By Nick Pernokas
Sometimes the dust of history covers up some pretty good stories. Sometimes it takes a cold West Texas wind to blow some of it away, so you know where to start digging. The wind was blowing that day in 2002, when I pulled off Highway 67 just outside of Brownwood, Texas. I was looking for a man who was a link between the cowboy saddles of yesteryear, and the modern performance saddle. I parked in front of a modest home in Early, Texas.
At 77, you couldn’t say Wilford Lewis was retired; it was more like downsized a little. Wilford and his wife, Shirley, lived in a comfortable house that really didn’t hint at much about Wilford’s history. Inside though, your eyes would be drawn to two beautiful miniature saddles that were displayed on a table. Both were crafted by Wilford. One looked just like his popular contemporary roping saddles .The tiny floral tooling was the same as his full-sized pattern, and the tiny conchos were made by him. The other saddle was a perfect reproduction of an old hard seat cowboy saddle, right down to the laced up stirrup leathers.
“When I began making saddles, they were all lace-ups,” said Wilford. “Al Ray made a buckle, but it was hard to get apart.” Wilford remembered that the first Blevins buckles holes were too small for #9 rivets and how, when he worked for Windy Ryon, they ordered #10 rivets just for the buckles. In 1967, Wilford mentioned this to Mr. Blevins and he started making the holes larger. Wilford had many anecdotes like this that really could give you insight into the golden age of saddle innovation. The reason was that his career overlapped the resurgence in the horse business after World War II and its evolution into a recreational one. A child of the Depression, Wilford’s family never had the money for a horse. In later years, he never really had an interest in them, although he liked them.
Wilford was a third-generation leatherworker. He was brought up with stories of his grandfather sewing cowboy boots with pig bristles. Wilford’s dad was a good bootmaker and he got Wilford started on the right path. In 1941, Wilford started in the boot repair business and by 1945, he was making them. He had a yearning to build saddles, but his dad had never liked building saddles, so his teaching had focused on the boots.
Wilford went to work for Amonett Saddlery, building boots in their El Paso shop. Amonett’s made saddles for ranch cowboys in their shop in Roswell, New Mexico. Wilford still wanted to learn to build saddles, so he wrote a letter to Mr. Amonett in which he offered to “make concessions” in order to learn the saddle trade. In January of 1951, Wilford began making saddles in Roswell.
“Old man Amonett, he’d come in every day, and he made one and I made one behind him. Like, the first day he put the rigging and the ground seat in, and I put it in mine. He just left. The next day he come in and we covered the horns. Same way, he covered his and I followed him. We did that all the way through the saddle.”
Wilford remembered Amonett as understanding the things that made a saddle work such as rigging placement and blocking the skirts on correctly. Amonett was thinking about retirement in those years though, and he liked to play golf. He wasn’t really a tooler, so he let Wilford do some tooling when it was called for. Amonett never catered to the rodeo people, which caused their business to slow down by the late Fifties.
“There wasn’t any ranch cowboys by the late Fifties and all they wanted to make were rough-out saddles for those ranchers. The last year I was there, I made 12 rough-out saddles all alike and they sold one, so it was time for me to go,” remembered Wilford. Wilford drove a bread truck and worked for a water well company to pay his bills for a time.
Around 1963, Wilford heard of a large saddle shop, Ryon’s Saddle and Ranch Supply, in Fort Worth that was looking for help. He assumed the saddle business was dying, but he thought that Fort Worth might be a stepping stone to a career in something else. When he arrived in Fort Worth, he found a different world. Windy Ryon was selling expensive hats, fine clothes, ropes, custom saddles and tack around the world to folks who wanted to be a part of the reinvention of the West. Whether it was cutting, roping or the Marlboro Cowboy commercials, Windy had something for everybody. Equine events were becoming more specialized, which created the need for more specialized western saddles as well.
When Wilford got to Ryon’s, there were four other saddle makers. He was 39 and the other saddle makers were all younger than him. They thought he was ancient. Wilford had worked in the saddle business longer than any of them, except for the famed George Murray.
“Windy guarded who made them saddles with his life. We was upstairs, hemmed off; nobody even knew where we was at, or what we was doing or who we were, except for George Murray. He was just a show piece. He was just down there in a little penned-off thing.
Customers just walked in there and messed with his tools, and everything else. I couldn’t do that. George made a saddle that a lot of people liked. The only thing I didn’t like about them was they were so heavy. But they were good saddles.”
Wilford started out working on strap goods at night. He hung his finger in a splitter and couldn’t do much except minor jobs for several weeks. Windy had intended for Wilford to be a tooler, but now he had to wait to see if his investment paid off.
Windy was a good manager and would assign the saddle orders to the maker he thought would do the best job with it. If the customer liked the result, and came back for another, the same saddle maker would build it. When Wilford healed up, Windy began assigning him the ranch cowboy saddles. The base saddle price at this time was $500. In 1970, a saddle came in from a lady in California. It had an unusual equitation seat in it and she wanted it duplicated.
“Windy asked the foreman who he should give it to and he pointed at me because the other guys were a little on the contrary side about some of those things.”
The saddle was designed to be a fancy show saddle. Bob Crumrine made the silver corner plates and conchos. He didn’t “pull out” the background until after they were gold plated, which gave an unusual gold with silver background contrast. The silver rolled skirts and cantle were gold, even the screws and dees were gold plated. Wilford’s saddle was a success and at $2600, it was the highest-selling Ryon’s saddle at that time. Wilford had become a “fancy saddle” maker.
Wilford worked with saddle makers like artist Bob Moline, Chip Drush, Eddy Brooks, Dave Welker, Paul Garcia, Mike Garcia and Bud Cannella. Wilford gave Bud the nickname of “Cajun.” It would eventually become the name of Cajun’s Saddlery. Wilford was there when Buster Welch came in wanting a flatter cutting seat that wasn’t built-up in the front. He made the first Olin Young roper for Windy using a Rocky Mountain Roper/Dina Special tree.
“Olin rode a 3 ¼-inch cantle even though he was tripping (steers) out of it. I don’t know why he liked it that tall. Most of the other trippers liked two and a half.”
At Ryon’s, the foreman blocked all the parts out and then the saddle maker fit them all to the tree and cut them out. The main parts were all hand fit.
“Windy had so many names for trees; I had to have a cross-reference to keep them straight. Old man Ritter made a few trees for Windy before he sold out to Harlan Webb. And that roper from out at Big Spring, Toots Mansfield, that Toots Mansfield Roper, they called it a Toots Mansfield, they called it a Ryon Roper and they called it several other names. And then they made one just like it with a little higher front and they had another name for it. I used to have a cross-reference for all them trees so I’d know what he was talking about.”
By 1973, Wilford was the shop foreman. He had 10 saddle makers working under him, including notables like Joey Jemison. Windy Ryon died in 1973, and Wilford continued to work for his son, Whistle, for another 14 months.
In August of 1974, Wilford went out on his own. He started making saddles for steer roper Bill Price, who had a western store in Lubbock. Bill had a large following in the rodeo world. He let Wilford put his name on the latigo carriers along with the Bill Price stamp. This was the first time Wilford had been able to promote his work. Wilford worked out of his home for Bill for the next six years. Eventually, Bill became seriously ill and the arrangement folded.
By now, Wilford’s saddles had become well-known and he made saddles for folks like Brad Johnson, Guy Allen, James Caan, Mike Cervi, Benny Binion, Trevor Brazile, Marvin Cantrell, Olin Young, Tom Feller, Merle Haggard and Walt Arnold.
Wilford had started making his own saddle trees, but by 2002, his son, Ray Lewis, was making them for him in Hereford, Texas. Wilford always used single rawhide-covered saddle trees until the late Eighties, when he started fiberglassing them. He became sold on the strength of the fiberglass over the rawhide.
“Well a tree is like the foundation of a house, it’s the foundation of a saddle. Before I started fiberglassing them, I got back one out of three broke.”
Wilford’s daughter, Ellen Tieking, had started out tooling for Wilford. By 2002, she and her husband, Dallas, had a saddle shop in Hereford as well.
In Early, Wilford’s shop, and his life as a saddle maker, were contained in a portable building in back of his house. It was filled to the brim with tools, jigs and work in progress. Wilford made many of his own tools, including metal dies that he made from blocks of magnesium for cutting in the outlines of his flowers. Wilford had a jig made from a large dowel with pegs that he used to braid his horn knots on. He would then remove them and tighten them on the horn. Beautifully carved photo albums displayed Wilford’s work and his customers from his years in the business.
A saddle was partially built on a drawdown, in the center of the shop, displaying Wilford’s signature circular rimmed horn cap. His base price was $2150 at this time and he had a two-year backlog. Wilford was fighting arthritis in his hands, which made sewing cantles and stamping difficult.
Looking around the shop at his life, Wilford reflected, “Well it’s been a long… I don’t know if you’d call it a battle or what. It’s been a long haul. I’m going to make saddles as long as I’m able.”
As we stepped out into the gathering dusk, the wind had died down. I passed the miniature saddles in the darkened kitchen, the old and the new, bookends to an illustrious career.
Wilford Lewis passed away on January 16, 2007.
Today Kevin Johnson, Cody Parks, and Dallas and Ellen Tieking carry on Wilford’s legacy at Lewis Saddle Tree in Hereford, Texas. To find out more about the Lewis Saddle Trees, call (806)364-0102.