Tio Sam the Saddle Man
by Gene Fowler
Pancho Villa was a man of many horses. Many horses and many saddles…. So many saddles that it seems like the story of every saddlemaker who was active back in Villa’s day includes the claim that they made a custom saddle for the notorious Mexican revolutionary. If you read enough about the West, you’ll often get the impression that everyone this side of the Mississippi rode with Buffalo Bill, roped with Will Rogers and played poker with Pancho. Or made him a saddle.
But Samuel Dale Myres, who moved his saddlery from Sweetwater, Texas, to El Paso in 1920, he was the real deal.
Not only was the Centaur of the North said to have been a customer and an amigo—or at least an acquaintance—of the saddlemaker, Myres also made saddles for and swapped stories with the likes of Tom Mix, Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill, William S. Hart, Gene Autry, Hoot Gibson, Montie Montana, at least two presidents of Mexico, plus generations of cowboys and ranchers, and yep, Will Rogers. A certificate of merit hung on his office wall for equipping the U.S. Cavalry with McClellan saddles in World War I. Holsters designed and crafted by Myres cradled the firearms of such prestigious military figures as General George S. Patton, as well as Texas Rangers, Border Patrol and FBI agents. So renowned was the Myres Saddle Co. that in 1971, some 18 years after its founder’s death at the age of 81, Hollywood actress Kim Novak visited the El Paso shop that still bore his name to order a custom saddle for her Arabian stallion.
In interviews and advertisements S. D. Myres emphasized the artistry of his leatherwork. “I’ve always thought that Myres was ahead of his time in design,” says saddlemaker Nick Pernokas of Stephenville, Texas. “When he began building saddles, it was a time of transition from purely functional saddles designed for ‘going up the trail’ to western saddles that were used for sport competitions and pleasure riding. His early saddles had the distinctive Texas cowboy look to them, but they were also starting to incorporate more intricate carving and detail work similar to what was being seen on the West Coast.” Some of Myres’ most elaborate saddles even reproduced scenes from paintings by the cowboy artist Charles Russell.
In the last decade or so of his long life, Sam’s unmowed chin brush and flowing hair reminded the Mexican and Mexican-American children of El Paso, to whom the elderly saddlemaker told stories of the West, of caricatures of the fabled Uncle Sam. And thus, he was bestowed his cherished moniker, Tio Sam (Tio means uncle). Others said he more closely resembled his old pal, Buffalo Bill. A 1948 Parade magazine article told the nation’s newspaper readers that Tio Sam Myres was “literally a storybook character,” so ancient and authentic that he could “recall the real West.”
Parade also noted that the saddlemaker was born “in a log cabin on the Brazos River near Fort Worth.” Like so many Texans, Sam’s parents had journeyed to the state after the Civil War, settling in pioneer Johnson County, between Cleburne and Glen Rose, in the spring of 1871. Samuel Dale arrived that fall.
“Sam grew up with the feel of a horse between his knees and the sting of horse sweat on his skin as he rode through the breaks and river bottoms and across the prairie sod of frontier Texas,” wrote Sandra L. Myres in a 1961 biography of the saddlemaker. “The boys of that day rarely used saddles. A blanket strapped on with surcingle and a [hackamore] for a bridle provided the necessary riding equipment.”
“By the time Sam was 15,” wrote the famed Western novelist Eugene Cunningham (who also moved to El Paso in the 1920s) in a 1951 issue of The Horse Lover Magazine, “he was so skilled a frontiersman, knew his country for miles roundabout so well, that he often served as scout and guide for families hunting land.”
A serious knee injury suffered in a horseback accident derailed Sam’s plans to follow the cowpuncher’s trade. Choosing a profession that accommodated his love of horses, he became an apprentice “saddle cub” with T. R. James and Sons, Saddlers, in Cleburne. Familiarizing himself with the properties of leather, carving and stamping, Myres spent three years with the James family, after which he received a journeyman’s certificate, a suit of clothes and $100. He spent some of the money on membership in the Masonic Lodge.
Following a period of rambling and working here and there, Sam settled down in 1893 to work at M. B. “Doc” Kouns’ saddlery in Weatherford, west of Fort Worth. At Weatherford, famed today as the resting place of cattleman Oliver Loving and freed slave-turned-cowboy Bose Ikard, among other reasons, Sam refined his design and carving skills. He also built a reputation as a good hand at holster work as Parker County pistolas began to pop from their leather with split-seconds to spare.
After marrying Drusa Rogers in 1894—according to one source the pair had been childhood sweethearts—Sam entered into a partnership to establish a tannery in Fort Worth. Though the business failed, the experience strengthened Myres’ desire to open his own saddlery. According to his biographer, Sandra L. Myres, Sam felt that the area around Dallas-Fort Worth was becoming too agricultural to support another saddlery when it was already well served by Padgitt Brothers in Dallas and Edelbrock in Fort Worth.
Looking west to the expansive ranching country of the “big sky” region, the ambitious saddlemaker settled in the dusty, windswept burg of Sweetwater on the Texas and Pacific Railroad line, about 40 miles west of Abilene. “The streets were practically trails,” he later wrote of his first glimpse of the town, “where a few had been at some time plowed and graded, but most had never been disturbed since the Great Creator had put the finishing touches to this earthly creation.”
Sam also liked to say in his later years that, when he first moved to Sweetwater in 1897, rattlesnakes were more common in the town than cowboys. “You couldn’t tell which was more dangerous,” he would often joke, noting that gunfights were fairly common as well. He served as Sweetwater mayor from 1908 to 1911, according to the Texas State Historical Association. (In 1958, five years after Myres’ death, the burgeoning rattler population inspired the founding of an annual Sweetwater event now known as the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.)
In 1898, Sam realized his dream of owning his own saddle shop when he bought out the Sweetwater saddlery and harness business of James K. Polk. For a price of $1,461.29, Myres received “any and all saddlery and harness….all saddlery and harness hardware, tables, brackets, shop and bench tools, stitching, sewing and other machines; all leather, saddle trees and other unmanufactured articles pertaining to said business; all robes, pads, dusters, whips, one office safe and all office and stock shelving and fixtures….”
Advertising in trade papers and ranching journals, publishing colorful annual catalogs and attending cattlemen’s conventions, Sam’s natural flair for promotion grew the business steadily. Among other slogans he liked to tell customers, “If you have a mole on your sittin’ down place and want a hole in the saddle to fit it—I’ll make it!” In 1902, he arranged for the construction of a new building for his saddlery. He’d added a second story by 1910. And in 1914, Myres Saddle Company employed 10 saddlemakers. That same year, Sam handcrafted one of the most storied saddles in all the West.
He had met the Miller Brothers of the Oklahoma 101 Ranch and the 101 Ranch Wild West Show at cattlemen’s conventions. On a 101 performance tour of Europe, Col. Joe C. Miller had seen in Paris a glamorous saddle that had been crafted for Napoleon Bonaparte. “It is the finest saddle in all of Europe,” the Parisian curators told the Oklahoma showman, “the finest in all the world.”
“Was the finest,” thought Miller, picturing a dazzling saddle that would outshine the mounted perch of the French military leader known variously as the Devil’s Favourite, the Colossus of the Nineteenth Century, the Nightmare of Europe and the Corsican Fiend. Back in the states, the next time the 101 roadshow passed through Sweetwater on the Texas and Pacific line, Joe stopped the train and visited Sam’s shop to place the special order.
The custom saddle was adorned with 166 diamonds, 120 sapphires, 17 rubies, four garnets and 15 pounds of silver and gold. After wowing attendees at stockmen’s conventions in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City in March of 1914, the saddle made its performance debut at Madison Square Garden in April. The Dallas Morning News reported on March 8 that all leatherwork on the saddle “is hand-stamped in scroll effect, and is so skillfully and artistically done that it has the soft, even appearance of velvet rather than the hard, sharp-edged finish that often results from the stamper’s tools.”
Oscar Eberhard of Eberhard Tanning Company in Santa Clara, California—Myres’ go-to source for all leather supplies—personally visited the Sweetwater shop to discuss leather requirements and selected the hides himself back on the West Coast. Newspapers across the country carried reports of the fabulous “$10,000 saddle.” And despite the fact that the Millers spelled Sam’s name as “Myers” on postcards depicting the saddle, and the May 1914 issue of Harness World credited its creation to one “S. D. Meyer,” the publicity helped make the S. D. Myres Saddle Co. of Sweetwater, Texas, a household name in horse country.
When Sam moved his saddlery to Overland Street in El Paso in 1920, he told the El Paso Herald that fall that he “considers El Paso the logical center for the distribution of his products, being in the center of a great empire which is liberally supplied with ranches and ranges.” He aimed, Sam told the paper, to make El Paso “the saddle, harness, and art leather center of the whole civilized world. And why not?”
While that business and civic sentiment was genuine, the nearly 50- year-old saddlemaker also made the move because he had fallen in love with a young woman suffering from tuberculosis, Eva Forkner. And after Sam divorced Drusa, the couple married in 1920. Eva lived eight more years before succumbing to the disease. The three Myres children—S. D. Jr., William and daughter Melrose—remained in Sweetwater with their mother. Sam kept the Sweetwater shop open as a retail outlet until 1937. (It should be noted that it appears that Sam did continue to provide for Drusa and the children, and he instructed the manager of the Sweetwater store to continue paying an ailing employee who had been with him since 1898, whether the employee was able to work or not. All three children later worked with the business when it was in El Paso and, according to biographer Sandra L. Myres, Drusa remained devoted to her husband’s memory for the rest of her life.)
Not long after relocating to the City at the Pass, Sam presented the El Paso Herald with an “epic and romantic” account of his company and the “art leather” business in general. “Hand carving is connected with the sun-kist soil of Spain and bears the marks of the medieval Moors,” the paper reported after interviewing the saddlemaker. “When the Moors invaded Spain, they brought with them the art of hand carving. When Cortes and other Spanish adventurers invaded Mexico, they brought with them artists at this business. Perchance Balboa had in his party as he viewed the great Pacific for the first time, men who knew this ancient Moorish art. Maybe Vasco de Gama, as he made his fatal march across the deserts of the Southwest, knew it too….As explained by Mr. Myres, the best hand carvers in the world were the old men who practiced the art in California a good many years ago….for a time it died down….Recently, it has been reviving, and Mr. Myres said he is searching the entire world for the experts of the business of art leather work and hand carving.”
As the Twenties roared on, however, the leather industry fluctuated. According to Sandra L. Myres, the decade saw the number of Texas saddle and harness outlets decrease from 68 to 20. And the crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, made the businesses’ survival even more difficult. Sam restructured his debt to the Eberhard Tanning Co. and his old friend Oscar Eberhard loaned him money to pay off some of his other debts. Then Eberhard’s tannery took out loans using Myres’ note as collateral, and through such complicated financial maneuvers, both firms managed to stave off bankruptcy.
Crushed by Eva’s death, Sam was slow in understanding that changes had to be made in order to survive the Depression. But as the Thirties rolled on, he adapted. Son William Myres joined the company, along with nephew Dace Myres, and the three discontinued the production of harness and focused on a new line of holsters and gun belts. Daughter Melrose also came on board, and the company added sales of Stetsons, boots and western wear. In 1941, the effort resulted in a profit of nearly $14,000.
Custom saddle orders for Hollywood movie stars helped keep Sam afloat in the Thirties as well. A $2,500 saddle he made for shoot-em-up actor Jack Hoxie grabbed headlines in 1936. Trimmed in gold and silver, the saddle featured carvings that replicated Charlie Russell paintings. A Russell painting of a cowpuncher roping a bawling calf was re-created on a $1,500 saddle custom-made for Hillsboro, New Mexico rancher Sam Lard in 1939. Explaining some of the saddle’s other carvings, Myres told the press, “Sam Lard has a pet parrot and a pet rabbit, and the two have a heck of a time. The rabbit wins sometimes, but the parrot usually whips the rabbit.”
Perhaps stretching the blanket ala Texas tradition, Dace Myres recounted for Sandra L. Myres the story of Tom Mix’s last visit to Tio Sam’s Overland Street shop in 1940. The cowboy star bought Stetsons for everyone in his traveling posse and then had a long visit with Sam. “Throughout the afternoon,” wrote Sam’s biographer, “Mix seemed preoccupied. As he left the store he said, ‘Well Sam, I guess I won’t be seeing you this side of the river again. I’ll keep a place for you on the other side.’”
Two days later the flamboyant hero of 291 films (all but nine of them from the silent era) was killed when he lost control of his Cord Phaeton convertible near Florence, Arizona.
S. D. Myres Company saddles were shown in a Texas Rangers exhibit at the Texas Centennial celebration in Dallas in 1936. That same year, according to the El Paso Herald Post, the Department of Labor notified Myres that his revolver holster had been selected as the official holster for U. S. Immigration Border Patrol on both the Mexican and Canadian borders. The holster used on the southern border featured an open top, while the northern border holster included a flap.
Famed Texas Rangers such as Frank Hamer (who engineered the violent end of the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde) and Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas also wore S. D. Myres holsters. Way back in 1926 or ‘27, a conversation between Ranger Capt. John R. Hughes (“the Border Boss”), Western writer Eugene Cunningham and Sam led to the creation of Myres’ famous Buscadero Belt, according to a lengthy article about Myres, published in the El Paso Times in 1963 . The three had been discussing shootists who had to retrain on their other hand after an injury to their dominant hand—Hughes himself had been shot in the hand as a child in the Indian Territory. Sam developed a wide belt that was adaptable for right- or left-handed shooters. The Buscadero canted the pistol butt forward, making for a faster draw. The 1963 El Paso article reported that “buscadero” is translated as both the lawmen who hunt the lawless and the lawless who are hunted. (It should also be noted that a 2006 True West article observed that the Buscadero Belt’s creation has been variously attributed to Ranger Hughes back in the 1890s, to Mexican vaqueros and to Hollywood Westerns of the 1920s.)
Despite his business struggles during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Sam was still able to donate a few specially made saddles each year as grand prizes for the El Paso Kids’ Rodeo. Founded in 1933 by El Paso Herald Post editor Wallace Perry, the competition was initially dreamed up as a promotional campaign for a new adventure strip in the paper, “Young Buffalo Bill.” But when Sam got involved, the rodeo took on a life of its own. He introduced the newspaperman to Johnnie Mullins, a New Mexico rancher and former 101 show rider who had staged rodeos all over the country. The kids’ competition was so successful that it became an annual event, and Sam treasured photographs of the winning cowboys and cowgirl with his prize saddles. An announcement for the 1937 rodeo in the paper featured a photo of Sam’s little granddaughter, Billie Jane Myers, and noted that the three-year-old had already learned to ride.
Nor was Sam so consumed with the Old West aura of saddles and six shooters that he ignored the rich terrain of man’s inner life, the life of the soul and the mind. He appears to have been baptized and confirmed in the Mormon Church while still in Sweetwater. His ordination certificate as a High Priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, which his biographer described as “a missionary brotherhood within the church,” was dated 1906 and conferred in Waco, Texas. Sandra Myres writes that Eva converted to the Mormon faith as well. Sam taught Bible classes and worked to draw others to Mormonism.
Though he only had a few years of formal education as a boy, his thirst for knowledge ranged wide and Sam was a familiar figure in the used book stalls of the City at the Pass. “I read the King James Bible,” he told one visitor, pointing out sacred texts on his office shelves. “Then there’s the Koran and the Torah. There is the Gita and the wisdom of the Vedas, the Oahspe and other books of philosophy. You know, son, when you get to be my age, you can’t afford to take any chances.”
“Every now and then,” wrote El Paso Times scribe Nat Campbell in a 1950 edition of his column “Filosophy and Foolishness,” “I make a call on my dear old friend Tio Sam Myres….to obtain a mental house-cleaning and a spiritual uplift. I call on Sam Myres the sage philosopher—a man well-versed in the wisdom of ancient sages—Plato, Socrates, and others: A man who can quote copiously from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Burns, Moore, Byron, Emerson, and even Swedenborg. And the Holy Bible, he is familiar with from cover to cover.”
“Few may have known it,” wrote the columnist days after Sam’s death in early July 1953, “but he was a firm believer in personal manifestations and visits from a spirit world.” Sandra L. Myres confirmed that Tio Sam embraced an active mysticism. “He recalled dreams and visions in which he had seen Brigham Young and the Angel Moroni,” she wrote. “After Eva’s death, he frequently consulted a ‘medium’ to bring him messages from the ‘other world.’”
Nor was the elderly saddle man averse to newfangled experiences. At the age of 80, Tio Sam took his first ride in an airplane, flying from El Paso to Dallas to visit his son S. D. Jr., a professor at Southern Methodist University and distinguished author of numerous volumes of history. (After retirement from SMU, Samuel Jr. would move to El Paso and join his brother at their late father’s saddlery.) “Son,” Tio Sam expounded to Dallas Morning News reporter Fred Pass, “I’ve ridden buckboard, burro, and stagecoach in my time, but from now on I travel first class—in the clouds.”
A storied figure throughout his professional life, Sam truly became a living legend in the last decade or so of his time on earth. Starting in 1947, he rode as the Grand Marshal of the El Paso Sun Carnival Parade, appearing on horseback as a vision straight from the Old Wild West. When he moved the saddlery a final time, to Alameda Street in 1950, the shop became known as “Cowboy Headquarters of the Southwest.” And when Sam hung up his spurs three years later, “Filosophy and Foolishness” columnist Nat Campbell spoke for many El Pasoans when he wrote, “Sam Myres has departed into the great unknown, but a man of his character is more than a memory. For many long years he will still be a living presence among those who knew him.”
Tio Sam liked to tell a story that happened in Colorado Springs in 1950. As occurred more than a few times, a lady mistook him for the Wild West showman William S. Cody. “Uncle Bill!” she gasped. “It’s not true. You are not dead!”
Tio Sam laughed. “I told her I was not Buffalo Bill but that I had been his friend. And then I told her that Buffalo Bill wasn’t really dead. Like the Old West, he’ll never really die.”
For Tio Sam, the saddle man, we say the same.
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The Pioneer City County Museum (pioneermuseumtx.org) in Sweetwater, Texas, has a significant collection of S. D. Myres artifacts. Many can be seen on the website (texashistory.unt.edu) of the Portal to Texas History. Additional Myres archives are housed in the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University in Lubbock (legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/ttusw/00088/00088-P.html) and the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles (collections.theautry.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=PE212258;type=701). “We own seven S. D. Myres saddles, a trophy belt and a cartridge belt,” says Michael Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture/Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City (nationalcowboymuseum.org) “Two of the saddles are on exhibit: one miniature saddle in our American Cowboy Gallery in a section devoted to ‘Marketing the Saddle’ and Kid Fletcher’s 1937 World’s Champion Saddle Bronc trophy saddle in our historic Rodeo Gallery.” The famous “$10,000 saddle” that Myres built for Joe C. Miller in 1914 is on view at the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in the Osage Hills, 12 miles southwest of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. “There is evidence to suggest that many of the stones were replaced at some time with glass duplicates,” says museum registrar Jessica Heck, “and some stones are missing….The saddle was sold to Frank Phillips by Zack Miller. Once billed as ‘The World’s Finest Saddle,’ it is still quite a sight, despite its age and the loss of some of its original pieces.”