A Tandy-tastic Century
By Gene Fowler
What’s the first thing folks think of when they hear the word leathercraft? I’d just about bet the farm that, from Tucumcari to Timbuktu, most folks think of Tandy. Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, the company with more than 100 retail leathercraft stores across the U.S. and overseas, turns 100 years young in 2019.
In addition to celebrating the big birthday with a company-wide hoorah in Cowtown—I mean Fort Worth—in late August, the long-time leather world leader is set to launch the inaugural edition of what will become an annual tradition, National Leathercraft Day on August 15.
The Tandy story is a grand and dandy tale of inspiring generations in the practical and therapeutic applications of crafting useful—and beautiful—items from leather. Absolutely. But, it’s also a story of people. It’s a story of creativity, ingenuity, vision and drive …a story of folks with boundless energy and big ideas.
Company founder Dave Tandy (1889-1966) spent his earliest years in the Chisholm Trail town of Meridian, south of Fort Worth. Though the cattle drive era had ended years earlier, the soulful creak of punchers’ boots and saddles still echoed through the community’s identity. Another Meridian youth, John Avery Lomax, grew up to be the famed “Ballad Hunter,” a pioneer documentarian of cowboy songs.
Working in his father’s A. N. Tandy’s Meridian mercantile, thrifty Dave Tandy banked as much as 50 cents a week, eyeing the time when he would be grown and could go into business for himself. That drive was amplified in the early 20th century, after A. N. moved the family to the Rio Grande Valley, where the Brownsville Herald later memorialized him as “the father of the Valley’s vast vegetable industry.” Finding farm work not his cup of tea, Dave moved to Temple, Texas, after high school graduation and began charting his future course with employment as a salesman in a local shoe emporium.
Shortly after marrying a young lady to whom he’d sold a pair of shoes, Dave lost his job when the Temple store went out of business. Trying his luck in the bigger city of Dallas, he landed a traveling sales job in the shoe-findings department of the famed outfit Padgitt Brothers Co., Manufacturers and Jobbers of Saddles, Harness, Horse Collars, Leather, Saddlery Hardware, and Shoe Findings.
When his brothers had to leave home to serve during World War I, Dave returned to the Rio Grande Valley to help his father run the farm. After the war, he went into the shoe-findings business himself, forming the Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company, in partnership with his former boss, Norton Hinckley. Setting up headquarters in downtown Fort Worth, the partners sold sole leather and other shoe supplies.
As Irvin S. Farman points out in his 1992 opus, Tandy’s Money Machine, Fort Worth in the early 1920s was booming as a business hub for the roaring gushers of the region’s oil industry. (Interestingly, Farman also authored the 1997 book, Standard of the West: The Justin Story. Yep, it’s that Justin.) Hinckley-Tandy grew steadily, but modestly. A second location opened in Beaumont in 1927 and moved to Houston in 1932. Jim West, who one day would ascend to the presidency of Tandy Corporation, joined the team to run the Gulf Coast operations. Of Dave, West once observed that the Tandy founder was “a man of vigor and vision, but above all he was a salesman…a game he loved and played his entire life.”
The Great Depression years of the 1930s, of course, required any business person to adapt with vigor and vision simply to stay afloat in such lean times. Dave, a natural people-person with a dynamic zest for civic and company boosterism, responded brilliantly. A dip into Fort Worth papers of the era reveal a man who seemed to be in constant motion. He became vice president and director of the local chamber of commerce. He helped organize and became president of the Fort Worth Sales Executive Club. Rotary Club needing help with organizing events to inspire optimism in the face of economic challenges? Dave was your man.
When the Texas-Oklahoma Shoe Retailers Association announced its annual 1935 convention to be held at Fort Worth’s Texas Hotel, for instance, a front-page photo in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram depicted seven of the footwear-soldiers polishing up a giant shoe. And there was the association’s publicity director, a smiling Dave Tandy, standing in the shoe and holding aloft a bottle of polish.
As the Depression wore on, Dave boosted his industry by going on the road to give speeches entitled “Romance in Leather,” packed with folklore and facts. At a 1939 Rotary Club lecture in the southernmost Texas town of Brownsville, he displayed some 60 pounds of hides – not only cow hides, but also goat, sheep, lamb, horse, reptile, alligator, shark and even walrus. He pointed out that Brownsville Rotarians, who lived near the Gulf of Mexico, had a great opportunity in commercial shark fishing as their skins were quite valuable.
He also spoke to the borderland boosters about the ostrich, explaining developments related to the gangly bird when its feathers were no longer fashionable for ladies’ hats. “It became necessary to find some other use for the ostriches that had been maintained for their feathers,” he told the Rotarians. “Then someone discovered that the ostrich, when killed and skinned, furnished a very fine leather that was hard to imitate successfully. The birds became so valuable for their leather that in a very short time all of the ostriches in the United States had been used and we began to import ostrich hides from Australia. A law there prohibits the killing of the ostrich for its skin alone, but it was found that the meat made a very fine ‘Wimpy Special.’ Now the meat is used there, while the hides are shipped to the United States.”
After Pearl Harbor, as the nation became embroiled in the Second World War, leather, like many material resources, became vital to the war effort, often resulting in slim pickings for civilian use. Dave soon found that he was able to obtain enough specialty leather, however, to sell to the armed forces, which used it in therapeutic programs at military hospitals and in recreation centers and rehab facilities. Off-duty personnel and hospital patients, “many of them war-wounded,” as Bud Shrake noted in a 1957 Fort Worth Press story on Tandy, “cut their own hides, drew their own patterns, did their own tooling, and turned out slippers, belts, billfolds.”
And for the first time, Dave began to see the spreading of the gospel of do-it-yourself leathercraft as a potential business opportunity.
His son, Charles Tandy (1918-1978), also noticed the remarkable benefits the soldiers obtained from working with leather, while serving as a Navy officer from 1941 to 1947. Charles, of course, had grown up with leather. He was one year old when Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company was founded. From all I’ve read about Charles, it’s remarkable that he waited until the age of 10 to get into the business himself.
The boy would take scraps of leather to school that he had scavenged from Hinckley-Tandy, teaching his classmates how to make belts and quirts. Demonstrating an early flair for sales, he would sell the kids two, roughly one-yard-long leather strips for a dime. Before long, Charles expanded his sales territory.
“I first knew Charlie Tandy when my father moved the family boot business from Nocona to Fort Worth in 1925,” John Justin told Tandy’s Money Machine author Irvin S. Farman. “Charlie was very interested in making some money, and so was I. Our fathers were rather frugal with us, and Charlie kept coming up with ideas for putting a little more change in our pockets. It was his idea to get into the ladies’ belt business.”
The high schoolers used heavy scrap leather from the Justin Boots factory. “I found an old hand-mounted, 16-pound mallet that they used for cutting out dies at the boot factory,” John Justin added. The boys bought a die and commenced pounding the die, placed on the leather, with the 16-pound mallet in the Justin family garage. “One of us would hit that thing until our arm would just give out. Then the other guy would begin to hit.”
The young entrepreneurs created borders and decorated the belts with an old burning needle. The designs included area cattle brands and the boys’ own creations. Sold to Fort Worth department stores for “a buck or two,” the belts were marketed to Cowtown ladies for four dollars. “Pretty soon, it got to where you’d see a lot of them around town. Women were wearing them as a novelty-type thing, because the belts came without buckles.” Instead, they were tied in front with strip leather.
Charles Tandy found another way to make money with his leather know-how in 1936, when Fort Worth celebrated Texas’ 100th birthday with the Texas Frontier Centennial. The musical stage show at the Centennial’s Casa Manana, “the House of Tomorrow,” included 50 chorus girls in gold cowboy boots. The show actually hired 55 dancers, so five were not onstage for any given show. Charles and a buddy contracted to regild the five dormant pairs of boots each night, at $5 per pair. Not only was it great pay, but the duo got to meet all the chorus gals.
Charles took a how-to-meet-ladies tip from his dad in 1940, the year he graduated from Texas Christian University, working in the women’s shoe department at a local department store. Another friend later remembered Charles proclaiming, “A man ain’t worth a damn unless he’s sold ladies’ shoes. If you can sell ladies’ shoes, you can sell anything.” And when he attended Harvard Business School, before being called to active duty, he peddled footwear to the fairer sex in a downtown Boston store.
While serving in the Navy, Charles wrote to his father after seeing leatherwork therapy in action in Hawaii, suggesting that leathercrafts might just be the ticket for growing the business. When he arrived home in late 1947, he went to work for Hinckley-Tandy with his sights zeroed in on the mythic, yet very real, territory of seven-figure wealth.
At the time, Hinckley-Tandy was still at 15th and Throckmorton in downtown Fort Worth, across the street from the Texas and Pacific Railroad Depot. Years later, longtime Tandy team member Bill Michero recalled repeatedly seeing deputies handcuffed to prisoners. Spying the leather shop, the officer would bring the prisoner over to buy supplies that would occupy time on the train. And as Jim West later commented, “Sales to prisons, recreational organizations, schools, hospitals and similar institutions were to become integral to Tandy’s growth.”
According to a company history written for a Tandygram newsletter by Darryl Pendleton, Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company sales were about $1 million in 1948. After selling leathercraft supplies by direct mail and through five Hinckley-Tandy stores for a couple of years, Charles was raring to launch his brainchild by mid-century. A nine-page, typewritten flyer made the announcement.
Attention! To give you better service in the West and Southwest Texas, Tandy of Texas goes into partnership with two more employees – Opening Two More Stores! with Bill Ely at El Paso and Barney Barnett at San Antonio. Use this coupon for $1.00 of free goods at either of these new stores by October 1, 1950.
Looking back in 1980, Bill Michero, then-vice president of Tandy, explained that these were the first Tandy stores devoted exclusively to leathercraft. They were capitalized at $1,000 and each carried $6,000 of inventory. An eight-page mail-order catalog was sent to respondents to two-inch test ads in Popular Science magazine. The pioneer stores enjoyed a 100% return on the investment after the first year.
Norton Hinckley had no interest in the new venture and retained the shoe-findings business, while the Tandy father-and-son team proceeded to strike the motherlode with DIY leathercrafts. By 1952, the company boasted 15 stores. Six more were added by 1954, and the chain swelled to 76 outlets by 1957.
That same year, Dave Tandy told Bud Shrake in the Fort Worth Press, “During my younger days, leather tooling was a secret. It was a closed industry, with the secrets of tooling passed on from father to son and jealously guarded. But now, anybody can learn to tool leather. We teach them ourselves. I even write the instruction booklets.”
With 80 U.S. stores by the time Shrake’s article appeared and five North Texas factories, the company was sending out 1,200,000 full-color catalogs a year. The mass mail-outs weighed some 100 tons, and Tandy Industries was grossing around $9 million annually.
By that time (1957), Dave was mostly retired, spending about half the year at a home on the Texas coast. He had stepped down from the company’s presidency the year before. And when Charles took over the family company, it was Katy bar the door sky’s the limit my way or the highway ain’t no stoppin’ this money-makin’ train. The younger Tandy was a singular super-Tex, wheeler-dealer like no other. A driven and demanding workaholic, he surely made more than a few associates cuss his name. But, he also made many of them millionaires.
Though Charles retained management control of Tandy Leather, in 1955 the company was sold to American Hide and Leather Company of Boston, which changed its name the following year to General American Industries. The move signaled the beginnings of a whirlwind procession of roll-the-dice power struggles, acquisitions and expansions that continued at a breakneck pace until Charles Tandy’s death in 1978.
On the final day of 1956, the company acquired the Tex Tan outfit of Yoakum, Texas. Begun as a tanning business called Yoakum Hide and Leather in 1917, the company became Texas Hide and Leather Co. in 1919 and Texas Tanning and Manufacturing—or Tex Tan—a decade later. In the 1930s and ‘40s, according to Yoakum community history, Tex Tan produced the first officially sanctioned Texas Ranger gun belts and Hereford Brand saddles. In time, the Tex Tan group would develop a complete do-it-yourself saddle kits for Tandy, one of the first such kits if not indeed the first. And according to a Tex Tan family member, company employees spun off and started their own leather operations, helping Yoakum become known as the “Leather Capital of Texas,” or in some versions, the Leather Capital of the World. For many years the town held a Land of Leather Days festival, before the event merged with a local tomato celebration in 2009.
It soon became apparent that Tex Tan and Tandy Industries were the only two of General American Industries’ five divisions that remained profitable. The three money losers were sold off in 1960, and the following year the GAI name was changed to Tandy Corporation, and the company headquarters headed back to Cowtown from the Big Apple. At the time, Tandy operated 125 stores in the United States and Canada.
Charles had spearheaded the company’s first acquisition, American Handicrafts Company, in 1952. After returning to Fort Worth, as the years rolled along he added Leonard’s Department Store, Color Tile, Pier 1 Imports, Corral Sportswear, Stafford-Lowdon Printing, Merribee Art Embroidery and other assets.
In 1961, Tandy acquired Craftool, a California company founded in 1947 that aspired to make mass-produced leathercraft tools that were more affordable than the expensive handmade tools. Toward the end of the Sixties, the company added to its holdings the legendary leather company Bona Allen of Buford, Georgia. Founded in 1873, Bona Allen at one time was purported to be the nation’s largest producer of saddles and tack, cowboy boots, shoes, postal bags and other leather items.
In 1963, seeing a future boom in the electronics industry, Tandy prepared to acquire a Boston outfit called Radio Shack. At the time, Radio Shack was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The company had lost $4.5 million in 1962 and was $7 million in debt. Jim West spoke for many in Tandy’s upper-level management when he asked the boss, “Are you crazy?”
It turned out that he was. Yes. Crazy like a fox. By the time that Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and spoke of a “giant step for mankind,” Radio Shack had 454 stores in 46 states, with annual sales of $67 million. In 1977, the stores introduced the TRS-80 computer. At $600, half of what other computers cost at the time, the stores sold 200,000 of the futuristic gizmos in four years. Radio Shack proved to be the venture by which Tandy rocketed to billion-dollar-empire status.
As a businessman and a man, Charles Tandy was a mass of fascinating contradictions. His frequent seven-day work weeks weeded out company personnel not quite as gung-ho. “I want people who live and die for this work,” he told Time magazine not long before his own passing. “If they don’t want to do that, let them work for Sears.”
And many indeed fell under the spell of his unique charisma. “He was the most gentle, heart-warming, admirable tyrant I ever knew,” one former Tandy executive told Gail Bennison of the Fort Worth Business Press in 2015, when the organization posthumously presented Charles Tandy with a Legacy Award at its third annual “Thanks from the Mentees” event.
That over-the-top work ethic, combined with 20 cigars a day and other indulgences of plate and bottle, first caught up with Charles in 1969, when a major heart attack landed him in the ICU for a time. His cardiologist, wisely suspecting that a complete withdrawal from business activity would probably kill the man, told the nurses to let him have a telephone and allow Tandy executives to visit, so that Charles could holler at them.
Doctors, of course, told the stubborn man to change his ways. But, his step-daughter told reporter Bennison that the only exercise he would agree to was donning a bathing suit and walking around the swimming pool until he finished smoking his current cigar.
The night before he died in 1978, Charles and his wife, Anne Burnett Tandy, attended a charity ball. Anne, a granddaughter of legendary Texas rancher Burk Burnett and a co-founder of the American Quarter Horse Association went home early. But, Charles stayed. He pulled a wad of hundred dollar bills from his pocket, paid the orchestra to keep playing, popped nitroglycerin pills and kept dancing with the ladies.
“When I go,” he reportedly said, “it’s gonna be with both guns blazing.”
And blaze they did.
Despite the extensive diversification of the Tandy enterprises, the company continued its original mission of sharing experiences of personal fulfillment derived from the artistic, therapeutic and practical applications of working with leather. As the years began to pile up toward the end of the millennium, over 300 Tandy Leather Stores served artists and artisans throughout the country, with annual sales of $40 million.
In 1999, the company closed all its brick-and-mortar stores, intending to market its kits, books, tools and other leathercraft materials by mail order and through the internet. In Wholly Cow Too, a 2009 book about Tandy Leather and the Leather Factory by Dave Ferrill and Cheryl Landry, edited and with additional text by Jeff Williams, the authors characterized the move as “a terrible decision for Tandy.” The next year, 2000, the Leather Factory acquired all of Tandy Leather’s assets. New kid on the block the Leather Factory had been launched by former Tandy president Wray Thompson and former Tandy regional vice president Ron Morgan in 1979. After reinventing the wheel to some extent and navigating a series of ups and downs, the Factory had 27 stores throughout the U.S., many helmed by Tandy veterans, with a steadily growing profit margin when it purchased the great mothership of the leathercraft biz.
Despite an apparent lapse in customer service standards at Tandy in the final years of the previous century, Factory folks soon learned that the leathercraft community still favored the Tandy name more than any other. Thus, the surname baked into the industry by Texans Dave and Charles a half century earlier became the tried-and-true handle under which the newly-merged company raised its flags in the new century.
Late in 2001, Tandy Leather Factory, Inc. hired Jim Linnell, tremendously accomplished leather artist and longtime Tandy manager, to ride herd on a stampede of newly established Tandy Leather stores. Today, as Tandy advertising manager Jeff Williams explained earlier this summer, the company operates 115 stores in the United States, Canada and Spain. The 22,000-square-foot flagship store, on SE Loop 820 in Fort Worth, opened in 2013.
Next door, the Museum of Leathercraft (admission is free!) occupies a large gallery in the company’s global headquarters building. Let’s take a peek into the workshops of some of the fine artists represented in the museum and into the stories of other facilitators who have helped to establish the Tandy legacy….
Born in Olive, California, in1919—the same year that Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company was founded—Al Stohlman grew up following cowboys on horseback as they drove cattle to the Santa Fe Railroad station at Olive through the Santa Ana Canyon. Old-timers still told tales of prospectors, bandito Joaquin Murrieta, and the famous Earp Brothers. Artistically talented, young Al drew these scenes, aiming one day to illustrate the Western stories then so popular in pulp magazines or maybe even the books of Mr. Zane Grey.
Called by Uncle Sam in 1941, Al trekked to New Guinea with the U.S. Army 46th Engineer Regiment. There, he first applied a carving tool to leather…quarter-inch GI belt leather to be exact. His first tools were a pocket knife and filed nails. The leather artist’s first projects included a rough, but serviceable briefcase and a jacket made from boot-grade calf leather, laced with kangaroo strips.
Al traded his handmade billfolds and notebooks with fellow servicemen and with New Guinea bushmen, the latter impressed with his realistic animal figures. Mustered out with a Purple Heart in 1945, Al returned to the Golden State, recuperating from the war in a fixed-up former chicken house in Laguna Canyon.
He began frequenting weekly horse auctions. To earn beans and biscuits money, he would buy a plain saddle, take it back to the canyon and tool it up, then auction it off the following week for a higher price. One day in San Bernardino, he beheld a sure-enough saddlemaker. “And after four years,” he later exclaimed, “the light dawned. To get depth of design, you didn’t push your hand-held tools down harder…you beat them in!”
As Al wrote in a 1950s issue of The Leathercrat, around this time he went to work for the Glenn Ranch, a dude outfit. He helped put on “little rodeos” for the guests and entertained ‘round the campfire with his guitar. Before bedding down in the bunkhouse each night, he also did a little leatherwork, developing his technique through trial and error.
In 1947, Al met the seasoned saddlemaker Guy Lauterbach at Schaff’s Leather Company in San Bernardino. He apprenticed with Guy for five years. The year he “graduated” from Guy, 1952, Al did 19 full-hide carvings for the Frontier Shop, a Palm Springs emporium of western wear. Al Stein, the shop’s proprietor, gave quick-study Stohlman some lessons in silversmithing.
A beautiful Palomino with a silver saddle that he carved caught the eye of Craftool’s Dick McGahen, and Al and his then-wife Terry moved to Los Angeles for two years to work with Craftool. Al developed many tools for the company and published his first two books, the classics How to Carve Leather and Figure Carving.
As Al noted in The Leathercrat, “You can’t take the country out of a country boy,” and after two years in the City of Angels, he and Terry moved to the hills of Hemet and Al stepped boldly into his future as a freelance leathercraft artist. Due to his amazing talent, the venture worked like a charm. Stylecraft, Carving Unlimited and Tandy Leather each sought his services.
Tandy certainly seems to have hit the jackpot in the Stohlman sweepstakes. The company published dozens of his instruction books, including such titles as How to Make Holsters, Pictorial Carving, How to Color Leather, Inverted Leather Carving, Figure Carving Finesse, Belts Galore and many more. Original art for many of the books, along with a broad selection of Al’s stunning work, is on display at Tandy’s Museum of Leathercraft in Fort Worth.
In 1962, Tandy sponsored the Al Stohlman Home Study Course, a series of lessons by mail that helped hundreds of thousands learn the leathercraft arts. The following year, now a single man, Al married Ann McDonald, who soon became a talented leather artist in her own right. Finding Southern California too crowded, in 1969 the couple established their 200-acre Two Lazy A’s Ranch at Cache Creek in British Columbia. By 1993, the Stohlmans had built over 1,000 saddles together. Two years later, Al and Ann published the final volume of their Encyclopedia of Saddle Making. The 7.5-year, three-volume project would not have been possible without Tandy backing, Al said, especially thanking Ken Gregson and Jim Whitmire.
Created in 1983, the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft recognizes continued dedication and exemplary service to leathercraft.
Ann McDonald grew up as an independent outdoorswoman in the logging camps of Oregon and northern California. Her logger dad made sure she learned how to hunt, fish, chop wood and do just about everything else under vast, big-country skies. On a fishing trip with friends at Big Creek Lodge in the spring of 1963, she wondered what the fuss was all about when a buzz went around about an upcoming leathercraft demonstration at the lodge.
“Don’t you know who Al Stohlman is?” Ann’s friends inquired.
“No, I don’t,” she replied, “and I’ll bet he doesn’t know who Ann McDonald is!”
Charmed by his stories and guitar playing, Ann accepted a date with Al for the next day. They went fishing. That August, the pair got hitched in Tijuana.
Three years later, taught by perhaps the greatest leather artist of all, Ann had learned to make saddles and many other leather items. She taught Al the finer points of hunting, fishing and cooking. In addition to leatherwork, he taught her how to ride a horse, toss a lariat and play the guitar. An article about Ann in the January 1968 issue of Western Horseman magazine entitled “Lady Saddle Maker,” featured images of the Stohlmans’ famous 12-foot workbench and also included a photo of her first leather project, “a buck-stitched, hand-carved breast strap and breeching for Rocky, the donkey.”
The Stohlmans often wore identical outfits that Ann sewed. But in her saddle tooling, she preferred realistic flowers and oak leaves over Al’s acanthus leaves and swirls. “Texas cabbage,” Ann called her husband’s preference.
In an article penned by Al himself, “Ann Stohlman – Saddle Makin’ Wife,” he wrote that her leathercraft training included practicing on “the flesh (rough) side of the leather on scraps of skirting.” This practice improved her cutting depth with the swivel knife, a common problem for beginners. By the time of Al’s death in 1998, the couple had produced some 30 how-to books and had many more planned. Ann, who passed in 2004, is remembered with the annual Ann Stohlman Youth Award for Achievement.
“She has taken to the leathercraft like a duck to water,” Al remarked after a few years of marriage, “and it sure has made my life a heaven right here on earth.”
From watching just the opening minutes of one of his many videos, it seems highly unlikely that anyone ever had more fun with leathercraft than George Hurst, a 1991 recipient of the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft.
Born on a Pennsylvania tomato farm, George first experienced the art form through the Boy Scouts and then again in high school with a teacher who had spent four years doing leathercraft in an Army hospital. After his own service in the Korean War, Hurst returned to become manager of Tandy stores in Philadelphia and New York, before accepting a position as Merchandising Manager at the Fort Worth office in 1976.
Working closely with the Stohlmans, he developed a school program titled “Adventures in Leathercraft.” And in 1985, he pioneered leathercraft instruction on video, creating hundreds of instructional videos. At a 1986 Tandy sales meeting, George dressed up as General George Patton to deliver orders to the assembled store managers on going beyond the call of duty to win the starter kit contest.
When the Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft & Rodeo Magazine asked George why he taught leathercrafts in August 2016, he answered this way: “Mainly because I love it. From the first time I ever got introduced to it, I loved it. I found out, even in the early days, that I could make a little money on the side doing it, whether it was making belts and tack or even just some leather repair work for a local cattleman. I chose to work with Tandy in the ‘60s because I knew it would be fulfilling to help teach others.”
And boy has he done just that. His videos on Tandy’s YouTube channel have been viewed some 8 million times. “Now when we produce instructional leathercraft videos, it can go worldwide instantly… Australia, South America, Europe, Asia and everywhere else. That’s what makes it a lot of fun now.”
Dick McGahen, Oliver Sturdy, Ken Griffin, Lou Roth
When Dick McGahen, who founded Craftool in 1947 to provide affordable leathercraft tools to a mass market, first approached self-taught machinist Oliver Sturdy about making saddle stamps in Sturdy’s garage workshop, Sturdy was skeptical. He explained that he didn’t want to get involved with experimental projects and asked how many of each of the stamps McGahen showed as samples he would want made. When McGahen said he might want about 5,000 stamps, Sturdy pooh-poohed the idea. “There aren’t 5,000 people in the country who would buy those things.”
Perhaps McGahen went on to explain that he was contracted to supply the stamps to Tandy Leather. Southern California saddle maker Ken Griffin and others had been making the tools by hand for Craftool, which not only made them more expensive, but they also couldn’t keep up with Tandy’s orders. However he was persuaded, Sturdy agreed to take up the challenge and began machine production of Craftool. His original set of master tools is on display at the Tandy Museum of Leathercraft.
In the 1950s, Oliver Sturdy would occasionally need to fly his own airplane out to Al Stohlman’s place at Hemet to consult with the former Craftool employee, who did not have a telephone. Stohlman devised a system. If he was in the mood for receiving visitors that day, he would lay two logs on the ground, parallel to each other. If he wished to be left alone to concentrate on his work, he would place the logs in an X position.
After Craftool was acquired by Tandy, Sturdy moved to Fort Worth to become general manager of the Texas-based company’s new manufacturing arm. In 1967, his position morphed into running the Tandy Machine Tooling Company, which produced special tools and equipment for several Tandy divisions.
Ken Griffin’s designs provided the blueprint for many Craftool products. Born in Oklahoma, Griffin cowboyed as a summer job while growing up. He took a special interest in the hand tooling he saw on saddles when he took his own rig to a saddle repair shop. After working in a shop and rapidly absorbing the art, he went to work in Hollywood for the famous Ed Bohlin, “Saddle Maker to the Stars.”
Ken invented the Doodle Page as a way to advertise Craftool stamps and created many of the original doodles. He also authored The Ken Griffin Scrapbook and Art of Leather Carving under Craftool auspices. The very first Tandy Leathercraft catalog featured a carved border of Griffin’s stamping art. A multi-talented artist, he later enjoyed a second career as Navo, the American Indian Magician.
Artist and inventor Lou Roth’s many contributions to Craftool and the leathercraft industry included the Craftaid, a plastic engraving sheet on which a pattern could be traced and then transferred onto a piece of leather. After Craftool was sold to Tandy, Lou remained in California but headed up Tandy’s Research and Development Department. Charles Tandy provided him with an elaborate West Coast workshop, often flying Lou to Fort Worth to discuss his latest ideas for new tools.
Roth had a unique take on his friend Al Stohlman, recognizing his artistry, but also seeing him as a great comedian and philosopher.
Ben Moody, Tony Laier
Ben Moody and Tony Laier both worked at the Tandy store in Austin, Texas. Ben grew up around leather in East Texas and often accompanied his cobbler father to Fort Worth to buy materials at Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company. There, young Ben had the run of the leather warehouse, along with a young Charles Tandy. And like Charles, Ben was making money with leatherwork by the time he was a teenager. Solon Aaron, one of his father’s associates, taught him how to carve belts, and before long Ben was selling them to his schoolmates.
During World War II, Ben served in a cavalry unit where he repaired saddles. Mustered out in 1960 at age 40, he went to work at the Tandy store in Texas’ capital city. Eventually, he transitioned to working for Radio Shack and then went into the banking industry. But, he continued teaching leather workshops at schools, scouting groups and hospitals. Some of Ben’s work can be seen in the Museum of Leathercraft today.
Tony Laier carved his first leather art, a Bavarian scene, while in high school. After his own military service—and after eight years as the drummer for a country-rock band—Tony was hired by Ben at the Tandy store in Austin. After working his way up through management, Tony moved to Fort Worth, where he accepted a position as a designer, then as director of research and development, and then as marketing manager. His wife Kay became Tandy advertising manager. Tony also set up and curated the Al and Ann Stohlman Museum, then located in the Stockyards Historic District in Fort Worth. (An earlier version of the Tandy/Stohlman museum started at Disneyland in California.)
Tony also served as director of the Tandy College of Leather Arts. “We need to reach the whole world!” he would often say about the company’s educational function. “Let’s get people enthused again! Crafting leather means much more than just making a wallet and a belt.”
Ben Moody received the Al Stohlman Award in 1992. Some of his work can be seen in the Museum of Leathercraft. And when Tony Laier won the prestigious award in 1999, Ben Moody placed the medallion of honor around Tony’s neck.
The Miles City Saddlery is what did it for Jim Linnell, who recently “retired” after a 40-year career with Tandy. Growing up on a Montana ranch in the 1950s, he made the 100-mile round trip to Miles City once a month with his family. “It was the sounds of the shop and the smell of the leather that I remember,” he says. “That really stuck with me.”
Recipient of the 2002 Al Stohlman Award and long recognized as one of leathercraft’s most talented and innovative artists, the “retired” Tandyite today is more active than ever, creating incredible new work and teaching workshops around the country, online and at his Elktracks Studio in Venus, Texas, just south of Dallas.
Having served as a store manager in Billings, Montana, and in progressively more advanced positions in regional management, Jim was entrusted with nothing less than the rehabilitation and resurrection of the Tandy Leathercraft brand when he was brought on board as the Leather Factory’s Director of Operations in 2000. A handwritten note from Cheryl Landry at the top of an investment research group’s announcement joked of the move, “Jim – No pressure! Hah!”
No pressure, indeed. The robust performance of Tandy stores in the leathercraft community today proves the wisdom of the hire.
There perhaps may be no better example of Tandy’s impact on a new generation of leather artists than Annie Libertini of Spokane, Washington. Known for her amazing leather masks, skulls and portraits, the artist first worked with hide while attending the Cleveland Art Institute in 2002. “I was a painting major,” she explains, and my roommate ordered some stuff from Tandy to try and make a mask she’d seen online.”
The roommate passed the leftover materials—some leather, some dye, a hole punch, etc.—along to Libertini, and she started experimenting with them that summer when no one was around. “I’d never thought of working with leather before.” She made an owl mask, an eagle, a raven and while she may not have realized it at first, the medium had her at hello.
“Then at grad school in Boston,” she continues, “I started ordering stuff from Tandy. The closest store was 40 miles away and I had no Wi-Fi in my apartment, so I was still pretty cut off from the leathercraft world. I had no idea what was out there, but I started making more work with leather.”
Back home in Spokane in 2012, she was finally able to set foot in a Tandy Leather store. “It was like OMG!” she exclaimed. “There was so much stuff! What are all these tools?! What’s a swivel knife? There’s a tool for that?!” Taking in the suddenly available knowledge, the artist leaped into the leathercraft world with a level of inspiration she’d never experienced before.
“I had no idea there was a big leather community, and now of course it’s a major part of my life…but still, I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes, what if I was making good art but bad leatherwork? Then the manager of the local Tandy store convinced me to enter some of my work in the 2014 World Leather Debut at the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show. When he called and said I’d won 2nd place in my category, I asked, “Is that good?”
Libertini clerked for a time at the Spokane Tandy store, and now she teaches Leather Portraiture at the store. “I might never have even tried working with leather if it hadn’t been for Tandy,” she says. “Every connection I’ve made in the leathercraft world can be traced back to the store.”
Check out Jim Linnell’s Elktracks Studio video on YouTube about Annie’s work.
Jim says the leathercraft world is always on the lookout for the next Al Stohlman. He or she may be out there now…or may be waiting in the stars to emerge and amaze in some future generation. And, while I shudder to imagine what kind of super-tech dimension humankind may dwell within around the year 2119, I can’t imagine a world without folks working in leather.
So happy 100th, Dave, Charles and Tandyites all. Here’s to the next hundred.
A Look Ahead with Janet Carr
By Michael Magnus
Now in their 100th year of business, Tandy Leather celebrates a century championing the growth of the leathercraft industry. Gene Fowler’s article spotlights some of those who have helped build the business in the past, but who is now leading the company into their next era of success?
In October of 2018, Tandy Leather’s Board of Directors appointed business veteran Janet Carr to the role of CEO. Prior to joining the Tandy team, Janet has had an extensive career in the retail industry, bringing decades of experience to shape the next phase of the company’s development.
Recently I was able to sit down with Janet to learn more about her vision for the future of the company.
Magnus: Thank you for taking time to speak with me, Janet. I’d like to start by asking about your background prior to Tandy Leather. How does your experience make you a good fit to lead the company?
Janet: Well, I come in with a really diverse background. I worked as the Head of Corporate Pricing at Safeway in retail grocery, I worked in strategy at Banana Republic and at Gap International, I worked at Coach as the Head of Strategy and Customer Engagement, I was the Head of the Handbag Division at Nine West and Head of Global and International at Caleres. I’ve also done management consulting off and on for a number of years. So, I’ve done a whole bunch of different things in the retail industry, primarily with a focus on research, strategy and operations.
Magnus: With Tandy Leather now in its 100th year, the company has a well-established history, however, what is your vision for the future?
Janet: You know, it’s really to leverage and build on the brand’s history. We’ve done a lot of work talking to our consumers over the last six months and recognize that our credibility comes from that long history; it’s as much about supporting the leathercrafting community as it is the stuff we sell. Everyone who is involved in this craft wants it to be sustained, and they want young people to come in and carry on the legacy of the craft.
Our vision for the future is to be able to take the credibility, the foundation and who we are from that 100-year history and make it relevant to the leather crafters of the next 100 years. I know that sounds kind of corny, but it’s really about understanding who those long-time core customers are, understanding how to better serve them, as well as understanding how to evolve the brand, so that it becomes more relevant to the next generation’s core customer.
Magnus: What are some of the changes that have already been made or are in progress, and how does this help you achieve that vision?
Janet: Well, the biggest one is the introduction of Everyday Honest Pricing. We had a very complicated pricing structure, with very high regular retails and what I call an extreme high-low pricing strategy. We offered great sales, but on an everyday basis you’d come in and the prices were high, especially at our retail pricing level, so customers felt like they had to buy it on sale and stock up, otherwise they couldn’t get fair pricing.
So our goal was to simplify that and to start to wean ourselves off of an extreme high-low approach. It’s a much more functional business model if you really have demand every single day and you can grow, not based on “I had a great sale,” but based on “I have the right offering and the right service model and a fair price every day.”
The second thing that we’ve done, which is huge, is we’ve launched a dedicated Commercial Division to serve the needs of our largest customers. Now, instead of having store managers that have to be both a store manager and a wholesale sales rep, we have store managers focused on managing their stores and serving customers.
We’ve developed a separate division to call on those business and manufacturing customers, serving them with the product they want, with the pricing that they want, with the packaging that they want. If they don’t want to buy a little packet of 10s, they want to buy in a box of 1,000 or 10,000, they can get that now. That’s something that hadn’t been logistically feasible to do at the store level.
Sometimes these customers want to buy leather differently. Or they want to know that we’re going to have consistent supply for their manufacturing. They want to be able to easily place their reorders and know that the product will be there when they need it. This is about not only creating a tailored model for these wholesale customers, but it also helps us better manage the cost structure. I have a lot of optimism around this new division, and it’s off to a strongly promising start.
The third thing is that we will also be transforming our product offerings. We know that we need much better product selection for the more advanced leather crafter, whether it’s a small business or an experienced hobbyist. Today, we don’t carry all of the products that they want to buy, the tools that they’re interested in or the machines they need.
We know that we need to evolve our selection and to rebuild our product line so that it really has this good, better, best offering. Good for our beginners, better for our intermediates, but also offering top-tier products across everything, including hardware, tools and leather.
For our hobbyists and small business customers, we’re creating a more compelling retail experience, starting with better pricing and product, and for our larger business customers, we’re creating a whole new model to better meet their needs. That’s what we’re focused on right now. There are a lot of boring, behind-the-scenes infrastructure changes that we need to make to support these things as well. But that’s really what we’re focused on for 2019 and moving forward.
Magnus: It sounds like there are a lot of positive changes happening right now. Is there anything else you’d like to share about developments we can look forward to in the near future?
Janet: We’re also excited about some of our educational initiatives. Some of our retail stores have some amazing, incredible, talented people, but we’re not figuring out how to leverage that across the whole organization. Something that we’re working on right now is building an internal training program to put tools and leather in the hands of our employees and having them learn how do it themselves so they can better serve the customer.
With that, we will also be evolving our in-store classes and looking at how we can we make them more effective. We are focusing on creating a system that’s more structured and provide educational resources for our stores to create more consistency in instruction. Not only equipping our employees who are teaching these classes with genuine knowledge and experience, but also providing a road map of how to teach classes and how to make it fun for people.
Beyond employee education with better structured and more exciting classes, the third measure of our educational success is going to be increased community outreach. We plan to spend more time out in the community, developing relationships with camps, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, veterans, retired people and anyone else who will let us share our passion for teaching leatherworking. Building these genuine relationships around the brand is fundamental to getting new people involved with the craft and feeling that they can be successful in it.
Magnus: Seems like there are a lot of new and exciting things happening at Tandy right now! I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me and share these insights. It’s encouraging to hear the commitment to being the Tandy that we all know and love, embracing the history and heritage, while still looking for opportunities to move the craft forward in new ways. I’m optimistic about seeing your commitment to understanding customers and better meeting their needs, while still being dedicated to the company’s mission of teaching the world leathercraft. We’re all looking forward to seeing what happens next!