Ropin’ and Toolin’ in Johnson City, Texas
By Gene Fowler
Leather artist Seth Stidham has a front row seat on Main Street of the Texas Hill Country. When he sits at his workbench at Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather in the two-stoplight town of Johnson City, tooling most any creation that befits the classic Sheridan style, he can look out a big picture window at the endless parade on US 290.
Not only does the rural highway take travelers to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home and ranch, it also leads to legendary Luckenbach, the tiny town made famous in song by Willie, Waylon and the boys. A little further west beckons the German pioneer town and tourist mecca of Fredericksburg, as well as Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a pink granite mountain that gave rise to Native American mystery and lore.
“You never know who’s gonna pass by, see our shop and stop in,” says Seth, who runs the Western wear and custom leather emporium with his wife Jasmin Arpin. Not long ago, for instance, the scene framed in his window turned especially cinematic when a BMW motorcycle stopped in front of the shop. A couple climbed off the iron steed, their auras infused with drama and intrigue. “It was like when everything slows down for a minute and you think you’re in a movie,” Stidham recalls. “They were suave and in really great shape. They both wore gold chains.”
The couple turned out to be Jorge Poza and Ilke Ikeda, Mexican telenovela soap opera stars, roadtripping the deluxe bike from Mexico City to Canada. “They were fascinated with the leathercraft process,” Seth continues. “Jorge said his father or grandfather had worked with leather. He wanted a belt, but I didn’t have one his size, so he ended up buying one from my ‘mess up box,’ where I keep the things that don’t turn out quite right. And then I made and shipped two belts to him in Mexico City.”
Jorge Poza was so taken with the Johnson City shop that he learned to craft and tool and started his own outfit, JoPo Custom Leather, in San Miguel de Allende. “He makes things with a biker aesthetic,” adds Jasmin. “They’re really great people and we’ve kept in touch.”
The international travelers, no doubt, were pumped to meet a genuine Texas rodeo cowboy and expert horseman in Seth Stidham. A heritage of making things by hand and old-school entrepreneurship is also baked into Seth’s DNA. Originally from Georgetown, Texas, where several generations of his family ran a dry goods store, he learned to rope at the Wildfire Ranch in Salado, Texas. He also rodeoed while attending Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas.
Seth first experienced the challenges and rewards of working with leather at age 10, when his mom bought him a leatherwork kit at an estate sale. He later expanded those childhood skills when he spent a year working with Dale Martin at Wildfire Saddlery in Salado. After moving to Johnson City around 2011, Seth worked for a rodeo company, a road gig that caused him to be gone from home four days a week for each of 23 rodeos a year. He then found work riding horses for area folks, fine-tuning and training them for roping. Doing “leather stuff” on the side, he established a workshop in the root cellar of the couple’s 1918 Hill Country home.
When Seth and Jasmin started their retail outpost with its onsite leather workshop, Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather in 2014, Seth sold a roping horse to provide startup funds. The store caught on, necessitating a move to its current, enlarged quarters just off Johnson City’s courthouse square and on US 290. A step inside the welcoming space shows why. Decor includes a 1950s Levi’s banner and other historic artifacts from Seth’s family’s dry goods store. In a deft, fine-art-style branding touch, Jasmin stenciled the shop logo onto a vintage sheet of weathered metal.
The distinctive array of men’s and women’s western wear and accessories she selects for the shop goes well beyond the usual pearl snap shirts and bandanas. Stidham’s also carries an uncommon mix of home goods, jewelry (especially Southwestern), antiques and gifts. And Seth provides a choice stock of pre-built wallets, belts and other leather items.
It’s the custom leatherwork that really fascinates shoppers. “Most people just don’t see the process of handmade crafts anymore,” explains Jasmin. “They often think floral patterns are rolled out with a stamp. So when they actually see the meticulous attention to detail, it gives them a stronger appreciation.”
When Stidham Outfitters visitors see that meticulousness in Seth’s hands, they’re seeing a genuine, traditional version. “I don’t go in for painted stuff and new fads,” he explains. “I like to keep it pretty traditional, and fortunately, I can pick what I want to work on. I’ll get maybe 10 requests for custom work a day and I’ll usually do about three of them.”
In addition to the hands-on education he received at Martin Saddlery, Seth also counts leather artist Wayne Decker of Round Rock, Texas, as a mentor. “He pretty much taught me everything I know about leather,” Stidham allows. “That’s where I really went from hobbyist to true craftsman.”
Which is not to say that Seth believes he knows it all. Like any true artist in any medium, he strives to learn something every day and wants each piece to be better than the last one. On occasion, he says, he’s even bought belts and other items back from a customer if he doesn’t feel they were well made. “The only thing he’s made me is a belt, and I can’t wear it,” adds Jasmin with a knowing smile, “because he doesn’t think it’s one of his best.”
Seth Stidham is currently applying that drive for perfection to a new project…saddlemaking. “After the first of the year,” he told me in early December, right before he headed out for roping competitions in Arizona and Las Vegas, “I’m going to start ordering some trees. Wayne Decker has offered to help me. My goal is to build the best saddles I can and someday win first place at the Wichita Falls Boot and Saddlemakers Trade Show. And of course, everyone aims to find a place in the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association.”
Stidham will be sourcing his saddle skirting leather from Panhandle Leather in Amarillo. He uses tooling leather from Hermann Oak and obtains other hides from Horween. “I’ve toured the Horween tannery in Chicago and I hope to visit Hermann Oak one of these days.”
Visitors to Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather will find a not-so-crazy quilt of delightful surprises with a Western edge. “I think the West was won,” Jasmin posted on the shop’s Facebook page, “on a fabulous sense of style.”
“I agree!” responded Round Rock leather artist Wayne Decker. “And you and Seth are doing a great job of keeping the ‘Western Spirit’ alive!”
In both leatherwork and roping, Seth enjoys “paying it forward.” Stidham Outfitters has held leatherwork classes for youngsters. “Most every guy over 50 had a leathercraft session at some point in their lives,” he explains, “but younger folks, not so much.” You can see Seth in action teaching roping to kiddos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmUzenNPFLA.