David Carrico Leatherworks
By Gene Fowler
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
In one of the most famous lines ever spoken on the silver screen, Judy Garland told her little dog that they had somehow ventured so far from their home in the heartland that they were in the mythic dimension of Oz.
Well, guess what, Toto? Nowadays Hollywood, the American Land of Make Believe, heads for the Sunflower State on a regular basis. Specifically, the movie folks are beating a path to the Edna, Kansas shop of leather artist David Carrico, maker of authentic Old West saddles, holsters and other frontier accoutrements. If you’ve seen the remakes of films like True Grit and The Magnificent Seven—or just about any Western made in the last few decades—you’ve probably seen examples of Carrico’s work.
Whether he’s training and/or providing an entire cavalry unit, performing on horseback himself, or renting and/or selling reproduction military and Old West leather gear, David’s had a hand in some 40 feature films, documentaries and television programs, including Monsters of God, Hostiles, The Lone Ranger, Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma, The Son and Jonah Hex.
The leather artist exhibited Midwestern resolve and inner strength in 2011, when a personal health challenge threatened not only his active film career, but the gift of life itself. At age 41, David was diagnosed with CML Leukemia, complicated by a rare lymphatic blast. Given two months to live without a bone marrow transplant, he went through multiple chemo treatments, radiation and the transplant, an ordeal that lasted some seven months. “I have almost complete numbness in my feet,” he says, “which makes it hard to ride horses and stand to work all day. I have some setbacks, but that goes with the territory. I mention it because I hope it encourages someone who may have gone through something similar. They can beat it and continue life with a new ‘normal.’”
David began working with leather in high school, learning from books, videos and trial-and-error. “I competed in roping while I was in school, and I wanted to make rodeo gear for myself and my friends,” he says. Then in college, he took a Civil War reenactment class. The students were the Union soldiers and alumni portrayed the Confederates. When David made himself a belt and holster, his classmates expressed surprise, “You made that?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Well—can you make me one?”
Carrico’s leatherwork was so well received by fellow students that when he graduated with a degree in agricultural education from Kansas State University in 1992, he had an idea. He might just give this leatherwork business a try, he thought, see how it goes. “I said I’d get a ‘real job’ if it didn’t work,” David says. “I started going to more reenactment events, where I’d set up a sutler tent to show my work and pass out catalogs and price sheets.”
It did work—in fact, it worked so well that it now takes the whole family to keep up with the business. David’s wife, Deena, and his son, Denton, help out with large orders and preparing for shows. And though it’s not as large a part as the movie world, the reenactment circuit remains an important part of the business. If you need an authentic reproduction of a McClellan saddle, whether it’s the 1859, 1872 or 1874 version, David Carrico is the man to see. Hankerin’ for a U.S. Issue Civil War Holster or an 1885 Cavalry Holster? He’s got ‘em. An Indian Wars Modified Cap Pouch? Affirmative. Doghouse-style Stirrups? A Fair Weather Christian Belt? You came to the right place, pilgrim. Yuma Saddlebags? Shotgun Chaps? Cowboy Cuffs? Ellos están aquí, vaqueros.
One of the reasons that movie folks and reenactors trek to Edna is that David is a stickler for authenticity. “One of my pet peeves, as an example, is when I see a saddle that’s supposed to be circa 1870s, but it’s actually like a roping saddle with rubber around the horn,” he says. Before the Internet made vintage specs more easily accessible, David spent a lot of time visiting museums to study antique equipment. “I started by going to Fort Riley while I was in college, and I also have an old cavalry ordnance manual that has helped quite a bit.”
The 2004 cinematic retelling of the Alamo story, for which Carrico Leather made 30 saddles (including saddles used by the actors portraying Sam Houston and Juan Seguin, the latter a Tejano who fought on the Texan side of the revolution), presented special research challenges. “It’s hard to find drawings of saddles made before the Civil War,” he says. “So for those 1830s saddles, I needed to keep it simple and relatively stripped down.”
Knowing his way around horses has been just as essential for the business as knowing his leathers. “Horses today are generally wider than they used to be, so for the early McClellan saddle, for instance, I use an 1859 model tree built on modified quarter horse bars that will fit today’s horses. The saddle comes complete with correct iron hardware, hooded stirrups, fenders, skirts, complete rigging assembly and a set of six coat straps. I have learned that harness leather holds up the best to the abuse these saddles take by the average reenactor. I have tried skirting leather, but it doesn’t hold up.”
When prop masters for the film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, asked David to make some holsters for stars Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard to wear as the bad boy brothers Jesse and Frank, he contacted the Jesse James Museum for information. A James collector also sent him pictures of Jesse’s holster. “Will Ghormley helped design the holster and made the first one,” Carrico says. “I made several other sets of holsters and money belts, after a few modifications were made by production and Mr. Pitt. The rig they used is a money belt with one holster for a Smith &Wesson Schofield and one holster for a 7 1/2″ Colt. I actually provided two complete sets for filming and one practice set for Mr. Pitt. I also built the shoulder holster he wears in the show.”
In his Frank and Jesse Collection, David now offers a Replica Jesse James Holster and Belt, and a Frank James Belt and Holster. “Many people want to have copies of famous gunfighter rigs,” he explains. “Gear worn by actors like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne has also been very popular.”
You can watch David create a reproduction holster in a short video posted on his website. As he stamps out the pattern with a die, the narrator explains that vegetable-tanned leather is the “only type of leather that’s flexible enough to carve or stamp.” David sprays the leather with water to soften it and proceeds through each careful step, cutting, aligning, creating holes with an awl, carving grooves for stitches, making decorative lines with a compass, and imprinting designs on the leather by striking a stamp stick with a mallet.
The narrator explains that David’s stamps are “modern-day copies of ones used in the late 19th century,” as the leather artist adds detail with a chisel-edged knife. As he prepares to sew the holster, he “soaks some sheep’s wool in neatsfoot oil and rubs it in,” which “nourishes and conditions the leather, preserving the impressions and enhancing the color.” After the holster is sewn, we then see how the ammunition loops are made. A leather lining is glued on, the billets are sewn on, decorative nickel studs called spots are applied, the holster is threaded onto the gun belt and then Marshall Dillon is ready to strap it on and tell some punk desperado to get the heck out of Dodge.
Some of the leather for David’s chaps and bags may originate in other countries, but he uses Hermann Oak and Wickett & Craig leathers for his saddles and holsters. While the contemporary hides are more than suitable for his needs, he relishes the experience of discovering some vintage leather. “Back in 2002,” he says, “Patrick Goodknight and I bought out the contents of A. Seidlitz and Son Saddlery in Chicago. It had been closed since the 1960s and the place was like a time capsule.”
In addition to pristine dead stock that included hundreds of pairs of Acme Boots, pearl snap shirts, Levis, Wranglers and cowboy hats, the store contents came with a filing cabinet full of cool graphics stationery going back decades from Crockett, Austin, S. D. Myres and other classic saddle makers. And there was also a bonanza of uncut hides. “It was latigo leather and that stuff just cut like butter,” Carrico recalls. “Tanneries could afford to put a lot more man-hours into it back then.”
David recently obtained the remaining patterns and dies of the renowned Cheyenne maker of saddles and cowboy gear, F. A. Meanea (1849-1928), and now offers reproductions of Meanea Dove Wing Spur Straps, Headstalls, Step-in Chaps and other items. Meanea joined his uncle, E. L. Gallatin, at the uncle’s Cheyenne, Wyoming saddlery in 1868. Gallatin already had a successful saddlery in Denver, Colorado, when he set up shop in booming Cheyenne, known as the “Magic City of the Plains,” between its street-platting in 1867 and his nephew’s arrival. With some dismay, he found the magic city already equipped with four established saddleries.
“My chances looked slim, but I got out to rustle and make my place known,” Gallatin wrote in his 1900 autobiography, What Life Has Taught Me. “So I found a dead horse with a good hide on him, and set to work to see how I, as a taxidermist, could make a sign for my business. I had no experience, but risked it and made a fairly good job, rigged him out with saddle and bridle and placed him on a post with platform twelve feet high. This soon attracted much attention and everyone in the town soon knew where our saddle shop was, and I soon had my share of patronage and steadily gained on my competitors, until one by one they departed and I held the fort. The business is still running at the old stand in the hands of my nephew, whom I took to learn the trade thirty years ago. His trade extends over a number of Western states.”
Gallatin himself had apprenticed in St. Louis in 1845, at the age of 17, with Thornton Grimsley, a leading producer of military saddles. Eventually, notes Joseph Bourque in a 1992 issue of American Heritage, Gallatin “became influential in the development of two of the most popular styles of saddles ever made: the Pueblo and the Cheyenne, which were used by cowboys from Canada to Texas. Like many of his fellow saddlers, Gallatin listened to the cowboys who used his product, and he experimented with design changes to improve the comfort of both horse and rider. What set him apart was an unusual combination of the maker’s skill and the designer’s eye.”
“Meanea continued to produce saddles, chaps, gun rigs and all types of leather products until his death,” adds Carrico. His customers reportedly included Buffalo Bill, Theodore Roosevelt and beloved “cowboy artist,” C. M. Russell. Along with examples of his cowboy gear, a leather typewriter case he made for the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended the enigmatic frontier figure Tom Horn can be seen in Cheyenne’s Nelson Museum.
So it’s no stretch of the blanket to proclaim that David Carrico has deep, authentic roots in the West. This past March, in fact, True West featured him as “Card-Carrying True West Maniac No. 383.” He’s also been known to bury his nose in a leathery journal called Shop Talk! “I’ve subscribed to that magazine since the days when it was called Harness Shop News. I like the fact that it has more saddle shop articles now—and hey, now I’m one of ‘em!”