By Nick Pernokas
The young boy was happy to get off the bus in Kelly, Wyoming. The trip from Rock Springs was beautiful, especially for a boy from the Midwest, but it had followed a long train ride from Chicago and he was tired of sitting. He craned his neck, trying to take in the horse pastures, the log cabins and the Tetons. It all looked like a set from one of the matinees that he would watch on Saturday afternoons at home. The cowboy, Ben, who greeted the bus, tried to organize the boys into groups as they disembarked, but it was a thankless task as many of them were already enthralled with the West spreading out around them. Soon the young boy was with his assigned group, as they walked under the sign that said Teton Valley Ranch Camp and towards their bunkhouse.
Pete Gorrell was raised by parents who were gifted in their own unique ways, and who, in their short time with him, passed their curiosity and drive on to him. His father, Edgar, was a West Point graduate who helped in the organization of the first American aero squadron in World War I. In addition to flying in combat, he helped develop the first parachute and the first bomb sight. Retiring as a colonel, Edgar worked himself up from salesman to president of Stutz Motor Company in Indianapolis. He developed the 1932 Stutz Bearcat during his tenure. In 1936, Congress asked Edgar to organize and standardize the fledgling assortment of small airlines that were rapidly being formed. Edgar, and the family, including five-year-old Pete moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. Edgar worked in Chicago, where he formed the Air Transport Association, a forerunner to the FAA. Pete’s mother, Ruth, rode hunters and jumpers. She instilled a lifelong love of horses in him and he was riding English at an early age. By the time 1939 arrived, the die had probably been cast. When Pete was eight years old, he went to a western style camp near Jackson, Wyoming.
“I grew up in an era when kids went to school in the winter and camp in the summer,” says Pete.
The camp actually gave the kids some hands-on experience, including packing. A mule pack train was used to pack in to different remote sites, and then the camp would be set up. Pete loved the western activities and the camp became an annual tradition. By the time he was 12, Pete was assisting the packers. By the time he was 14, Pete was an assistant packer and guide.
Sadly, Pete’s parents died within a year of each other when he was in his early teens.
“I was a loose cannon and rolled around,” remembers Pete. “I adopted the West.”
Pete started working on different ranches, starting colts and training horses. He adopted the cowboy lifestyle. While working on a ranch in western Colorado in 1952, Pete was introduced to leather work. Another hand who worked there, made belts at night as a hobby. Pete enjoyed watching him tool the leather and it reminded him of some of the wood carving he’d done. Pete was interested in trying it, so he purchased a Lucky Seven Belt Kit for himself. Soon he was hooked on leather work.
At this time, America was involved in the Korean War. Pete joined the Army and was sent to Korea. While in the service, he was required to take some courses on teaching. He found that he liked it. This was to serve him well in the future.
When Pete mustered out of the service, he picked up his leather work again. In 1956, Pete married Helen. On their honeymoon they saw a beautifully carved saddle that was made in Wyoming. The tooling was unusual and featured different animals in various scenes. The tracks of one animal led from the previous scene to that animal’s picture. The saddle was on display at a lodge and the lady that managed the lodge told the couple that her son had made the saddle, and that he lived in Tucson.
In 1958, Pete went to college on the GI Bill. He chose the University of Arizona, which brought him to Tucson. One day, he stopped at Wallace’s Cowboy Outfitters. Tucson was booming in this time period from the westerns that were being filmed there. Wallace’s was likely to have John Wayne, Ben Johnson or any of the rodeo cowboys who called the area home, sitting in the saddles in the back. Wallace’s actually did some of the wardrobe for the pictures that were being shot at the Old Tucson Studios. As Pete looked around the store, he recognized the impressive figure carving style on some belts that were on display. He went to the back of the store, where the saddle shop was, and met Clarence Wilson. Clarence was the craftsman who had built the saddle in Wyoming.
Pete was able to set up an apprenticeship with Clarence. For the next two years, Pete worked with Clarence in the shop. They became good friends. Eventually, the pair decided to open their own shop, Longhorn Saddlery. Unfortunately, Clarence was fighting a few demons in his personal life and the partnership didn’t last. By 1960, Pete was working by himself. The saddles that he built followed the patterns of the basic western saddles of the day, but he still didn’t understand the “why.”
“The saddles I made were not very good.”
Fortunately, a saddlemaker named Dave Eggelston was looking for work. Pete hired him to help in his small shop, which was by now called The Cowboy and the Lady, Saddle and Silver Shop. The shop did a lot of repair work and Pete watched the way Dave approached his work. Pete learned a lot from Dave and soon he hired a couple more people. Pete did the carving while the other saddlemakers did most of the construction. At the early stages of the business, Helen did the book work. The business kept growing and two girls were hired to work the floor.
Pete also learned from Lloyd Davis, who had recently moved his shop from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Tucson. They became very close friends and Lloyd graciously shared his knowledge and experience with Pete.
The business grew rapidly. By the early Sixties, Pete spent more time running the business than on actual hands-on work, and he was faced with hiring another saddlemaker or hiring a manager to run the business. Realizing that either option would take him further from what he really wanted to do, Pete decided to shut the business down.
“I’m not a good business man. To be successful as a saddlemaker, you have to be successful as a business man.”
Pete went back to his roots in a small shop at his home. One day a rancher from Sonoita, Arizona, knowing that Pete repaired a lot of English saddles, brought one in. He asked Pete if he could put a horn in it. The customer didn’t like the way his own western saddles fit him and he wanted something less bulky. Pete explained the technical difficulties with installing a western horn in an English saddle, but suggested that he could build one that would accomplish what the rancher wanted. Pete built him a saddle using the traditional egg-shaped ground seat patterns and tried to carve the shape of an English seat into it. Pete was not happy with the results. He went back to the drawing board and applied the principles of the English saddle to overcome the problems that he saw in the western saddle. Pete didn’t like the way the ground seat in a western saddle tipped back toward the corners of the cantle, causing the riders pelvis to tilt backwards. This put the rider’s center of balance behind the horse’s center of balance, which aligns with the horse’s 14th vertebrae. The riders could be moved as far back as the horse’s 15th or 16th vertebrae.
“This makes it very difficult for the rider to communicate to the horse through his seat position.”
Pete began building three slick fork saddles with the improved seat. This time he was pleased with the results. When the rancher who had bought the first attempt at a balanced relationship seat, sat in one of the newer versions, he bought all three and admitted that he’d given the first attempt away.
Pete continued to refine his ground seats. He added a plug where the cantle joins the bar to shift the rider’s pelvis towards the center of the seat like an English saddle does. This slight inclination of the rider’s pelvis forward creates a better riding posture and less stress in the riders back. The rider can relax into a good equitation posture as opposed to a slumped posture.
In the mid Sixties, an old Mexican cowboy came in the shop with a pair of well-used metal bound stirrups. They were warped and bent, and one was broken, from years of use. He told Pete that he wanted a new pair, but he wanted them shaped to match the old stirrups. The cowboy told Pete that the crooked angle of the stirrups made them much more comfortable for his legs. He also wanted the edge of the stirrups beveled where it met the inside of his boots to reduce the wear on them.
Pete put leather shims in the stirrups, under the treads, to accomplish the 3/8” to 1/2” rise on the inside of the stirrup, which created the desired angle for the rider’s foot. The feedback was good, so he started doing it in all of his stirrups. Riders said it made their knees feel better. Pete realized that the angle created a better alignment of the rider’s ankles and knees, and reduced the stress caused by long hours in the saddle.
Pete feels that these two factors, the balanced relationship ground seat and the offset stirrups, are what differentiated his saddles from others. He continued to innovate and designed a three-way, all leather rigging, which is similar to the old Fallis riggings. It’s lined with “sailcloth,” which is Kevlar. This makes a strong, thin and flexible rigging. Pete believes that it allows a horse’s back to flex easier.
A trip in the late Sixties to see his in-laws in Carbondale, Colorado, got Pete hooked on skiing. This resulted in a move for the family to Steamboat Springs. Because he’d done a little teaching, Pete was hired as a ski instructor at a ski resort there. This enabled him to be able to afford some skiing in his spare time. To get certified as an instructor a year later, Pete had to take some educational classes like biomechanics and kinesiology. Pete also taught first aid and EMT classes at the Colorado Community College, which gave him knowledge of human anatomy and skeletal alignment.
“It was then that my eyes started to open. There are a lot of similarities that you might not think of, in your balance and your posture, in skiing and riding.”
Pete now saw the reasons why his ground seats, and canted stirrups, worked so well. Pete started a home shop in Steamboat Springs. In the winter, he’d ski and, in the summer, he’d build the saddles that were on order. He also began to work for a white water rafting company.
“It gave me a very, very happy lifestyle.”
Through giving ski lessons, Pete was able to meet a lot of clientele for whom he could build things, like belts, in the summer. Pete remained in Steamboat Springs for 23 years. Both Helen and Pete enjoyed the outdoor lifestyle of camping and hiking. As their three children grew up and left, the couple traveled to see other scenic areas in places such as Alaska and Canada. Their travels led to Darby, Montana, where Pete moved and opened a shop. The log building, surrounded by roses, was one of Pete’s most attractive shops. Pete was able to use his horses to do some occasional day work with a neighbor and a little bit of packing.
In 2002, Pete was diagnosed with macular degeneration. The doctors were able to keep it at bay and Pete continued to build saddles.
Eventually, the real estate in the area increased in value so much that the couple could not turn down an offer on their place. They moved back to Colorado. This time they were in southern Colorado, in a town called Gardner. By now, Pete was into his seventies.
Pete’s son, Scott, had moved to Hawaii in the Nineties. Pete and Helen had become familiar with the area during their visits to see him. Pete was able to meet some of the Hawaiian saddlemakers and became fascinated with their saddles, which were patterned after the Spanish war saddle. Craftsmanship was crude and much of the tooling was of a simple border stamp, originally done with a horse molar tooth until Tandy tools became available. The riggings were braided rawhide, which held up better in that climate than the old Spanish style straps of the early vaquero saddles they were patterned after.
In 2008, a gentleman who was running a leather working program for high school kids, asked Pete if he would come over to teach leather work. Pete loaded up his tools and flew to Hawaii. When he finished up teaching at the school, Pete looked for a place to store his tools so he wouldn’t have to take them back to the mainland. Dr. Billy Bergin was a veterinarian for the Parker Ranch who had befriended Pete. An expert on the history of the Parker Ranch, Billy was putting together the Paniolo Preservation Society at the time. The paniolo is the Hawaiian cowboy, whose roots go back to the Spanish ranching traditions. He gave Pete a place to set up a shop at his veterinary clinic. Eventually, Billy taught Pete much of the history of the ranch and gave him a place for a shop at the Pukalani Stables. The former stud barn on the Parker Ranch had been converted into the Paniolo Heritage Center Museum.
Pete learned to build the traditional paniolo saddle with the braided front rigging, which was called the “aweawe.” For the next few winters, Pete worked in his shop as well as giving tours in the museum. In the summers, he would go back to Colorado. A leather worker, Craig Cunningham, ran the shop in the summer and became a full-time partner.
Eventually Pete’s vision, and his wife’s health, declined to where they decided to move to Hawaii full time. Pete closed down his shop on the Parker Ranch and bought a house with a garage that he made into a shop. Pete planned on just doing leather work as a hobby. At the time of his retirement, Pete’s base saddle price was $3,800.
Pete had developed a love of teaching along his saddlemaking journey. As far back as his Tucson days, he would explain a technique if someone asked.
“It was much more important to me to gain the why of saddlemaking and not just the how. A lot of the reason for me getting into teaching was to try to share that.”
For this reason, he helped a lot of saddlemakers who already knew the basics of saddle construction. His help ranged from lessons to workshops. He also wrote magazine articles and several books. The Business of Saddle Making, Floral Pattern Drawing for the Artistically Impaired and The Basics of Saddle Fit are all still available in print.
In 2017, a local leather worker, Stacy Takaki, stopped in to visit. An apprenticeship developed and Stacy began to learn the fine points of leather work.
“Stacy is very detail oriented. He wants to do the best job he can.”
Today Stacy can do all of the jobs. He does saddle repair work, builds knife sheaths and other popular items. Stacy is also working towards building saddles. This has allowed Pete to gradually taper off his own work and mentor Stacy. Eventually, Stacy will take over Pete’s shop.
Pete is well thought of by his peers. He has accumulated multiple awards for his work over the years. In 2000, he won the Academy of Western Artists’ award for Saddle Maker of the Year. In 2007, he won the Al Stohlman Award. In 2008, he won the Colorado Saddle Makers Association’s Howard Muncil Award. In 2018, he was again honored by the AWA, this time with the Don King Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pete, in his modest way, looks at his saddles as a step on the staircase to what saddles will be. There is no doubt to a casual observer though, that he’s left the staircase a lot taller.
To find out about Pete’s work, books or just to talk saddles, drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Last Apprentice
One word that would describe Stacy Takaki is enthusiastic. He loves to work with leather.
Fifty-six-year-old Stacy Takaki started working with leather in his twenties. His cousin made Hawaiian saddles and he introduced Stacy to the world of leather. Stacy bought a Lucky Seven Belt kit and he began to read everything he could on leather work. Stacy worked his way through all the Al Stohlman books that he could get his hands on. He met Pete a few years ago through a friend.
“When Pete told me his name, I knew who he was because I used to read his articles in magazines,” says Stacy.
Pete told Stacy that he needed help and Stacy agreed to come on board in exchange for his mentorship in leather work.
“I’m running the shop for him right now.”
Stacy works on the days projects and if he needs advice, Pete is right there to help him. Frequently he builds the Parker Ranch Knife Case, a paniolo favorite that has a sharpening stick holder built into it. Stacy even makes the handles for the sharpeners in Pete’s woodworking shop. These make a handy gift and are popular around Christmas. Stacy does a lot of saddle repair and he’s built five saddles with Pete so far.
“Pete is a good mentor to me. I need to be doing on the job training. Pete is a wonderful gentleman. He’s just like my father, just like family. That’s how he treats me. I want to carry his name on. It’s a real privilege to run his shop.”
Stacy hopes to be like Pete some day.
“I love to do leather work. It puts me on fire. I feel happy.”
Stacy is Pete’s last apprentice. He is going to run Pete’s shop until Pete quits. Then it will be his shop. I have no doubt that he will do Pete proud.