By Nick Pernokas
The Chevy box truck labored up another hill. In 1928, some of the roads in western Nebraska were in name only. The region was not called “the Sandhills” for nothing, and Elmus Henderson hoped he would not have to pull the planks out of the back to give the tires some traction. He looked over at his assistant, who was slumped on the passenger side. Elmus knew from the man’s choice of refreshments that he probably wouldn’t be much help this evening. The truck reached the crest of the hill and the vast, softly rolling terrain spread out as far as Elmus could see. Some folks called this the best cattle grazing range in the world; but in the setting sun, it resembled an infinitely wrinkled blanket spread out on a bed. Ahead lay two weeks of work on the U Cross Ranch.
By the next morning, Elmus was open for business. The U Cross ran 1200 head of horses and that could generate a lot of broken leather. His stitcher was carried up into the haymow of the barn where the ranch’s harness was stored. The vat strapped on the back of the truck was full of oil and had a pulley rigged up above it to quickly dunk and drip-dry the harness. With hay season coming in a couple of weeks, the U Cross wanted all of their harness for the hay teams in top shape. When Elmus was done repairing all of their harness, some of the smaller ranches would bring their harness in for him to work on as well. Elmus could also patch a few saddles and boots if necessary. When all the repair work was finished, Elmus would join the hay crew that had been assembling under the circus tent that had been erected. For the next few weeks, he would help with the haying on the U Cross. Fall would find Elmus heading south to the farm area around Kearney to get those farmers’ harness ready for the corn harvest. Along the way, he would pick up materials at various drops where he would have had them shipped.
As tractors were gradually introduced to farming operations, Elmus’ nomadic life went the way of horsepower. Elmus was married with two children and he decided it was time to change course. He had worked on a ranch for his brother and loved the cowboy way of life. Saddles had always been something that he enjoyed working on. Now, he wanted to learn more about the art of building them. In the late 1930s, Elmus went to work for the Western Saddle Company in Denver. It wasn’t too long before he decided he wanted to go back to Nebraska. His parents lived in Kearney, which was in the Platte Valley. This area was a good place to operate a business because it didn’t close down in the winter. For a saddle shop, a year-round clientele was a good thing.
In 1941, Elmus built his first saddle. His wife, Edna, was very artistic and loved to draw. When Elmus showed her how to tool leather, she took to it immediately. Soon, her variety of leather carving patterns surpassed his. While Elmus usually just tooled his signature flower, Edna would tool a bouquet of them on their products.
In January of 1942, Elmus and Edna opened Platte Valley Saddle and Harness Shop in downtown Kearney. Starting out, they took any jobs they could to make money. The Hendersons did boot and shoe repair, and canvas work that included repairing the canvas conveyor belts used in combines.
Lyle Henderson was born in 1947. He was raised in the shop. His first position in the shop was in a cardboard saddle box that served as his playpen. When he outgrew the box, he began to nap under the workbench on his dad’s discarded scrap leather. Elmus was amiable and everyone knew it. The shop was always full of men who were passing the time. Lyle’s imagination was fueled by the stories he heard.
“I grew up in the shop, but my love was always being a cowboy,” says Lyle.
The Hendersons always had horses. They frequently went to the Sandhills to help work cattle.
“I never missed a branding from the time I was a year old until I was 18.”
It was only natural that Lyle learned the leather business at an early age. He built his first saddle when he was 12. His father instilled in him the value of making a saddle that was stout, regardless of what it was going to be used for. They always used the best materials that they could find.
“We never cut corners. Dad had been an old-time cowboy and he knew what it took for a saddle to hold together.”
In the 50s, most of the single rawhide-covered saddle trees they used were various lower swell forks, many with undercuts. Occasionally, they would make a slick fork saddle. The saddle horns were all metal. The cantles were low 1 ½ inch to 2 inch cantles.
“I have a saddle Dad made me when I was 12, and it had a slick fork with a 1 ½ inch cantle, and a great big old Mexican horn. He said I’d either learn to ride or fall out of it,” laughs Lyle.
Lyle had 28 saddles from the time he was old enough to ride until he graduated from high school. When he came home from school and went to ride, he‘d frequently find his current saddle missing. Usually, a customer had needed it and his dad would tell him that they could always build another one.
Lyle had thought he was going to eventually work in his dad’s saddle shop full time. When he graduated from high school though, Elmus told him that he wanted him to go out and work for somebody else. The only thing Lyle knew how to do other than saddle work was how to cowboy. He followed his dream and worked at ranches in Nebraska and Idaho, and 1970 found him working for an Angus ranch in Nebraska. It was also the year that he married Lynda. The ranch was a good fit for the couple. Lyle was building a few saddles in their old farmhouse at night and Lynda was able to commute to Grand Island, where she worked in a beauty shop.
One day, Elmus drove out to the ranch. He had been having major heart problems and he was worried about the future of his business. He had a proposal for Lyle.
“He said, ‘I don’t think we can make it, but if you want to come in with me, why don’t we give it a try’,” remembers Lyle.
In 1972, Lyle moved back to Kearney and started working in the family shop. Lyle and Elmus got along great and, in 1974, they bought a new building in Kearney for their operation. Elmus passed away in 1979.
Lyle and Lynda bought another building next door and used it for saddle making. The original building was used as a retail area for saddles, tack and a few hats and boots, as well as a repair shop. In 1982, Platte Valley Saddle Shop ran their first ad in Western Horseman Magazine. This increased their sales volume dramatically. They also published their first catalogue. More employees were added.
Lyle found time to team rope and put on weekly ropings at the arena at his home. In 1990, a horse wreck broke his hip. The accident began to wind down his career as a header. A run-in with a steer reinjured him and his riding career came to a halt.
“I’d rode all my life. When you get out there before it starts getting light in the morning and go ‘til 10 or 11 at night, it sort of takes the ride out of you,” says Lyle.
The Hendersons attracted customers from all over the world. They sent many saddles overseas to countries like Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Most of these were historical reproductions of 1880s-style square skirted drover saddles. Lyle became known for his accurate period saddles. One of Lyle’s reproductions is a pony express saddle, which was purchased for the Autry Museum. Lyle’s saddle orders stacked up and he was three years behind on them.
In 1994, the Hendersons received a good offer for their downtown buildings. The offer was unexpected, but the timing was great. They had been thinking about building a shop outside of town. Lyle could not get caught up on his work because of all the traffic through the shop. The final shop was built next to their home.
As the demographics of their customers began to change, Lyle and Lynda decided to do trade shows. They wanted to market their wares to more recreational riders. In 2007, they jumped in the deep end. Their first trade show was at Mandalay Bay at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. They followed it with the Equine Affaire in Columbus, Ohio, and another show in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It was great,” says Lynda. “We made so many friends, and so many customers. It was different for us.”
The trade shows took a lot of work and preparation. Eventually, the Hendersons grew weary of the road. In 2017, they did their last trade shows.
Today, Platte Valley still builds a few Wades with wood post horns and flat plate riggings. The majority of the saddles they build are swell fork saddles, like Associations and Will James styles. A few silver mounted show saddles are produced as well. The base price on saddles is $4,175.
“Our biggest business is repeat business and we’ve built saddles for three generations,” says Lyle.
Lyle likes figure carving and the artwork that goes with it. He draws his own patterns and he never tools two saddles alike. But Lyle enjoys everything involved in building saddles.
“I have fun with everything I do,” says Lyle
Lyle likes to make all kinds of products, not just saddles. Working on chaps and headstalls breaks up the routine.
Lynda has many jobs in the shop. In addition to running the office, she does the finishing work on the saddles, sews headstalls and refurbishes old saddles. Lynda is also known as the quality control. If a stitch doesn’t look right or an edge needs to be reworked, she will catch it. She feels that they are professionals and people aren’t paying for anything less.
“Dad always told me that if you do something you don’t like, throw it under the bench,” says Lyle.
While the Henderson’s son, Mike, knows his way around the saddle shop, he has a different occupation. He still likes to compete in team roping though.
The Hendersons continue to work in a shop filled with memories. Every item that hangs on the wall has a story. Even the first saddle that Elmus made in 1941 is there, donated back by a customer. Now at 72 years old, Lyle has no intention of retiring.
“I’m going to stay at it as long as I can…because I love it,” says Lyle.
“We’ll be carrying him out of here and putting him in a hearse,” laughs Lynda.
In the meantime, Lyle has 20 years’ worth of ideas to fit in, so don’t look for him to be going anywhere soon. If you’d like to find out more about Platte Valley Saddle Shop, go to plattevalleysaddle.com or call (877)-874-3965.
Platte Valley Saddle Shop
P.O. Box 1683
Kearney, Nebraska 68848