By Nick Pernokas
The young cowboy dropped his bag on the ground and loosened the cinches on his saddle. The saddle he set a little more carefully on the small Parkerton railway stop platform. After he slipped the bridle off over the old mare’s ears, he slapped her on the butt, to send her on the familiar journey home. The boy hurried to get all of his gear in the baggage car as he heard the train starting to get up steam. Dusk was falling when Monroe Veach stepped aboard the westbound train.
The year was 1916, and Monroe was headed to a ranch job he’d been offered in Eads, Colorado, on the Flying Horseshoe Ranch. It was a large ranch that still ran a chuck wagon, and still kept their cowboys on horseback. Although he figured he wasn’t exactly running away from home, Monroe knew he was saving a lot of arguments with his family this way.
By the time Monroe Veach was born, on May 8, 1896, the “West” had already moved on from Missouri.
In August 1904, Monroe’s father took him to Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
“I liked them big hats, I liked them high heels and I loved horses,” recalled Monroe later. “I think that’s what started me on that cowboy trail.”
There, among the cowboy and Indian acts, Monroe saw a Mexican Charro doing some fabulous trick roping. When he returned home, he made a trick rope and began practicing.
“My Grandpa Veach thought Daddy was out of his mind with what he wanted to do,” recalls Peggy Robinson, Monroe’s youngest daughter. Monroe’s father was a farmer who had sheep, and hunted and trapped. Still he supported his “eccentric” son.
By 1909, Monroe had a mare that he’d trained to lay down as well as put up with his cowboying. He worked on the family farm, but pictures from those years show him breaking the family cows to a saddle, and then spinning a rope on them.
Eventually the pull of the West became too great.
“I ran away to be a cowboy,” said Monroe. “I knew they’d object to it, so I just wrote and told them I was there. It saved a lot of talking.”
In 1917, Monroe’s job in Colorado came to an end. The United States entered World War I and Monroe found himself in the Army. He was sent to Fort Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, where his equine background landed him in the Cavalry unit. Monroe had been handy at fixing his own gear, so he was assigned to the saddle and harness repair shop. Over the next year he received his only “formal” education in leatherwork. It was enough for him to find out that he liked doing it though. In January 1919, he was mustered out of the Army. In February, he married his childhood sweetheart, Alta. The couple moved to the Veach family farm where Monroe opened his first leather shop. One day the mail carrier asked Monroe if he could build a saddle for him. Monroe had been repairing a lot of western saddles, so using his ingenuity, he built his first saddle for the mailman. Many more work-type saddles followed.
“He was self-taught in the saddlemaking, as well as everything else he did,” says Peggy.
Eventually that saddle made it back to the Veach family, who own it today.
Monroe had six children between 1920 and 1940: Billy, Imogene, Mary, Letty, Ben and Peggy.
The saddle business was not the only thing that kept Monroe in contact with the West that he loved. He developed a trick-roping act that he performed at movie theaters. In this era of silent films, it could take a few minutes to change reels and Monroe would entertain the crowd during these intermissions.
Monroe expanded his act to include trick riding and began performing at Foghorn Clancy’s rodeos. Several of his children eventually joined him in his act.
Monroe kept his saddle shop on the family farm until 1938. By then he had begun making boots. With all of his projects, the shop had outgrown the small building it had started in. He moved the saddlery to Main Street in Trenton. It was one of several locations it would have in Trenton.
In 1939, a famous steer roper, Fred Lowry, wrote Monroe. Fred had won a trophy saddle in Nowata, Oklahoma, that Monroe had made. He loved the saddle, but he wanted one made with a few minor changes. He went to the Veach Saddlery and the two men collaborated on a new design which became the “Fred Lowry Roper.” It was one of the first instances of a western saddle being endorsed by a rodeo champion.
“It was a good stout saddle and he wanted a double covered rawhide tree in it,” remembers Robert Robinson, Peggy’s husband. “They roped big steers back then.”
When World War II broke out, Monroe faced a dilemma. Materials were scarce and regulated. Saddle trees became hard to get.
Monroe taught himself to build his own saddle trees. He took an old saddle tree apart and found the flat places that had never been worked on the wood. Monroe laid the part with that side down in a box. He then filled the box up with plaster until the surface of the part was covered. The resulting rectangle would be the size of the raw wood piece that he would need to start with to duplicate the part. The lumber for the saddle trees came from the Linn tree, purchased from a mill about 60 miles away. The wood was strong without being heavy, and it wouldn’t split when nails were driven into it. In the winter, the raw lumber was brought into the shop so it could dry properly. His daughter Letty’s husband ran the first tree shop.
“Mr. Veach was very innovative,” says Robert, “and he wanted to be able to do everything for himself.”
Monroe tried to get a foundry to make saddle horns for him. Metal was scarce and they were shifting their production to the war effort. Monroe was able to explain to them that he was making saddles for the ranchers that were raising America’s cattle. The foundry wrote him back that soldiers needed to eat, and that they would build his saddle horns for him.
Because of Monroe’s attachment to trick riding and rodeo, trick riding saddles and roping saddles became the mainstays of Veach Saddlery. In the post-war horse boom, they made saddles for other events as well. Monroe always preferred to keep the saddles stout and towards the heavier side though, no matter what purpose they were made for. Veach Saddlery built up a good wholesale business across the country. To handle the increasing business after the war, Monroe continued to hire employees. The boot department was eliminated. Eight to ten people were working in the shop most of the time. He had a strap hand, stampers, a parts cutter and then several people building the saddles. Usually apprentices would start out covering horns and gullets, and work up to other parts as they became proficient.
Monroe never lost his love for rodeo. He produced rodeos with his son Billy, under the name Veach Rodeo Company, from 1945 on. Monroe acted as a secretary and as a timer, as well as performing at them. Billy handled most of the day-to-day operations so that Monroe could run the shop. Eventually Billy also partnered with Fred Lowry. In 1957, Billy Veach was killed in an accident while hauling rodeo stock. The family finished out the rodeos that they were contracted to and then sold the Veach Rodeo livestock.
In 1964, Robert went to work building saddle trees for Veach Saddlery. The first day, Monroe took him back to the tree shop, showed him the patterns, the band saw and described the tree-making process.
“I turned around to ask a question and he was gone,” laughs Robert. “I made a lot of firewood for a while.”
The bars were cut out one at a time with a band saw. Eventually, Robert made a machine to duplicate the bars exactly. Other than length, the same basic bars were used for all of the saddles. The Veach bar was made with a stirrup leather mortise in both the front and the back of the stirrup leather on the bottom of the bar.
In the Seventies, the Veaches sold the saddle tree shop in order to concentrate on building saddles. By the Eighties, many of the “mom-and-pop” western stores that they sold to were beginning to fade away. 1983 was the last year they published the Veach catalog and they began to concentrate on more custom tack.
“We weren’t big enough to jump on board with the big boys – that would have required so much merchandise at once,” says Robert.
Robert and Peggy’s son, Craig, became a saddlemaker at Veach Saddlery, where today, at 59, he still works. Craig and Robert handle all of the leatherwork. Craig started out when he was 10, sweeping up the shop. When he was 14, he started working on stirrup straps and by the time he was sixteen, he was doing some actual saddle work. He remembers Monroe as being a very patient teacher who would show someone how to do something, and then get out of the way. He would let his student learn from his mistakes.
“He’d say: ‘Don’t let that dog bite you again,’ with a smile,” says Craig. “I don’t remember him ever being mad at anyone.”
Monroe loved to trade. The “seconds” would usually be picked up by sale barn traders, minus the name stamp, and Monroe would get his cost back out of them.
“At that time, in the late Seventies, Grandpa was into the process where we’d build six saddles all exactly alike, so I had plenty of practice putting in six sets of riggings and six ground seats,” remembers Craig. “Then we started to get more people that wanted custom saddles.”
Craig began doing the custom orders exclusively, which he enjoys. A majority of the saddles that he builds are trick saddles. The base price on the saddles is $3500. The orders come from all over the United States, and they’ve even sent them to Belgium and South Africa. Craig also enjoys carving leather and turns out some beautiful floral tooling. Craig showed cutting horses in high school, as well as competing in the roping events. He can remember Monroe’s disdain for the lightweight cutting saddles that became popular in that time period.
“That’s not in the Veach’s DNA,” says Craig.
In his later years, Monroe lived by himself. He had a chandelier that hung in his small living room with a string hanging from it. Monroe would use the string to pull the chandelier towards the wall and then tie it off, so he could trick rope in the center of the room for exercise. Monroe would braid curb straps and horn knots at night while he was watching T.V. He kept a pencil in his pocket for doodling leather carving patterns.
PRCA roper and horse trainer Doug Clark, Monroe’s great grandson, followed Monroe around as a boy. Monroe taught Doug how to trick rope, and Doug still has a bag of Monroe’s old maguey trick ropes.
One year, Monroe went to the OS Ranch roping in Post, Texas, to trick rope as the contract act. Doug, and some other relatives, went with him to watch the roping. They stopped at a truck stop in Amarillo to eat, but when they were ready to leave, they couldn’t find Monroe. They split up and checked the restrooms and the parking lot. When they finally found Monroe, he was with the owner of the truck stop, with his briefcase open, signing a contract to make belt-mounted leather snuff can holders for the truck stop.
“He was always hustling,” laughs Doug.
In 1976, Monroe received an invitation from the Smithsonian to do a saddlemaking demonstration during the Bicentennial USA Celebration. The event took place on grounds near the Washington Monument Mall. Monroe was to build a saddle at the event. He brought the parts and hand sewed them together on site, using a cherry wood stitching horse that his father had built in the Twenties. Monroe also took a completed “Bicentennial” saddle with him that he gave to the Smithsonian.
Another artistic person was also in attendance at the celebration that year. Bryan Dew was an aspiring filmmaker from New Zealand; he was there gathering information for a film on America’s music. Bryan was especially interested in the old western bands and how they tied in with American culture. When Bryan stumbled upon Monroe building a saddle, he was fascinated. Monroe liked to visit, and it didn’t take Bryan long to realize the depths of Monroe’s love of the West. He also realized that Monroe’s life mirrored the dreams of many other boys who had become infatuated with the myth.
What started out as a 10-day, $10,000 film shoot ended up being a 10-year project narrated by Levon Helm. Monroe was Bryan’s conduit into America’s signature story. Monroe had always loved western films and had made saddles for performers like Hoot Gibson. He was ecstatic about being invited to saddle up for a film crew, as many of his film idols had done in the past. The feeling was mutual, and many times the film crew would stay late into the night after they were done, just to hear stories of the West that was.
The first print of the film, A Ten Dollar Horse and a Forty Dollar Saddle, was released in May 1986. Bryan, knowing that Monroe was now 90 and worried that he might not see the film, flew to Trenton with a copy. The film was screened at the local junior college and a good portion of town showed up. As the crowd applauded, Monroe beamed up at the big screen. He saw his life interwoven with his cowboy heroes.
Monroe passed away a few months later on Christmas Day, 1986. But, as we know, celluloid heroes never really die.
A Ten Dollar Horse and a Forty Dollar Saddle was awarded a Bronze Wrangler at the 1988 Western Heritage Awards.
Bryan Dew ended up spending $170,000 and a good portion of his life exploring the West of our minds. He returned to New Zealand. Bryan never made another film.
In 1993, Monroe was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Billy Veach’s sons, Kenny and Cary, worked in the shop for a while and now have their own shops. Kenny Veach builds saddles and does repair work in his shop, Kenny Veach Custom Leather, located in Mount Vernon, Missouri. Former saddle bronc rider Cary Veach makes and repairs rodeo equipment for rough stock events. Several top bronc riders use his stirrup leathers and chaps. Veach’s Custom Leather Goods is located in Ankeny, Iowa.
Bronc rider Charley Beals married Monroe’s daughter, Imogene, in 1940. He worked for Monroe for a while. In 1945, he opened his own saddle shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their grandson, Drew Clark (Doug’s brother), reopened Charley’s old shop in 2007. Drew builds the Doug Clark Roping Saddle.
Monroe’s son, saddle maker Ben Veach, invented a stainless steel, one-piece stirrup buckle. Monroe’s daughter Mary and her husband had a Veach Saddlery in Branson, Missouri.
Robert and Peggy Veach Robinson have worked side by side in Monroe’s shop for 55 years and have owned it for 31 years.
This year Veach Saddlery celebrates its 100th year as a family owned business. To find out more about them, call 660-359-3592.
VEACH SADDLERY CO., INC.
1011 EAST 23RD STREET
TRENTON, MO 64683