By Nick Pernokas
John Kelley always eagerly anticipated his monthly copy of Shop Talk! Magazine. The Morton, Illinois, leatherworker had been working with leather since he was 10. He had created beautiful knife sheaths, holsters and handbags, many featuring beautiful carving and fine hand stitching. In 2009, he was in his late 50s and he hadn’t quit his day job as a nursing home administrator yet. Leather shows and magazines fueled his passion for leatherwork, and tided him over until he could be back in his shop.
As John thumbed through his issue that day, a classified ad caught his eye. It was for the sale of a complete miniature saddle shop. John recognized the maker’s name as well. Tad Mizwa was well regarded in leather crafting circles for both his work and his writing about it. John realized the value of this legacy.
In November of 2009, John and his wife, Marcia, journeyed to Leona, Texas, where they were greeted warmly by the Mizwa family. In a well-appointed ranch house, Tad’s wife, Mary, cooked for them, while Tad spent a few days explaining to John how he had built his 40% size saddles.
“Tad was extremely detail oriented,” remembers John. John was amazed with the work that Tad had put into the miniatures. Tad had researched each saddle before he made it. Much of the research included photos of the original saddles from places like the Autry Museum. Tad had gone to suppliers and had them make the exact 40% scale parts that he required. He had molds made for saddle hardware and buckles, so that he could cast the parts he needed in various metals. Tad had made jigs so he could make his own saddle trees, which he did, out of reclaimed 2x4s. He made exact rawhide covered replicas of classic trees like Visalia and Meanea. Tad even put a ground seat in the saddles.
“Even though no miniature cowboy would ever ride it, Tad knew it was there,” says John. “When you look at Tad’s miniature saddles, they’re just perfect.”
Tad had even scaled down his tooling to fit the scale of the saddles and he used complete patterns.
“Tad’s tooling was all Tad. He had his own style. It was clean,” says John.
John purchased Tad’s miniature saddlemaking patterns, tools like miniature concho cutters, parts, miniature drawdown stands, miniature articulated tooling stands, miniature cinches and miniature corona blanket building gear. The two men began a friendship that lasted until the end of Tad’s life.
“Daddy really wanted someone to carry on his legacy. To him, this artistry needed to continue,” says Michelle Eutsler, Tad’s daughter.
But Tad’s legacy was more than a collection of miniature saddles. And for a Depression-era boy from Massachusetts, it was an unlikely journey.
Tad’s father had come to America at the age of 19, after his father was killed by Russian soldiers who were stealing his horses in Poland. A self-made man, he put himself through college and then earned a doctorate. He started a Polish foundation in New York to help Polish students come to America to study. Tad’s mother was also Polish, and Polish was spoken in the Mizwa household. Tad was born on July 4, 1927, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Mizwa’s had come up through tough times and although Tad’s dad was very reserved with affection, the family never wanted for anything. It was a pleasant surprise then, for a seven-year-old boy who usually received only socks for Christmas, when his father splurged and took him to the Madison Square Garden Rodeo. It was a life-altering experience for Tad.
“I was intrigued by the trick and fancy roping done by adults, and especially by two boys nearly my age,” Tad later recalled. Soon after his trip to the rodeo, a boy Tad knew returned from “ranch camp” and showed off a simple rope trick that he’d learned there.
“If he could do that, I thought, I can learn to do much more.”
Tad read books and as he said, “roped his arm off.” Inspired by watching rodeo performers, he practiced basic tricks thousands of times. In his late teens, he introduced himself to the McLaughlin brothers, during the Madison Square Garden rodeo, who had been the kids he’d seen years earlier. They got Tad into the contestant’s area and compared rope tricks with him. From there Tad was introduced to World Champion Jim Eskew, Jr. Eskew was an amazing roper and seeing how much Tad wanted to learn, he became his mentor.
“He taught and encouraged me. Under this quality of guidance and inspiration, I got pretty good at roping.”
Eskew and his wife became good friends with Tad. Eventually, he took many pictures of Eskew and published a story about him. Tad was the lead pallbearer at Eskew’s funeral.
“Roping helped me overcome shyness and stammering as a child. There is something that grabs you about this demanding and difficult art of turning a piece of rope into something alive.”
At 18, Tad went to work on a dude ranch in Waynesburg, New York. Tad’s business-oriented father didn’t understand why his usually responsible son had decided that he wanted to be a cowboy.
When Tad graduated from high school at 19, he hitchhiked to Phoenix, Arizona, for a job on a dude ranch. He called his mother every day from a payphone as he had promised her he would. Tad rented a room from Claude Newton, who had a leather shop. Tad ended up doing some work for Claude.
On Saturday mornings, Tad hung out at N. Porters Saddle Shop in Phoenix. At that time, many top saddle makers and toolers worked there. One of these was Ray Pohja. Ray showed Tad a lot about tooling leather, including his technique for using a swivel knife to create complex patterns. It was also the beginning of a friendship that would last for 63 years.
“Ray was the most accomplished leather stamper that I ever met. He was also one of the most generous. That impression has lasted through all of these years,” Tad told me in 2011.
Tad also made friends with artist Mark Storm and Tex Welcome. All of them were bound by their love of the West, as well as their shared interest in trick roping. All of them became professional trick ropers for at least part of their lives. Tad would continue to trick rope at rodeos, exhibitions and even on TV, through the early Sixties.
Tad made enough that summer to ride the bus home. When he arrived home, his parents gave him an ultimatum. He had to go to college, like his father had, before he could resume any type of cowboying.
Tad entered Amherst College that fall and earned a degree in journalism. After that, he earned a masters degree in art at Columbia University.
Tad married a fellow academic, Genevieve, when he was 25. The couple had a son, John. Tad was pulled toward his love of the West and leatherwork though, and in 1953, Tad opened Tad’s Saddlery and Western Wear in the Highland Village area of Houston. This was an upscale area and many people owned horses for recreation. Frequently, customers would ride their horses to his shop for advice on saddle fit. Tad always loved writing, and was also working on a journalism masters at the University of Houston. Genevieve was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away in 1961. Tad found himself a widower with a two-year-old boy. He realized he needed more income than what the saddle shop could provide. In 1962, Tad was offered a job as the editor on the Conroe Courier, which was located an hour north of Houston. He put his saddle work on hold and sold his saddle shop.
After three years in Conroe, Tad met Mary, who had three children about the same age as his. Working for the Courier allowed Tad to develop his skill in photography. He built a home darkroom and did photo work for the paper, as well as himself. The photography fulfilled an artistic need that he missed from the leatherwork. Tad learned of a photography show at the Astrodome in Houston and entered some of his work. A few weeks later, Tad received a call from Robert Gray who owned a magazine called Horseman Magazine. He had loved Tad’s photography, had researched him and found out that he was a good writer as well. Robert offered Tad a job in Houston at the Cordovan Corporation, working as the advertising manager on his magazine.
In 1968, Tad and his family were back in Houston. Eventually Tad became the editor, and then the publisher, of Horseman Magazine. He also became the publisher of Texas Fisherman and Jet Cargo News. Tad then developed the magazine Western Outfitter, which was geared toward Western retailers. Mary became the editor, while Tad was the publisher. Tad enjoyed working with people who had western-oriented businesses like he had at one time. Tad always dressed well and always wore handmade boots. He became friends with Sam Lucchese and sported boots made by Lucchese for years. Tad was proud to help his friend write his book, A Lifetime with Boots. Other books on marketing followed.
Tad’s other bootmaking friend was Joe Evans of Rios of Mercedes boots. These became the only other brand he would wear.
“He met all these saddle makers and boot makers throughout the United States, who became friends,” says Michelle. “This encouraged him to keep tooling and saddlemaking.”
Tad built a large workshop at the house for his leatherwork and his photography. Soon, he was tooling again. He began making belts and saddles, and bartering with them. A local orthodontist ended up with four of Tad’s saddles for his horse farm in return for dental work on Tad’s kids.
“Every night he would come home and help mom with dinner, and then he’d go to the shop and tool,” says Michelle.
Tad received the President’s Award and two Silver Spur Awards from the Western & English Manufacturers Association, and the “Al” Bronze Statue Award from the Western & English Retailers of America, all for outstanding services and contributions to the western industry.
In the late Seventies, the magazines were bought out. Now that Tad was semi-retired from the magazine business, he began to concentrate more on the leatherwork. He also became interested capturing the history of saddles by making period miniature saddles. The saddles were made for collectors and museums. As researching these small bites of leather history consumed him, Tad became focused on the small saddles. Tad’s Tom Mix miniature saddle was part of The Story of Texas exhibit in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which opened in Austin, Texas, in April 2001. Tad’s work, both in full size and 40% size miniature saddles, has appeared in six museum exhibits since 1993. Tad built 52 40% size miniature saddles during his career. The most ornate silver mounted saddle that he made sold for over $32,000.
He made miniature buscadero gun belts, which he sold to a miniature gun dealer in Texas. These were paired up with Italian-made replicas of Colt Peacemakers. The pistols were exact working, but non firing, reproductions. The gun belts were tooled and included miniature loops for miniature bullets.
Tad also made a few dress belts for friends, or special orders, but the tiny saddles dominated his leatherwork.
“Up until 2003, that’s what he did. He made three or four belts, but that wasn’t what he wanted to be doing. His artistry was in saddlemaking,” recalls Michelle.
One exception to this was a belt that had a lot of importance to Tad. In 1999, Laura House Crawford, Tad’s niece, ordered a belt for Texas Governor George W. Bush. Laura was the governor’s publicist. Tad wanted the belt to reflect Texas heritage, but not look like a cowboy belt. He decided not to carve it in a floral design, but rather use a swivel knife pattern that was dignified and classic. The pattern was an unusual one that Ray Pohja had shown him so many years before. He made the belt black so it would go with business wear. Tad’s friend, well-known silversmith Clint Orms, made the three-piece ¾” buckle set for the tapered tip. The buckle was adorned with the Texas Lone Star and the engraving around it suggested movement. George Bush liked it so much that he ordered a second one for Mrs. Bush.
“There’s not been a belt that pleased me more than that one,” said Tad in 2014, “because evidently that one pleased its owner very much.”
When the Houston Astrodome was slated to be closed, a final rodeo was held there. Tad came out of roping retirement to trick rope at it. It was Mary’s first time to see him trick rope.
In 1999, Tad and Mary moved to Leona, Texas, where they built a house on some land that had been in Mary’s family for years. Tad built a 1600-square-foot shop to work on his projects in. On a wall in the shop, Tad proudly displayed his “Master Stamper” collection. This was a series of mounted plaques that were tooled by friends and great toolers like Chester Hape, Bill Gardner, Ray Holes, Ray Pohja and Don Butler.
To make sure that there was no doubt as to where the Mizwas lived, a large Texas Longhorn was purchased and became a permanent fixture of their pasture. The pet steer’s name was Tex.
Mary was a gourmet cook. Her brother lived next door and the two of them went into the restaurant business. Mary ran a lunch-only café and then after hours she would host at her brother’s steak house.
One of the last full-size saddles that Tad made was tooled with images of his mentor, Junior Eskew, trick roping on it. Though Tad didn’t ride or own a horse, the saddle was an anchor to his past and the boy that wanted to be a cowboy.
The last saddle that Tad worked on was miniature collaboration with Ray Pohja. They only got the tapaderos and the fenders done before age slowed them down. Ray tooled them and filigreed the tapaderos, and Tad silver mounted the tapaderos and laced them.
In 2003, Tad had a stroke, which ended his leatherwork. He continued to write how-to articles for magazines. His mind remained sharp until the end of his life.
“When you talked to Tad, it sounded like you were talking to a professor. He was a journalist. His magazine articles were perfect,” says John Kelley.
Tad had a soft spot for the stray cats and dogs that were abandoned off the old highway that they lived on in Leona. One of the last cats he had was a cat named Tom. Tom was an outdoor cat that would come in and sleep on Tad’s lap, until he was ready to go out again. Tom lived to be 18 under Tad’s care. Tom and Tex the Longhorn were Tad’s friends, and a source of comfort to him in his later years.
“Tad Mizwa was the most loving, generous, sweet man. He was always in a good mood. There was no anger in that man,” says Michelle. “And he was really, really smart.”
When Mary passed away from ovarian cancer in 2015, Tad went to live with Michelle and her husband in Houston. Tom made the move with him.
In March 2019, Tad suffered a head injury in a fall. He passed away a couple of weeks later on April 3, 2019.
Tad’s funeral went exactly as he had planned it. His cremated remains were put in a Lucchese boot box that had housed a favorite pair of boots from his friend Sam, many years before. Holes were cut in it. A water trough was set up with dippers in it. As friends and family filed by, they dipped some water from the trough to pour over the box. In this manner, Tad’s ashes immediately joined the Texas soil that he had so loved.
“Daddy always loved everything western,” says Michelle. “He said that he wasn’t born in Texas, but he got there as fast as he could.”
Sometimes, it’s not the speed of the journey, but the way you treat those you meet on the way that’s important. I suspect an old Longhorn steer, who’s looking over a barbed wire fence tonight in Leona, would agree with me.
You can find out about John Kelley’s leatherwork at Kelleycustomleather on Instagram or call 309-264-7158.
The Master Stamper Collection
Saddlemaker Tad Mizwa had a wall in his shop in Leona, Texas, where he exhibited the work of some of his contemporaries in the saddle making world. Most were his friends as well. We thought our readers would enjoy the chance to see this collection and compare individual tooling styles.