Sixty Years of Leather at the Crossroads of America
By Gene Fowler
This past February—on the 18th, to be exact—All-Around Top Hand Leather Artist Ron Ross of St. Joe, Indiana, celebrated 60 years since the day he first held a leathercraft tool in his hand and applied it to a piece of leather. And just as his home territory, the Hoosier State is known as the land where pathways converge from all corners of the United States, Ron’s experience and expertise reaches into most every nook of the nation’s leather industry.
In addition to saddles, his creations have ranged from the leather stirrups for chiropractor tables to a leather case for the container of a person’s ashes. Years later, when he sought treatment from a local chiropractor, he saw his own ankle straps on the table. “Doc,” Ron said, “I made these stirrups and I’ve often wondered what they would feel like.” Another customer wanted harnesses, equipped with out-facing tacks that would fit on quail. The quail were then turned loose to train bird dogs to apply a soft grip on the feathered beasts.
It all started when he was serving in the U.S. Army. “I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri,” Ron recalls. “When I noticed a friend disappearing over several evenings, I asked him if he had kids or something. He said no, that he was going to the post leathercraft shop and asked me if I wanted to learn how to carve. I replied that I did.”
The sergeant in charge of the shop told the “new guy” to take a scrap of leather, wet it and practice getting the hang of working with a swivel knife. “So the next night, I bought some leather and started making a gun belt and holster set. I still have it today and there’s a picture of it on my Facebook page.”
When Ron completed his service and returned home to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in June 1959, he already had orders in hand for belts and billfolds, and bought his first leather from Tandy. Before visiting the leather store, however, he took time out to ride his horse, Goldie. A photograph of that reunion appears on his website. “It took a little bit of time for the area’s horse people to hear about me, but when they did the business just grew like Topsy.”
Ron knew saddles and tack from the ground up because he’d pretty much been communing with horses from the time he could crawl. There’s a photo of him at six months old, sitting on a pony, held in the saddle by a young girl behind him. “We raised Shetlands when I was growing up, and when I was nine or ten it was my job to train yearlings for riding.”
To supplement his leathercraft income, Ron attended a business school in Fort Wayne, studying accounting. After graduation he worked for the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company from 1965 until 1992. And while attending the school, he worked part-time in the local Tandy shop. In 1962, he married his wife Dorothy and set up housekeeping in a small mobile home on his family’s 60-acre farm, where he crafted leather items, farmed for his father, maintained his studies and worked for Tandy.
In 1965, Ron and Dorothy bought their first home and set up his leather shop in a small mall on the outskirts of Fort Wayne, a metropolis on the Lincoln Highway that is credited with the invention of the gasoline pump (in 1885) and the development of the home refrigeration unit (1913). In addition to leathercraft and the insurance work, the busy Mr. Ross was a horse-feed dealer in the early days; he was also a licensed dealer for several commercial saddle companies, including Colorado Saddles, Potts Saddles and Bona Allen.
A walking encyclopedia of leather industry history, Ron explains that Bona Allen was an historic tannery in Buford, Georgia, that also made saddles for Sears and Roebuck. Bonaparte Allen founded the company in 1873, and by 1912, the Georgia factory was reportedly the world’s largest producer of horse collars. Buffalo Bill, Gabby Hayes and Gene Autry are all said to have ridden on Bona Allen saddles. A local park in Buford, a town once known as Leather City, features a sculpture of Roy Rogers, Trigger and company saddle maker Jack Johnson.
A conversation with Ron Ross usually includes mention of a who’s who of more recent saddlemakers and leather legends. He got to know Hamp Brand, who started the first saddle school in the country, in Ralston, Wyoming, through a trade. “Hamp became a mentor,” Ron says. “I would call him long distance and he’d help me out.”
Another friend, Montana-saddlemaker Mike Witt suggested Ron call Don King in Sheridan, Wyoming, when Ron told Mike he wanted to improve his collection of stamping tools. “I told Don I wanted to get about 80 tools and asked what he’d charge,” Ron recalls.
There was a long pause, and then Don King said, “I don’t sell tools.” Long pause. “But I trade. What you got?” Ron replied that he had four sets of Gomph, a company that produced tools in Albany, New York, from 1866 to 1930. They traded one for one; with the last batch of tools, Don King sent Ron two color snapshots of a saddle he’d just made.
“My daughter had a photography shop at the time,” Ron says, “and she blew the photos up for me. I studied them very closely and that led to my version of Sheridan-style carving. Sometime later, when Ron competed in a leather show in Northwest Indiana, his entry was the only one done in the Sheridan style. “Karla Van Horne, with the International Federation of Leather Guilds, saw the show and told me I should make my patterns available in a book,” he adds.
East of Sheridan, Ron’s first book, includes many of his Sheridan-style patterns with photocarves. “Each photocarve has impressions of the tools used, with lines running to show where they were used,” Ron explains. The second book, Sheridan Designs, followed in 2003. It includes belt patterns, wallet patterns and a checkbook pattern, all with photocarve and tracing patterns. The book also includes details about the tools used to create the carvings.
A third book, the intriguingly-titled Sheridan Mystique, includes even more patterns and designs, with suggestions for tool modifications and usage. Ron’s current book-in-progress will be a little different. Entitled Patterns, Poems, and Tales, it will feature many of his popular designs, but as the title suggests it will also include examples of his cowboy poetry and stories about horses, leather and 81 years of living in the heartland of America.
“Out where the four winds blow,” begins one poem, “and the air is never still / Though you pray they quit, / You know they never will….Out where the four winds blow….All my dreams are gone / Guess time to pull my stakes / And be moving on….Out where the four winds blow.”
In a story entitled “Rebel, because he is just like me,” Ron narrates the moving true story of a family who visited his family farm when he was 18 and bought a yearling for their daughter. The girl was a polio survivor and her father felt that if they got her a pony, the animal could provide useful therapy in helping her walk more normally. In the Ross family’s barn the visiting family met a Palomino colt named Rebel, who had suffered an injury that caused him to limp….an injury that would have led other less big-hearted owners to put the horse down.
When Ron started to show the family some other yearlings he had started to train, the girl said, “I want him.” When her mother asked why she would want a lame horse, she replied, “Because he is like me, and we can help each other….”
“The telling of this story,” Ron writes, “makes me wish that I would have kept track of them and how things worked out for the young lady and Rebel. But when does one, who was my age at the time, 18 to be exact, keep the future in mind?”
Two things that would become clear about Ron’s future as the years rolled along are that his leather art would receive accolades and that he would share the inner workings of his art with others. In 2014, for instance, he won Best In Show in the Fine Arts Competition at the DeKalb County Fair for a saddle he’d made for himself.
The following year, he sent a photo of the saddle, which he dubbed Old Mexico, to the Art of Cowboy Makers competition held in conjunction with the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Accepted into the juried show, the buckaroo-style saddle received many favorable comments and would have sold at auction, Ron was told, if the seat had been bigger. “But I’m a skinny dude!” he joked. “I weigh 140 pounds with my boots on! I don’t need a big seat on my saddle.”
At a 2009 Federation of Leather Crafters competition, Ron entered a unique leather magazine holder or waste basket. It won Best of Category in the Master Division. At the banquet for the event, Ron’s buddy, cowboy poet and saddlemaker Martin “Boomer” Bergin of Overland, Missouri, said, “I can’t believe it! My saddle got beat by a gosh-darn trash can! I want you to meet Ron Ross. He builds one heck of a good trash can, but he can’t build a saddle worth anything.”
It’s clear that, more than awards, the most important part of leather crafting to Ron is the people he’s met through 60 years in the art form. He’s sold his instructional books to leather artisans in Beijing, Kazakhstan, Australia, all over. “I mentored a guy in the Philippines and helped him modify his stamping tools to learn the Sheridan style.” He attributes much of that national and global reach to the Internet. “I wouldn’t be where I am today in the leather world without the Internet.”
Ron Ross served as a valuable resource for Ron Batten, who did the restoration work on the cavalry equipment that was used in the 2003 film The Last Samurai. “He was an expert on the flat saddles used by English jumpers, and after he came to the Sheridan show one year he spent 10 days with me learning more about Western saddles.”
Leathercrafting also brought him in contact with the Amish community. “I’ve built work bridles for Amish harness shops,” he says. “One Amish shopkeeper was blind—he could only see shapes—and one day my wife Dorothy delivered the bridles to him. He told her to ask me why the stitching around the blinds is shorter than around the strap. I’d put six stitches per inch on the blinds and five per inch on the cheek straps. He could feel the difference.”
Not long ago, someone asked Ron, “Is there any leather item you don’t make?” Yes, he said, boots. “But,” Ron adds, “I do repair my own boots. I developed my own method for resoling boots.” He pulls the stitches out of the sole, then re-stitches the old sole and glues a new half-sole over the old sole. “It works great.”
Ron Ross has acquired his leather from Wickett & Craig for the last 40 years. He bought from another leading supplier before that. “But you had to buy 10 sides at a time from the other company,” he says. “And they were often so irregular in size that it took three sides to make one saddle.” A salesman offered to send him two Wickett & Craig sides and promised to pay the invoice if Ron didn’t like them. “I found the Wickett & Craig to be better oiled and easier to cut with a swivel knife. And their sides are cut more uniformly. They tell me I’m their best unpaid salesperson.”
One of the joys of being in the saddlemaking business so long, Ron says, is that sometimes your work comes back to you. “One of my daughters and I had a good Quarter Horse in 1982,” he explains. “And she was hurt in a trailer. The veterinarians did their best, but we lost her. That same year, I made both of the vets a saddle to express my appreciation. Then, not long ago, I got a call from someone who had bought one of the saddles from one of the vet’s estate. I bought it back at a good price and cleaned up; it looks good as new. My granddaughter has that saddle now. That’s what you aim for, to make something for a young person and have it still be good when they’re a grandparent.”
There’s a short video on Ron’s website and if you watch it, I guarantee you will get a lump in your throat. But the lump will make you feel alive. “I look at myself as being an artist,” he says in the video. “And they say that an artist leaves part of themselves in what they have created. I learned how to carve leather as a pastime. It was a dying art back then. There might have been a few Amish harness makers. But there were basically no books then and I set out to learn all I could learn about saddlemaking. Keeping the craft going is my own self-satisfaction. When somebody asks, ‘Do you know how to do this?’ It’s your turn then to say, ‘Yes I do and I’ll show you.’ I hope to be one of those that when my time to leave comes that I’m doing what I enjoy doing. I don’t see myself ever hanging up doing leather….We all leave our mark upon the earth. I want to be remembered that I was good at what I did.”
A Ron Ross Saddle Tale
Somewhere back around the 1970s, the famous L. White Boot and Saddle Shop of Fort Worth closed down. Leon Wensierski (1866-1943) changed his last name to White after immigrating to America from Poland at age 19. He wound his way to Fort Worth, where he opened the iconic L. White Boot and Saddle Shop on North Main in 1910. After the founder’s death, his sons Louis and Victor ran the shop.
According to one source, L. White equipped Black Jack Pershing’s troops at Fort Bliss in El Paso as the U.S. Army chased Pancho Villa in Mexico around 1914. The large, totemic neon cowboy boot advertising M. L. Leddy’s Boots and Saddlery today originally advertised L. White Boot and Saddle Shop a few doors down.
Ron Burkey, who had a shop in Rushville, Indiana, bought some or all of the contents of the L. White Shop, which included saddle trees. Ron Ross bought a few of the trees to use on “in-stock” saddles for his shop. He built a saddle on one of White’s Low Moose trees and displayed it in his shop’s show area. One day, as Ron’s wife Dorothy was running the shop, while Ron was working as an insurance claim investigator, two older fellows came in to look at his inventory. She later filled him in on their visit.
“One fellow was standing behind the saddle, where he could see my ‘maker stamp’ in the center of the cantle liner,” Ron recalls. “The other fellow said, ‘That looks like an L. White to me.’ His friend said, ‘Nope. Don’t think it is.’ The other guy said, ‘A hundred says it is.’ Then his friend invites him to come to the rear and look at the maker name, which he does. He then handed over a 100 dollar bill to his friend.”
At that point, Dorothy said, “Gentlemen, the tree for that saddle came out of the L. White saddle shop after Mr. White had died. The saddle was made by my husband.”
“At my young age then,” concludes Ross, “my ego grew….to have my work compared to that of one of the Old Masters.”
Ron Ross Saddlery
6415 SR 1
St. Joe, Indiana 46785