By Nick Pernokas
If you’ve ever traveled south on the back roads of eastern Idaho, you’ve seen the dark forests and craggy mountains give way to sage brush, and then the vast plains to the south. You’ve probably noticed that it was lonesome country, the kind of country that can keep a secret. Towns with names like Custer and Bonanza were once booming towns where men coaxed hidden treasure from the ground, in the form of silver and gold. But those men, and the towns, are gone now. The inscrutable land remains. It still hides a few treasures.
In this land of transition, in a valley 10 miles wide, resides another “ghost town.” May, Idaho, hasn’t passed on yet though, and a handful of residents still support the local café on the few days that it’s open. It won’t be open when winter sets in here at the foot of the Lemhi Mountains. If you travel further up the valley from May, you’ll come to the 125-year-old Martiny Ranch, home of the Martiny Saddle Company.
“We’re 30 miles from one town and 50 miles from the other,” says Nancy Martiny. “You’ve got to want to get to town.”
Nancy is no newcomer to this country, or this life. Her father, Bill Brockman, bought a ranch in southern Idaho when she was five and moved the family there from Livermore, California. Nancy’s story starts before that, however. In California, her dad had been a fireman. Bill was also a rancher and a team roper. During his downtime in the firehouse, he needed something to do, and for a bored cowboy that was leatherwork. Soon, he was making belts and purses for friends. In the 1960s, Bill hung around and visited with other cowboys at Rowell Saddlery in Hayward, California. He became friendly with the saddlemakers at Rowell’s and they helped him fulfill his dream of building a saddle.
“That was always inspiration to me,” remembers Nancy. “My dad had built a saddle, so I wanted to build one.”
Although Bill’s leatherwork was a sideline, he had planted a seed for it in his daughter Nancy. When Nancy was 15, she wanted a belt. She talked her dad into showing her how to make and tool one. Nancy enjoyed the process. Even better, her friends admired it and soon she was making belts for them as well. It was a skill that would stick with her.
Nancy and her first husband were ranchers and rodeo producers. Nancy continued to do her leatherwork to supplement their income. By 1980, she was a mother.
Their Idaho ranch was located 50 miles from legendary saddlemaker Dale Harwood and since that was pretty close in Idaho distance, they became friends. One thing lead to another and they purchased a couple of saddles from him. In 1987, Nancy’s husband talked Dale into building a couple of saddle trees for her for Christmas, and then went further and asked Dale to help her build the saddles. Dale agreed and began tutoring Nancy when he had any free time. His advice before they began was to keep the saddlemaking a hobby, because it was a tough way to make a living.
“I’d run down there, and take a little notebook, and I’d write down everything we worked on and do sketches.”
Nancy would go home and apply the day’s lessons to her saddle. When Dale had another free day, she would go back and repeat the process. Because Nancy was already a good tooler, she decided to make her first saddle a partial floral and basket stamp. The tree style Nancy used was a Lewis Roper. Over the course of several months, she was able to complete a saddle for herself. Nancy then started on the second saddle, which was for her children. This one was easier and Nancy worked from her notes. If she hit a tough place, Dale would help her out.
“At the time, he was my hero and I was really intimidated, but I wanted to do it bad enough that I stuck it out.”
Nancy’s friends admired her saddle and soon they were ordering saddles for themselves from her.
“My saddle looked pretty nice because Dale had helped me, so they thought I could build saddles,” laughs Nancy. “I’ve tried to repay him through the years and we’ve become very good friends.”
Word of mouth helped her saddle business take off, and if she had a question, Dale would help her with it. The saddles complemented her leatherwork, which she was already doing. Nancy, by now, had three children. She needed a job that she could do from home. It was also ideal because she could put it down when she had to work on the ranch.
“I felt like it was something I could do and still keep all my bases covered.”
When the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association started offering classes at their annual show, Nancy eagerly went to Oklahoma City to attend. The first seminar she took was on leather carving. The class was taught by Dale Harwood and Don King.
Later, she returned for a saddlemaking class with Dale and Steve Mecum. She also went to a clinic at Cary Schwartz’s shop.
Nancy was awarded a TCAA fellowship and she was able to return to her mentor, Dale, and view his techniques with the perspective of a seasoned saddlemaker.
“At that point there’s no great big, new things, but it’s all those little things that you’re trying to refine. The more you see other people’s work, the more it accelerates your own learning.”
As Nancy gained more experience, people began to ask her to teach them. She found that she enjoyed having them come to her shop to learn how to build saddles. Because of her love of teaching, as well as her firsthand knowledge of the challenges a woman faces in learning a predominantly male trade, Nancy became involved with The Art of the Cowgirl.
The Art of the Cowgirl is a Montana-based group that puts on an annual show in Arizona. The event celebrates cowgirls and their contributions to western lifestyle and culture. The proceeds from the show go towards fellowships for up-and-coming artists who want to elevate their work in the cowboy arts. The goal is to keep the cowboy trades going, so the group looks for candidates who are serious about learning, and who in turn, will pass their knowledge on. 2019 was the first year that Nancy participated in the program. Because the program is geared towards the cowgirl, most of the applicants have been women. Nancy makes a saddle every year for the Art of the Cowgirl auction to help raise money for the fellowships. She also shares her knowledge as an instructor.
Both of her students through the fellowship have been women with children, so Nancy has found that she really identifies with them and understands their situation. Nancy provides a good share of encouragement along with the technical know-how.
Nancy helps her pupils make a fairly simple saddle because of the time element involved. In her first class, a saddle was made in eight days and she admits it was a grueling week.
These days Nancy divides her time up between helping her husband, Jim Martiny, on the family Angus cow-calf operation and working in her shop. The neat shop is located in a corner of the ranch house that she and Jim built.
Nancy has always lived a rancher’s life and understands it. For this reason, she builds a traditional cowboy saddle. Although the lines may be cowboy functional, the carving is a light and delicate floral, some with subtle coloring. She doesn’t specialize in any equine disciplines like roping or reining. Nancy builds a lot of slick forks because of their popularity in the region she lives in. Most of her customers are working cowboys. Warren Wright from New Zealand builds all of Nancy’s saddle trees.
Nancy is about five years behind on saddle orders and says that a lot of that comes from repeat business. Her base price is $4500.
Nancy’s other main products are headstalls and spur straps. She makes a lot of plain cowboy headstalls, but she’s also known for her fancy and colorful headstalls. Many of these go to rodeo competitors. Nancy’s ornate spur straps also feature her intricate floral carving.
“I’m always trying to find something that I can reproduce the leather carving on, for somebody that doesn’t need a saddle, but appreciates the carving.”
Around 2010, in the middle of doing some work on her home, Nancy found a company that could reproduce photos on beautiful ceramic tile. She realized that she could get her leatherwork reproduced on the tile. It looked great in her kitchen and, as before, other people saw it and wanted it. The tile made a great western accent for kitchens, bathrooms or really any home decor. The original leatherwork could even be personalized for the customer. The best thing was that Nancy didn’t have to use her own hands to make the tiles.
The next items that Nancy put her carving on were t-shirts. She would design the original leather work, often with figures like bucking horses, and then have it printed on t-shirts. Her taste naturally geared the colors and styles towards the women’s boutique market, but some of the styles looked pretty good on cowboys too. The clothing line expanded to include denim jackets and shirts, with both heat-transferred graphics of tooling and actual tooled leather patches on them.
Nancy’s oldest daughter, Mindy, has a western-flavored line of jewelry called The Lil Red Roan. Nancy’s youngest daughter, Rita, exercises her artistic ability by drawing and tooling her own designs in wallets.
Although more entrepreneurial irons will probably be in the fire in the future, Nancy would still like serious students to come and work with her. That doesn’t mean she isn’t still learning though.
“I consider myself a lifelong student of the trade.”
If you’re ever in eastern Idaho, and those mountains seem to be beckoning you with their hidden treasure, you could do worse than look up Martiny Saddle Company.
To find out about Nancy’s many products, go to martinysaddle.com or call (208) 876-4227.
Martiny Saddle Company
159 Hooper Lane
May, Idaho 83253
Art of the Cowgirl
PO Box 117
Ryegate, Montana 59074