. at the same time. Each cowboy star, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, had his own signature cap gun with a holster that went with it. Chaps and vests were an additional add-on to the outfit. The only disadvantage the Craighead company had was that they had to purchase cap guns from their competitors for their holster sets because they were strictly a leather company. The guns varied according to the price and quality, and they came from companies like Hubley, Leslie-Henry, Nichols and Kilgore. Many times the names of cowboy stars were interchanged on various model cap guns, and the holsters would be stamped to match.
Noted collector of western film memorabilia Bob Terry says, “The Fifties were the heyday of the western toy, and John Craighead’s company made the premium holster sets for some of the retailers.”
The Craighead holster sets were always featured prominently in places like the Sears and Roebucks’ Christmas catalog as the “top of the line” sets.
John Craighead’s son, Wilson, came into the company after college in the late 1940s. John R. Craighead died in 1956. Wilson Craighead continued to operate the company as a two pronged operation. He had a fondness for the holsters and western accessories, but he knew that the dress belts were an important part of the operation. Proud of the long heritage of his family’s company, he kept a J.H.Wilson saddle in his office.
“Wilson Craighead was one of the nicest men I ever met. He was the kind of guy you’d like to work for,” says Don.
By the 1960s, there were more “adult” westerns like Gunsmoke on T.V., and their stars wore less ornate holsters. Toy holsters became plainer looking as well, with less stones and silver. Some companies began to make plastic holsters; Mattel called their flexible plastic, “DuraHyde.”
In 1986, Wilson had some health problems, and his son, John J. Craighead, joined the company to help out. The two men ran the company until the end of the 1990’s when Wilson started to slow down. The Craighead’s private labled a lot of their belts to other companies. They made the leather belts for the Boy Scouts of America, as well as all of the belts and hatbands through VF Apparel, for the National Park Service rangers. The holster production continued, and the Craigheads were the last company to make holsters from top grain leather.
“Holsters were a good seller and an important part of our line,” says John J. Craighead. “But our main product was belts, up until the day I closed the factory.”
In the last decade of the Craighead Company, as sources of once plentiful cap guns dried up, John found a company in China that did an excellent job engraving and manufacturing toy guns. He sent them some cap guns from the 1940s era, and they took great pride in making their reproductions look even better than the originals.
“I wasn’t crazy about having them made in China, but that was the way the world had gone by that time,” says John. “For the first time since 1930, we had our own guns for our holsters.”
In 2011, Wilson passed away. The Craighead boxed holster sets were still sold in tourist destinations like the Fort Worth Stockyards .The world had moved on though, and there were few celluloid cowboys for children to emulate. John Craighead thought that this was a fitting time to exit the stage, so he closed the doors in 2012.
Many local people in the leather industry knew of the Craighead Company and much of the machinery from the 20,000-square-foot building went to saddle shops and leatherworkers. The belt-making equipment went to a company in Loveland, Colorado, that is carrying on the belt making.
Some people, like Bob Terry, came for something else. Bob wanted a piece of the Craighead Holster legacy. Bob made high-quality metal cap guns in Texas, with the original molds from companies like Leslie Henry. In 2001, he began a relationship with the Craigheads to provide him with holsters for his cap guns. John Craighead was kind enough to let Bob, and his wife Johnie, go through his upstairs storage space to look at old dies and patterns. Johnie made Xerox copies of his old catalogs. John even made some custom holsters specifically for Bob’s guns.
“Since our guns are made with original tooling from the 1950s, we wanted to pair them up with the original holsters from back in the 1950s,” says Bob.
Bob was also a collector, and he collected many things from what he considered the “Golden Age” of westerns. He had collected many of the Craighead holsters, and now he bought the cutting dies and embossing plates that they were made with.
Today Bob’s cap guns go to a surprising demographic. Ninety percent of them go to children, while only 10 percent go to collectors. Many orders include a reproduction of a Craighead-style holster. This is good news for those in the equine and leather industry who worry about the seeming lack of interest in the West in upcoming generations. Bob has also seen an adult pick up a cap gun many times, and become a child again as he spins it around his forefinger. Maybe this fondness for a kid’s western toy is a reflection of a yearning for a less ambiguous time.
“When I was growing up, the hero of the western always had a moral code and you knew what it was,” says Bob. “That was a good role model for kids growing up back then. It was a good thing to aspire to.”
Wilson Craighead thought it might be something even simpler.
“My Dad always felt that what we made wasn’t a necessity. It just gave enjoyment. He was proud that we were able to keep the company going for so long making something that a child would enjoy,” says John.
Regardless of the attraction, this small sidebar of Western history is forgotten no more.
This article wouldn’t have happened without Bob Terry. Bob is a renaissance man in everything related to the West as portrayed on the silver screen. He and his wife, Johnie, are musicians and play cowboy music at many large venues. Bob not only makes cap guns and holsters, but has an internet channel for western films and T.V. shows. Bob has produced and acted in a miniseries, Sundown, that is modeled after the T.V. family westerns of the Fifties. He has also acted as a host on Ride TV. A word to the wise: Bob is reaching a hard core group of fans for everything western. His various internet sites would be a great place for folks in the leather industry to advertise. You can reach Bob at 817-444-4320 or: www.sundownwestern.com ,www.toyguntown.com , www.westernsontheweb.com , www.wildwesttoys.com , www.westernschannel.com.
Don Bailey owns the Bailey Saddle Shop and Saddle Museum in Simla, Colorado. You can visit this collection of over 400 saddles by appointment by calling 719-541-2736. Bob also wrote a book on Colorado saddle makers called Saddle Strings.
Mike Graham is an expert on items from the old and new west. He is the owner of Ruxton’s Trading Post, which deals in all kinds of western memorabilia, in Manitou Springs, Colorado. He can be reached at (719) 685-9024, or www.ruxtons.com
Thanks to John Craighead for sharing the memories.