International Sheepskin & Leather

California Dreaming

By Nick Pernokas


It has been said that Los Angeles is the land of broken dreams. Fortunately that generalization doesn’t describe all of the dreams or the dreamers who live there. A case in point is a family business on the southeast side of Los Angeles. International Sheepskin and Leather is not just the culmination of any dream, but of the American one.

In 1965, Pepe Cerda Sr. arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico. His first job was at a car wash for three days. His second was at a restaurant; it didn’t last much longer. Then Pepe heard about an opening at Golden Wool, which was a local tannery. His first job in the sheepskin department was sweeping.

“In those days, we were tanning between 4500 and 5000 sheepskins every day, 6 days a week,” says Pepe.

Most of these skins were exports to Europe for garments. In 1965, Golden Wool started making sheepskin barks for lining saddles, and according to Pepe Sr., at that time they were the only ones making the product. They shipped all over the United States and even to saddle makers in Australia. Today, of course, there are other companies producing saddle barks, but they remain one of International Sheepskin’s mainstays, along with sheepskin for footwear and paint rollers.

Pepe moved up to grading skins at Golden Wool. He also began picking up hides and bringing them to the tannery. He progressed to working in the beam house on the wet floor. The owner of Golden Wool, Arthur Golden, contracted a specialist from Hungary to come and show the tannery personnel how to make double-face shearling for garments.

“My boss in those days, Sol Felman, told me that I was going to learn from this Hungarian man how to tan and dress sheepskin.”

The Hungarian was at the tannery for four months. He taught Pepe Sr. everything that he knew about tanning sheepskin and at the end of that time, Pepe was promoted to foreman. Next, he moved to sales; by 1975, Pepe was the superintendent for Golden Wool. When Golden Wool closed its doors, Arthur Golden and Pepe moved to a new location and began to buy and resell leather. They never stopped making sheepskins though.


In the late Nineties, Pepe and Sol Felman bought the company from Arthur, and changed the name to International Sheepskin and Leather.

They have kept the feel and distinct, rich color of the original barks. In 1965, an acid dye was used on the skins. This produced an orange color. Today, there are other dyes and technology available, but the color is so popular that International Sheepskin has to dye the barks with different dyes to resemble the old ones.

“If you send them a lighter color, they don’t think it’s the same thing, even if it is,” laughs Pepe Sr.

Even though International Sheepskin had to move its tannery to Mexico, the skins are all from the U.S. Many come from ranches and feedlots in California’s Imperial Valley, but some also come from Idaho and Colorado. At one time, smaller skins of nine to eleven square feet were requested by saddle makers, but today the demand is for larger sides of twelve or thirteen feet and up. This is primarily due to the popularity of larger saddle skirts. These skirts require a larger sheepskin and the skins have to be handpicked. Only ten to fifteen percent of sheepskins are good enough to become saddle barks.

International Sheepskin and Leather also tans saddle skirting, latigo and other side leathers at their tannery in Mexico. These hides are also all from the U.S. The tannery has 12 employees; at their 38,000-square-foot warehouse in Commerce, California, Pepe employs eight people. The wholesale business offers services such as custom cutting to their customers. The sheepskins are brushed here and then trimmed to the customer’s specifications. The saddle barks are usually 3/4 inch in thickness, but some customers like a 5/8 inch thickness and some saddle makers prefer up to 1 ¼ inch. “I like doing this business and taking care of my customers,” says Pepe Sr. “If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do because I don’t know about anything else.”

Today, 31-year-old Pepe Cerda Jr. runs the day-to-day operations of the company in Commerce. His job takes him to Mexico and Brazil, as well as handling domestic sales in places like Wyoming and Texas. Seventy percent of International’s business is in the Midwest.

“I love this business. I grew up in this business,” says Pepe Jr. “I’ve been working with my dad here since I was five years old.”

Pepe Jr. had the best teacher possible in his father. Pepe Sr. taught him every facet of the tanning business.

Sheepskins still make up a majority of the company’s business. The other side leathers make up about 40 percent of the business. Their latigo is available from 4 to 11 ounces in a wide variety of colors; for saddle latigos, 8 to 9 ounces is their biggest seller. International also offers a very durable Indian Tan (Alum Tanned) latigo in various weights and a nice buffed saddle skirting in 12 to 14 ounces.


Pepe Jr. plans to grow this company; he feels that International has the advantage of doing everything themselves. This eliminates the middleman and lets them offer their wholesale accounts a more economical price. Pepe Jr. thinks the leather business has been holding steady in the current economy, but that it is going in the right direction.

“We have big plans. We want this legacy, which is my dad’s, to continue.”

Pepe Jr. also designs and manufactures leather goods for fashion brands. These private label items range from belts and wallets to jackets.

For someone who came from Mexico with nothing but a pocketful of try, Pepe Sr. embodies the American dream. Fortunately for those of us in the saddle business, his dream overlapped some of ours. The world can always use more successful dreamers.

For more information on International Sheepskin and Leather’s wholesale products, call (800)421-6154 or go to .

International Sheepskin and Leather
6021 Scott Way
Commerce, CA, 90040





Remington and Russell

The “Titans of Western Art”

By Gene Fowler

In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners, 1911, Charles M. Russell, oil on canvas, private collection

“In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners,” 1911, Charles M. Russel, oil on canvas, courtesy private collection

Standing in front of Frederic Remington’s 1889 oil painting, A Dash for the Timber, at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, I am reminded of the words of a California friend. “You’ve got to see these things in person.” I’d written him about a new book about a West Coast artist we like. The book is nice, he allowed, but you’ve got see these things in person.

Boy howdy.  Riding hell-for-leather and pursued by a Native American war party in Remington’s seven-foot-wide piece, the eight desperate horsemen of A Dash for the Timber seem a split-second away from stampeding off the canvas and right over the viewer. Seeing the painting is visceral. Even New Yorkers were spellbound when the work debuted in 1889.

My friend’s gentle dictum resonated again as I beheld The Medicine Man, Buffalo Bill’s Duel with Yellowhand, In the Wake of the Buffalo Hunters, and other paintings by Charles M. Russell at the Amon Carter and the Sid Richardson Museum, the latter located on Sundance Square in Fort Worth, aka Cowtown. The richly-shaded, long-range landscapes and vast, big country skies of Russell’s original canvases draw one in as no mere reproduction may.

The august Texas folklorist, J. Frank Dobie dubbed Remington (1861-1909) and Russell (1864-1926) the “Titans of Western Art” in 1964. Former Amon Carter curator Peter Hassrick, who jokes that he got out of Texas as soon as possible so that his kids would not “tahk lak Tayxuns,” says that late 19th and early 20th century aficionados of frontier art were often either “Remington people or Russell people.” I would liken the double-barrel matter of individual taste to the popularity contest among singing cowboys a half-century later, when silver screen and T.V. shoot-em-up devotees would often swoon and root for either Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.

Both artists grew up in affluent settings, Russell in St. Louis and Remington in New York State. Both shared and acted upon what one historian termed “the dream of every adolescent male in the whole 19th century,” the restless desire to head out West and be a cowboy. Remington left Yale after a year and a half and trekked to Montana; later, he briefly owned a Kansas sheep ranch and then a Kansas City saloon, making sketching trips into “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma), before retreating back East.

A teenaged Russell headed for Montana in 1880, spending more than a decade as a night wrangler in the Judith Basin and learning the cowboys-and-Indians life as only an extended boots-on-the-ground investment would allow. Known as “the Cowboy Artist” from the early days of his career, some of the young painter’s first studios and galleries were in saloons. After marrying 17 year-old Nancy Cooper, who soon became the artist’s naturally gifted manager, Russell spent the rest of his life headquartered in Great Falls, Montana, where he painted and sculpted in a log cabin studio. The Russells often spent summers in another cabin, Bull Head Lodge, in Montana country that eventually became Glacier National Park. In his last years, they built a home in Los Angeles called Trail’s End, but the artist died before he could live in it.

FROM LEFT:  “Ridden Down,” 1905-1906, Frederic Remington, oil on canvas, courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection; “A Dash for the Timber,” 1889, Frederic Remington, oil on canvas, courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection

Working as an illustrator for Collier’s, Leslie’s, Harper’s Weekly and other leading periodicals of the day, Remington, though based in Brooklyn and then New Rochelle, New York, made frequent trips to the West, the Southwest and Mexico on magazine assignments. He was embedded, for instance, with the Ninth Cavalry during the Apache Wars of the mid-1880s. In his 1994 book on the Sid Richardson Collection, Remington & Russell, Western art scholar Brian Dippie observed that Remington’s “influence in shaping the West of the popular imagination cannot be overstated.”

However, Dippie added, “Remington’s was a West without much softness or subtlety. It was, instead, a grand theater for the testing of manhood…a throwback to pioneer days, the molding of the national character and the setting for a great drama. The winning of the West was his theme, and he never outgrew it.”

As biographer John Taliaferro summed it up in his 1996 book, Charles M. Russell – The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist, “Remington had better command of color and was a superior draftsman,” but “in his Western work at least he strove to communicate only militancy, danger and dread. Charlie’s untrained hand was forever guided by sympathy.” Taliaferro also credits Remington with creating a market for Western art and with being a major influence on Russell. And the biographer notes that the New Yorker established authenticity as the genre’s hallmark, a characteristic that was Russell’s strong suit, but which Remington’s own creations sometimes lacked.

However their artistic legacies shake out, I sure am glad that Amon Carter, who started out in newspaper publishing and then made a pile of dinero in oil, and wildcatter Sid Richardson established museums in my general neck of the cactus patch that provide the opportunity to experience so many original works by the Titans of Western Art. We can thank Charlie Russell’s friend, Will Rogers, for inspiring Amon to begin collecting. As biographer Jerry Flemmons reports in AMON – The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America, Carter bought his first Russell works in 1928, just two years after the Cowboy Artist’s death. In 1952, Amon bought out the entire artwork inventory of the historic Mint Saloon in Great Falls, Montana.

Eventually Carter acquired some 400 works by Remington and Russell,  described as the cornerstone of the museum’s collections today. Some 21 oil paintings and several dozen bronzes are currently on permanent exhibition at his namesake museum. In addition to Remington’s A Dash for the Timber, I was especially drawn to his circa 1905-1906 oil, Ridden Down. Standing on a bluff above a desert floor of pulsating, yet muted wavy yellow haze, an exhausted warrior stands beside his lathered horse. Covered with green and yellow medicine paint and awaiting his fate at the hands of the war party raising dust below, he gazes toward the heavens as though entreating the spirit world to prepare to accept him into its domain.

Peter Hassrick notes that in his final years Remington’s perspective on the Native Americans changed. While he once viewed them as antagonists in the path of America’s Manifest Destiny, he eventually viewed and painted them more as Russell did, as a proud people with dignity.  And Ridden Down evidences that shift.

Russell’s 1908 painting, The Medicine Man had me at “medicine man.” It depicts a band of Blackfeet, a tribe the Cowboy Artist had closely observed in Montana’s Judith Basin. Haystack and Steamboat Buttes are visible in the background and the medicine man’s details include his ceremonial crooked lance, a pronghorn medicine pendant around his neck and white ermine skins with a prairie chicken feather medallion on the side of his head. The designs on his face and body are painted with vermilion and he carries a decorated buffalo robe on his saddle. A warrior behind him wears a coat made from a Hudson’s Bay blanket.

Russell himself considered The Medicine Man one of his best works. “The medicine man of the plains Indians,” he wrote, “often had more to do with the movements of his people than the Chief and is supposed to have the power to speak with spirits and animals….”

Such painstaking detail is also evident in Russell’s 1909 work, In Without Knocking. Based on a real saloon entry perpetrated by Russell and his fellow Judith Basin round-up riders in Stanford, Montana, the ride-your-horse-into-an-establishment practice was a fairly widespread pastime throughout the West. This particular scene was reenacted in a Tom Mix movie, complete with one horse busting its hoof through the wooden sidewalk. The second cowboy from the left wears a Montana short-brim peak hat, and his folded-up pant leg recalls “one-size-fits-all” britches marketing. The cantle of his saddle has a rattlesnake skin cover, a folk medicine practice originating in Texas and Mexico that was believed to prevent saddle sores. Playing cards and poker chips litter the ground.

Buffalo Hunt 2

“Buffalo Hunt,” cast# unknown, California Art Bronze Foundry, ca 1928 (Modeled 1905), Charles M. Russell, bronze, courtesy private collection

Pull-out drawers in the Amon Carter gallery display several examples of Russell’s famous “illustrated letters.” An inveterate sketcher who drew on whatever was available, the Cowboy Artist’s correspondence was published posthumously as a book entitled Good Medicine. Shown here is a letter to his friend Guy Weadick, a former trick roper with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show and founder of the famed Calgary Stampede.

Sid Richardson, active in both oil and cattle, wildcatted the art world for his Western collection from 1942 until his death in 1959. “His affinity for their work is easily explained,” wrote Brian Dippie in Remington & Russell. “Richardson had trailed cattle in his youth, camping out under the stars with his saddle for a pillow.”

“I get a kick out of seein’ ‘em around me,” Richardson testified. He hung Russell’s Man’s Weapons Are Useless When Nature Goes Armed, which depicts skunks destroying a campsite in search of food, in the dining room of his island home on the Texas coast to “bug” his older sister. But he especially appreciated a good rendering of a horse in action. “Anybody can paint a horse on four legs,” he once said, “but it takes a real eye to paint them in violent motion….and Remington and Russell are the fellows who can do it.”

The three dozen paintings and sculpture by the “Titans” currently on view at the Sid Richardson Museum represent about a third of his collection. The show will be up until September, when another third will rotate into the galleries. Docent Beth Haynes pointed out a row of Remington nocturnes, painted in the last years of his life. Though he had been a successful artist for some time, Haynes explained, critics had complained about the way he mixed his paints. But when they saw A Taint of the Wind (1906) and other Impressionist, impasto-deepened night scenes, the docent continued, any previously unconvinced critics at last acclaimed him a great American artist. “You look at the scene, with the horses all startled by something off to the left, and the stagecoach riders hidden in the darkness, and your eye wanders off the frame,” Haynes marveled. “You create a story in your imagination about what happened.”

A friend of Remington’s wrote that his nocturnes “were keyed to the mute though not inglorious poet in him.” The seven chanting, singing men, gathered round a campfire, beseeching the spirits for bountiful crops in Apache Medicine Song (1908), indicate a more ethnographic interest than his earlier work. Late in his short life, he seemed more appreciative of the mysteries of these cultures so alien to his own.

Russell’s first commissioned work is included in the current Richardson exhibition. Painted with house paint on pine board, Western Scene (1885) is a triptych depicting Native Americans firing on a circled-up wagon train and wildlife scenes of elk and pronghorn antelope. A 1917 oil, Buffalo Bill’s Duel with Yellowhand, was painted the same year the old scout turned showman died. In a haze of soft blue and gold tones, with smoke drifting off from discharged firearms, the painting re-created an 1876 encounter between Buffalo Bill and a man originally identified as Yellow Hair, which had been redecorated and revised with innumerable retellings over the intervening 41 years.

Brian Dippie describes In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners (1911) as “one of Russell’s greatest paintings,” and I have to agree. I love the way that the fading, yet still rich and golden light falls across the men and the landscape and bathes with amber beauty the horses, colorful blankets and clothing, and the noble woman standing in the saddle, gazing far into the distance.

Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Meeting with Indians of the Northwest, dated 1897, illustrates that even a more authentic chronicler of the West such as Russell can encounter problems with details. The Native American accoutrements in the painting, which should have reflected lifeways of the early 1800s, were instead those of a later period, the times when Russell himself would have witnessed them on the northern Plains.

FROM LEFT:  “In Without Knocking,” 1909, Charles M. Russell, oil on canvas, courtesy of Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection;  “The Medicine Man,” 1908, Charles M. Russell, oil on canvas, courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection

Both artists lamented the end of the wild old days of the American frontier in bronze, on canvas and in literature. “The West is no longer the West of picturesque and stirring events,” Remington proclaimed in 1907. “Romance and adventure have been beaten down in the rush of civilization; the country west of the Mississippi has become hopelessly commercialized…The cowboy—the real thing, mark you—disappeared with the advent of the wire fence…”

While I still find the West to be pretty darn stirring and picturesque—and I imagine you do too—I’d still like to have seen it in the days of Remington and Russell. The Cowboy Artist’s primary theme was also “the West that has passed.” But as Dippie observes, Russell’s art more than Remington’s, “speaks with an almost mystical passion of lost love.”

“One can feel the alkali dust rising from the sunbaked earth,” wrote a St. Louis reporter of the Cowboy Artist’s work in 1910, “the dryness of the dead sage brush, and the refreshing green of the cacti growth, the grandeur of the distant mountains, and the light of the early morning sun…”

“When the nester turned the West grass side down,” Russell wrote to a friend in 1922, sharing habits of grammar and spelling with his good friend Will Rogers, “he buried the trails we traveled. But he could not wipe from our memory the life we loved. Man may lose a sweetheart, but he don’t forget her.”


          One of these days I hope to complete a tour of museums and sites devoted to the Titans of Western Art. The Frederic Remington Museum in Ogdensburg, New York, features a comprehensive collection of his paintings, sketches and sculpture. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, includes a reconstruction of Remington’s studio, as well as artworks by both Remington and Russell. Other institutions with R&R collections include the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa and the Briscoe Western Art Museum of San Antonio. In Great Falls, Montana, the C. M. Russell Museum illuminates the world of the Cowboy Artist with exhibitions, programs and special events. On their website ( ) you can order a copy of the Montana PBS documentary film, C.M. Russell and the American West. 

Don King

The Man in the Center

By Nick Pernokas

Don King 9

They say that a good writer should never interject himself into his stories. They say a lot of things. When dealing with “legends” of the West, they say when the legend outshines the fact, print the legend. Only sometimes, you don’t have to and this is one of those times. Most of the story that I’m going to tell you came from Don King, in his own words, over a cup of coffee in 2005. The rest came from his friends who knew him best over the course of his life. And now, you’ll know him as well.

Don was the grandson of a cowboy who went up the trail with the herds eight times from Texas in the late 1800’s. Don was born in Douglas, Wyoming, in 1923, and his parents divorced when he was five years old. His father, Arch, was an itinerant cowboy and Don was raised on the road, sometimes spending only a couple of months at one ranch, before moving on to the next. The next few years were spent in Arizona. Sometimes Don would live in the bunkhouse with his dad and sometimes he would be boarded out so he could go to school. Later they would cowboy in Wyoming in the summers, and spend the winters in Arizona or California. Arch was a horse breaker and he would hire on to ride the rough string and get them broke for the other cowboys.

Although Don did okay in school, the gypsy life was hard on his education. In high school, he dropped out and went to work for a boarding stable in Phoenix. In his spare time, he’d go in and visit the stampers and saddle makers at Porters Saddle Shop. The work fascinated him, but most of the old timers in the shops he’d visited didn’t really want to teach a kid leatherwork. At Porters, his persistence paid off. A young saddle maker named Cliff Ketchum told Don to get some leather scraps and showed him how to make stamping tools from nails. Don even made some stamps from wood and a simple swivel knife. It was simply a blade pushed into the bottom of a twig, with a piece of tin on the top for a yoke. A nail held the tin on and allowed the yoke to turn.  From then on, Don couldn’t wait for some time off to indulge in his hobby. Eventually, he was stamping belts for shops in the towns where he was cowboying. His first large order came while he was working for a ranch in Palm Springs. The owner of New York’s famed 21 Club was vacationing there, and impressed with King’s work, he bought 24 belts to take back to his employees.

In 1941, while Don was breaking horses for a guest ranch in Wolf, Wyoming, he met Dorothy Clapp at a social function. In 1943, they were married. This was also the year that Don joined the Coast Guard. He had hoped to be assigned to a horse patrol. After boot camp, he heard of an opening in Fort Robertson, Nebraska. Don knew this was an old remount station that had 12,000 horses before the war. When Don arrived, he was disappointed to find out that it was a dog patrol unit; they were feeding the horses to the dogs.

Don’s service included duty on the Gulf and the West Coast; he also made a couple of trips to the Philippines. In 1945, the war ended and his first son, Bill, was born. Three more boys – Bruce, Bob and John came along later.

When Don returned from World War II, he had several stamping jobs waiting for him. He and his wife settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, where the post-war boom was keeping several saddle shops busy. He went to work for Rudy Mudra, on the condition that he could learn to build saddles. Mudra was a good teacher and had worked as a saddle maker for Miles City Saddlery in their heyday; Don had stamped belts for him before the War.

Don said, “After a year, I decided I knew it all and went out on my own.”

This was the start of Don’s first shop in 1947. In 1949, the call of his previous occupation became too strong, so he bought some acreage and began ranching. With too many irons in the fire, he closed his shop. Over the next few years, Don worked periodically for Mudra, as well as Otto Ernst Saddlery. In 1959, he received a contract to make the Rodeo Cowboys Association World Championship saddles. He was enthused by being able to make these saddles as nice as he wanted to. He continued making them until 1966, and the publicity they generated propelled him into the public eye outside of cowboy country.

In 1961, Don opened his second shop across from his current location. Business boomed and soon Don was way behind in his saddle orders. Don worked nights when it was quiet, and pushed all the time. Finally, there came a day in 1968 when one order too many broke the camel’s back.

Don said, “I burned out on saddles twice. I had a 150 orders for me (personally) and I just canceled everything.”

Fortunately for ropers, this was a boost to King Ropes, which had become its own business in 1967, and Don jumped into the rope business all the way. At this time, many ropers still tied and stretched their own ropes. Don had been providing a service by doing it for them, and now he began promoting the idea of ready-to-use, pre-stretched lariats. Only a couple of other rope makers were selling the finished ropes at that time. Starting out with nylon ropes for team ropers, King added grass ropes for calf ropers. Soon they were twisting their own ropes, and as more synthetic fibers became available, Don would try them out.

“That’s the way I am about everything,” said Don, “I like to experiment. I miss it.”

Eventually his sons got involved: Bobby ran the rope department, Bruce worked on the business end of things, John became the head saddle maker, but Bill, an accomplished leather tooler, would leave the family business for real estate.

Most of the saddles built at King’s Saddlery in the 60s and 70s, were geared toward the calf ropers and steer ropers. They were full double-rigged, with a swell to lean on and a moderate cantle. The skirts had a contemporary, square look to them. In recent years, the slick fork saddles with plate riggings became popular, and King’s Saddlery turned out saddles on Wade-style trees too. Don thought that revolving saddle fashions were good and generated sales.

Another period of burnout led Don into a new venture – he started making leather tools at his shop on the ranch for the public. They were popular and soon he found himself behind again.

Over the years, King’s took a lot of trade-ins on new saddles. Some of these old saddles were antiques with a lot of history. Don liked to collect old saddles and other historical items, but never had a place to put them. In 1989, a furniture warehouse in back of King’s Saddlery came up for sale, and it became The Don King Museum. Today, it is overflowing with saddles from every time period and weapons, tack, saddle making tools and memorabilia from all over the West.

Don’s tooling has been called the origin of the “Sheridan Style.” He thought that his style was a mixture of the Porters, Visalia and Lloyd Davis styles. He believed that the trend towards smaller tooling, which he had started in his trophy saddles, may not have been better, but it had a higher degree of difficulty and demonstrated a willingness to spend the extra time on it.

All of the sons had an interest in roping, or rodeo, and a background in the business. John, a former high school champion cowboy, seemed to be stepping into Don’s footsteps. This soft-spoken, saddle maker was creating beautiful saddles from his shop in the basement of the store. In 2001, he died unexpectedly, leaving a void in the shop. A couple of years later, Bob, a roper who loved the rope business, passed away from cancer. These were devastating blows to the Kings, and could have been to the business, but fortunately they were surrounded by loyal employees who had been there a long time.

Three of King’s premier leatherworkers were James Jackson, Clint Gibson and Link Weaver and they were able to keep the leather department going. Gary Mefford and Dan Morales, both long time King employees, kept the rope department going.


By 2005, Don, an emeritus member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, had standing invitations for his work at several prestigious western art shows, including the TCAA functions. Don had been awarded the Chester A. Reynolds Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame, as well as an Academy of Western Artists, Saddle Maker of the Year Award.  He found it difficult, however, to sit down and get a saddle turned out after all the years and saddles.

Don said, “I’m supposed to be retired, but I have more to do than I’ve ever had.”

Don influenced many of the up-and-coming saddle makers in the Sheridan area. Bill Gardner, Bob Douglas, Don Butler and Chester Hape all worked for, or with Don, and were greatly influenced by him. All of these men became the spearhead of what is known as the Sheridan Style of carving leather.

Bill Gardner, one of the authors of Sheridan Style Carving, met Don when Don was an 18-year-old horse breaker, and he was just a young boy. Bill credited Don with teaching him to tool, as well as build tools, at night in the ranch bunkhouse. From 1945 until 1985, Bill worked with and for Don a number of times.

In 2005, Bill said, “I’ve quit King’s a half dozen times. We’d get in a ‘cuss fight’ and I’d walk off. We’ve always been good friends through all that and still are.”

The award-winning saddle maker, Don Butler, also credited Don as being a major source of inspiration. Chester Hape, famed for the many PRCA World Championship saddles that he made, built his first two saddles under Don King’s tutelage.

“I learned everything from King,” reflects Bob Douglas. Today, Bob is well known for Douglas Tools, a line of high-quality, specialized leather tools. At 24, he went to work for King’s Saddlery, while also cowboying in the summers. A broken hip from a horse fall sidelined Bob for a while, and since he was hanging out in the saddle shop already, Don put him to work. For the next seven winters, from October to April he worked at King’s.

“Don had a lot of inspirational ideas of his own and this is what evolved into the Sheridan Style of leather tooling,” continues Bob. “A lot of the tools that he needed for his style of stamping weren’t out there, so he made them. Now a lot of toolmakers have been able to duplicate Don’s tools and made them available to other craftsmen.”

Leatherworkers have argued for years about what constituted the Sheridan Style. It can definitely be said that it was a refinement of leather carving that celebrated tighter and more intricate patterns. The knowledge and tools that were developed in Sheridan are what’s important. They spread like ripples and have become not just an end, but a stepping stone in the evolution of leather as art.

The man at the center of these ripples would probably have had a chuckle at the self-important sound of that last statement; his sense of humor did not let him take himself that seriously. When we finished our cups of coffee, Don headed towards the rope department to see an old friend.

On July 28, 2007, Don King passed away.

To find out more about King’s Saddlery, Kings Ropes or The Don King Museum, go to or call 800-443-8919.

King’s Saddlery

King Ropes

184 N. Main Street

Sheridan, Wyoming  82801




A Q&A with Odin Clack of Odin Leather Goods

By Liisa Andreassen

Odin 7

What started out as an experiment, evolved into a hobby and ultimately a thriving leather goods business and successful brand.

“Initially, there was nothing intentional about it,” Odin Clack, founder of Odin Leather Goods, explains. “I wanted to see if I could make something out of leather. It took some time before I realized I had something with real potential.”

Clack says that he’s always searched out new creative outlets and loves trying new things. He had a bit of an edge when it came to launching the business in 2012 because his professional background is in marketing and branding, specifically in the online and digital space. So, once he decided it was time for a change – time to make something tangible – he combined all his skills, old and new, to introduce Odin Leather Goods.

Why leather?

“I wanted to make a product that I could see in use years from now – things like saddles and boots. My dream? My kids are sitting in a coffee shop years from now with their kids. They look over and point at a man or woman with a tote bag or satchel and say, ‘Hey kids, you see that bag? Your grandfather made that bag.’ That would never happen with a website or app.”

What’s your background/education? Where did you learn the craft?

“I grew up in Galveston, Texas and went to college at Texas A&M University. Growing up, my father always put emphasis on quality and durability when buying goods. Though he was a pretty conservative and frugal man, he never hesitated to spend ‘good money’ on products that would last. I guess that rubbed off on me. I learned leathercraft by lots of trial and error. I wasn’t able to find anyone in my area who could teach me the trade. It wasn’t part of any family heritage or legacy. I bought books and watched YouTube videos. “

Tell me about your first project.   

“It was a laptop sleeve. I couldn’t find what I wanted; I wanted something I could use on my daily commute. I didn’t want to carry a large satchel or briefcase. I just needed something to protect my MacBook Pro and hold a notepad.”

“I stopped by a local leather store, bought a shoulder of leather and a basic tools kit. I didn’t read any of the instructions; I just started cutting and punching holes. That wasn’t exactly the best way to do things. After a few attempts, I finally started to ask questions and figured out how to do a proper saddle stitch. I slowly developed a drive to really understand the difference between leather goods and projects that were just functionally okay (like what a young kid might make in the Scouts), and high-end and heirloom quality leather goods like something made for a brand like Hermès. It’s the leather quality, sometimes the tools they use, but more often than not it’s the tiny details and techniques. I wanted to learn those techniques. The first few versions of this laptop sleeve were tooled and lined. I later realized that tooling and stamping weren’t my sweet spots. The version I sell now has a very straightforward design.”

Do you have any employees?

“It’s just me 90 percent of the time. Earlier this year, I got a shop assistant who helps out a few hours each week with gluing, cleaning, packaging and clicking. I hope to bring on one or two more part-time employees in early 2018 to help with stitching.”

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Where is your shop? Describe it to me.

“It’s in Coppell, Texas – just outside of Dallas – in my two-car garage. I have it well organized and can produce products at a rate similar to much larger shops. I’m currently shipping around 15-25 orders per week.”

Where do you get your materials? What types of leather do you use?

“I use a lot of Bridle and Harness leather, mainly from Wicket & Craig and Thoroughbred. I also use a lot of Chromexcel from Horween for my totes and bags. I typically just buy my natural, vegetable-tanned sides and bends from my local Tandy store.”

What are your top sellers?

“It changes seasonally. My Forever Tote bags have been a consistent bestseller over the last few years. Belts always stay at the top of the list too. My Sandlot collection of wallets and accessories also do well; they’re all made out of old repurposed baseball gloves.”

What’s been your greatest challenge since you’ve started the business?

“Finding my own pace and focus. Once I started to be intentional and serious about building a leather goods business it was tough not to get ahead of myself. I saw other crafters who I respected and admired and wanted to have all the same big machines and resources. I was discouraged that I couldn’t produce goods as quickly as they could. Of course, I wasn’t giving credit to the fact that many of them had been in the business for 10, 20 or 30 years. Also, since I love the craft, I appreciate so many styles. For the first few years, I did a lot of stamping and tooling. I made all sorts of products and would take on nearly any custom job that came my way. Since then, I’ve narrowed my focus and concentrate primarily on making my own line of goods and products. I’m down to a line of about 20 items I make repeatedly. I’ve also narrowed the variety of tannages I use. I still buy lots of one-off sides, because I just can’t help myself, but I try to make most of my items out of the same few Bridle tonnages. It’s just more efficient and yields a better margin.”

What’s been your greatest success?  

“Leveraging social media and branding. While many other leather crafters are still doing business much the same way they’ve done the last three decades, I’ve tried my best to leverage what I know – web marketing and social media. I’ve built the majority of my business off of building an engaged audience on Instagram. With only a small amount of time and very little budget, I’ve successfully leveraged these new low-cost channels. I’ve also been intentional about building a brand through thought leadership. I’ve been invited and hired at times to talk to other small business owners and marketers about how I’ve built my business with such a small budget and little time. I’m proud to be considered, at any level, a resource.”

Do you do custom orders? Wholesale? 

“I’m selective about custom orders. Designing new products can be time consuming and often you can’t or don’t charge what’s needed to make them worthwhile products. The exception is when the design work can be reported and incorporated into other products or a product line. Also, sometimes projects are just too cool to turn down and provide you with great social media content. While the custom project itself may not be profitable, the content that may result along with the potential exposure, can be valuable. As for wholesale, I haven’t found my footing with this sales channel yet. I have found that I can move product through my website pretty quickly.”

It’s a personal thing

So, what started out as an outlet to create something that Clack needed has grown into a business where others can enjoy the products too. His vision is to carry goods and leather products that can journey the world with you.

“What I really love about leather is that it changes based on who the user is and how it’s used.  Everyone has a different experience with it – and that affects how it looks and feels. While the leather may come from the exact same hide, steer or tanner, it’s the user that really determines its future. You can look back on a coffee stain and remember when that happened. I love that.”

Every scratch, every dent, every scuff tells a story.

Odin Leather Goods

Dallas, Texas

Lisa & Loren Skyhorse

Humanitarian Saddle Makers

By Danna Burns-Shaw


Trying to find one title that best describes the Skyhorse’s is impossible. Loren and Lisa Skyhorse are a rare husband and wife saddle-building team that create out-of-this-world leather masterpieces. Once you meet and spend time with them, you will never think of them as just saddle makers; they are truly multi-talented, cosmic human beings. Lisa and Loren were given the “Skyhorse” name by Native Americans and adopted into their culture, as a gifted exchange for all the service and kindness they’ve rendered towards indigenous people around the world.

Residing outside of beautiful Durango, Colorado, the Skyhorse’s home/ranch sits at 7,500 feet above sea level, with a stunning backdrop of the La Plata Mountain Range and adjacent to picturesque Lake Durango. This is the earthly space they visualized and thoughtfully designed, which includes the horse property, sacred home, magical workshop and stunning playground.  As Lisa states, “It’s all been a happy accident,” mentioning that the love of the horse brought her and Loren together and everything they do is based in that love.

Two Hands Become Four

Lisa began leatherwork while attending UCLA as an art major. In 1973, she took an apprenticeship with master saddle maker, Lawrence De Witt. At 24, she built her first saddle and began her love affair with working in leather.

Loren was a biologist that did much of his work on horseback. Lisa taught Loren how to build saddles. They studied in England, where they learned the art of English saddle making and they also studied Western boot making with Randy Merrill.

Always seeking adventure, they homesteaded 45 acres on the Northern California coast in 1977. For 20 years they produced all their own power, built their own home, boarded and bred Arabian endurance horses and pursued their saddle making careers. They were sustaining themselves and living “off the grid”….long before living off the grid was deemed cool.

In 1996 they moved to Durango, where they built their dream home/ranch and raised their daughter, Ocea, and son, Ari. Ari currently works two days a week with them, learning the saddle-building trade and developing great skills from his master saddle-making parents.  The next generation are their two grandchildren, Violet and Jet; they are teaching and sharing their love of horses, nature and creating with their hands. Lisa and Loren continue to be avid riders and have ridden horses all over the U.S. as well as in Mongolia, Siberia and Africa.

Creating Museum Quality

It was over a decade ago the first time I laid eyes on Lisa and Loren’s work; we were both set up at a horse expo. Strolling through the show I was stopped in my tracks, in complete awe and amazement, when I saw the Skyhorse display. It was truly museum quality craftsmanship. You can imagine my surprise and delight when Loren told me that the credit went to his talented wife, stating Lisa was the inspiration for their work.  Lisa creates all the exquisite tooling and hand-painted details and he humbly revealed that she had taught him how to build saddles. My appreciation skyrocketed knowing that a genuine cowgirl/wife and cowboy/husband were responsible for the most remarkable leather work I had ever seen.

Loren’s many contributions to a finished Skyhorse piece include his famous braiding; it is a Skyhorse trademark. The edge braiding with its fine silver lace is unique and magnificent. Loren uses kangaroo lace for all his leather braiding. Silver or leather braiding edges most of their saddles.

All the materials in a Skyhorse saddle are the finest available and all from the USA. Since 1974, they have used Hermann Oak Leather from the oldest tannery in America. The skirts are lined with real sheepskin. Their saddle conchos range from a proprietary Skyrider concho to custom sterling silver concho sets. Their most popular and collectable conchos are created with Navajo jewelers, as well as world class engravers.

Another special feature on a Skyhorse masterpiece is the oiling. Loren is a master at achieving many different deep and rich hues in the leather. This accentuates the beauty of the lines and Lisa’s deep carving, as well as adding suppleness to the leather.

Lisa and Loren’s approach to saddle making is both classic traditional and contemporary. The photos shown certainly substantiate the wife-and-husband team’s 90 years of combined expertise.  Their work has transcended to the highest standard in museum quality…and I feel blessed and honored to know and love them, to call them my lifetime cosmic friends.

Humanitarians through Cultural Exchange

The Skyhorse’s heartfelt belief is that the first two-thirds of a person’s life is for learning skills, building a family and establishing an identity and priorities. The last third of one’s life should be dedicated to sharing what has been learned with others.  Since 2005, Lisa and Loren have participated in cultural sharing in Mongolia, Siberia, Peru and the Navajo Nation.


Mongolian Project

Lisa explains, “The Mongolian Leather Project began with a horse trek through the Darhat Valley in northern Mongolia in 2008. We traveled over 200 miles on horseback and felt an enormous connection with the land, the culture and the people. One of our connections was with our guide, Badmaa Dovchin, a 28-year-old Mongolian woman who was raised as a nomad, but was highly educated and fluent in English. Together we also visited the Eagle Hunters in Western Mongolia, who hunt with eagles while riding on horseback.

Our most profound visit was to the Tsaatan People (The Reindeer People), who wander the mountains near the Russian border while herding their reindeer and living in tipis. During this visit, we had the opportunity to work with the Reindeer People who were very interested in the tools we had brought to share. This was the beginning of our Mongolian Leather Project.

The nomadic group we stayed and worked with in the Darhat Valley, North Mongolia, brought us our own gear on a yak.

The next year we returned for another month. This time we brought 100 pounds of leather working tools and 150 pounds of medical supplies. With Badmaa as our partner, we set up three different leather co-ops where people could work , making and fixing their tack and doing other work they could sell or trade. The first project was in Ulaanbatar, the capital city. There lived many displaced nomads with no means of livelihood. Badmaa had identified 20 artistic people and we ran a weeklong workshop.

The second co-op was established in Renchinlumbe, a small town of about 200 people in the Darhat Valley of Northern Mongolia. There we were given a small workshop and trained 12 more people, again leaving a full collection of tools to share. Finally, we worked with a nomadic group about 30 miles outside of Renchinlumbe. Twenty-six families made up this group; it was a joy to live with them and help them create some wonderful leather projects. The head of these nomads kept the tools for all the people to use.”


Altai Mountains – Siberia, Russia

Lisa and Loren had the pleasure of participating in another international leather sharing project in 2013; they were in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, Russia. Lisa and Loren worked in a small village known for its artisans. Kupchegen is in the remote Altai Republic, not far from the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Initially there were to be 12 -15 artisans, but over 50 people showed up—some from the neighboring Republic of Tuva, a two day trip away. The Skyhorse’s donated 40 pounds of essential leather working tools not available in that region.

The project’s goals were threefold:

  1. To aid the semi-nomadic people of the Altai with new tools and skills to build on their ancient, traditional skills.
  2. To help the people make more efficient use of their livestock, lessening the impact of overgrazing on their land.
  3. To serve as a cultural exchange. In mid-April 2013, Seremei, the master saddle maker of the Kupchegen area, completed his training with Lisa and Loren in their Durango workshop. He            returned home to train others in the region.

Andes Mountains – Peru

“In August 2014, we traveled with a group of 12 veterinarians and veterinary students from the U.S. and Peru, high in the Andes mountains. Organized by the head veterinarian, David Turoff, the project was supported by, the Humane Society Veterinarian Medical Association (HSVMA RAVS) and the California Veterinary Reserve Corps (CAVMRC). These organizations funded the medical supplies needed; all of the manpower was volunteered.

We started at Saksaywaman just outside of Cusco, and in ten days treated about 700 equines (horses, mules and burros). The treatments included vaccinations (rabies shots for the prevalent vampire bats), castrations, hoof care and dental work. From Saksaywanan we traveled on to Mollepata by vehicle.  Mollepata is the home of the Yanapana organization. This remote village heads a woman’s weaving co-op among other local projects.  We arrived with and donated many leather working tools and worked with the Yanapana people to enhance their skills in making useful items for the equines, and personal use. Our project in Peru also took a new twist – many of the animals were so thin that we devoted most of our time to saddle fitting. To alleviate the common saddle sores along their spines, we developed a system of padding using a typical Peruvian blanket, folded and padded in a special way. Our tools were put to good use customizing these blankets to help relieve pressure on the animals’ spines.

Then we began our trek on the Salkantay Trail to Wayrac and down the eastern side of the Andes towards Machu Picchu. While hiking over the 15,500-foot Salkantay Pass, we were supported with 18 mules packing our tools, medicines, camping gear and food. In these regions of no roads, the equine groups of horses, mules and burros are vital to the livelihood of the indigenous people. Our first stop after ascending the Salkantay pass was the Wayrac Station at 14,000 feet. We worked there for two days and the two delightful cooks traveling with us surprised us for our 65th birthdays with a special dessert. After a few more days of work along our return route, we returned to Cusco. It was an honor for us to join this project and this dedicated group of people.”

Navajo Nation – Flagstaff, Arizona

Lisa and Loren have always held a special place in their hearts for Native Americans, in fact, all indigenous people. In September, they traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, to do their first workshop with the Navajo Nation. What amazes Lisa most is the generosity of people. To put this project together quickly, they depended on a group of folks who generously donated tools and leather for the participants to receive during the weeklong workshop. Shep Herman from Herman Oak Tannery graciously donated the leather needed for the workshop. Every student was allowed to take home the tools and leather needed to help get them started.

Lisa and Loren hope to work with more Native American tribes or other underserved groups in the United States – offering skills and materials, helping keep the art of leatherwork alive and giving back in a meaningful way to people that also share the love of the horse. Lisa said, “It doesn’t matter how much any one of us does, it just matters that we do something.”

Next Project:  Jura Region, Switzerland – February 2018

The Skyhorse’s next project will be a two week workshop in beautiful Switzerland. This project came together because of a student they had taught 30 years ago, Daniel Hess. Daniel and Noelle Hess are another husband and wife saddle-making team that Lisa and Loren made a surprise visit to during their company’s 30th anniversary celebration. During the celebration, folks were blown away by the Skyhorse’s talent and generosity; numerous eager students encouraged Daniel to put together a workshop featuring the Skyhorse’s. The first workshop filled within days, so they booked two, one-week workshops. Of course they will fit in a few horse adventures; horse-drawn carriages will pull them on skis through the Switzerland countryside!


Honors and Acknowledgements

In their 45-year career, Lisa and Loren have created over 1000 saddles, as well as a multitude of other leather projects, commissioned by folks that have an eye and appreciation for artistic greatness .They have been featured in museums, galleries, leather shows, newspapers, magazines and television programs; they’ve accumulated far too many achievements and awards to list. Their genuine love for horses, and people who love horses, has taken them across the world – exploring, riding and sharing the lifetime of knowledge they have acquired. The Skyhorse’s have created a life filled with adventure and purpose; they are inspiring examples of working hard, giving back and playing well. What a worthy ideal, such a wonderful example for all to follow. Lisa’s prayer for everyone: “May you always have enough,” and these dear, special people have always given more than enough.

Discover more information about the Skyhorse’s and see their beautiful products at

Little’s Boots

Little’s Boots  Custom Bootmakers since 1915

By Danna Burns-Shaw

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Little’s Boots is a 100-year-old family business with “heart and sole.” Building the highest quality boots, with four generations of family boot makers, Little’s is in an elite group of legacy bootmakers. As the 86-year-old, 3rd Generation owner Dave Little states, “That’s why you don’t see many small custom boot  houses; most of them eventually either get bought out or decide to go into larger production to survive, and that is when you lose the quality.  If you think about it, all the big brands – Lucchese, Tony Lama, Justin, Nocona – were all custom boot makers originally, but as time progressed they got bought out by big corporations. They started doubling up and now some of them make even up to a thousand pairs of boots in one day. You can only do so much without going excessive, overworking your people and not doing the detail work that you used to do.  By not doing the detail work, you lose quality…boot making is a very difficult trade.”

Dave’s wife, Mary Jane, was also raised in a family business; a business that has also lasted over 100 years, Volner’s Meat Market.  Mary Jane’s brothers still have the business, located just a few miles from Little’s Boots, where they have been retailing and wholesaling meat since 1914. Mary Jane (84) and Dave still pop into the shop and check on how Sharon and Duane (their children) are doing, making sure there is no rash on their baby, Little’s Boots.

Owning a family business for over 100 years, many are curious how it sustains and grows generation after generation.  To be a centurion business you must have a handful of key traits to endure the ever changing business landscape, strong core values and a commitment to quality and excellence, that when practiced will sustain and overcome the many obstacles that come with evolving a business over 10 decades. But one thing is certain: it is all about the people, the owners, their team, and their supporters and clients.  Every one of Little’s boots has been built the “old school” way, by expert hands one at a time.

Littles 3

Generation One

Lucien Little was the first in the family to step into the footwear business. Originally from the small Texas town of Pearsall, Texas, Lucien dreamed of a better life in the big city of San Antonio.  So in 1912 the thrill-seeking, personable, energetic 20-year-old left his roots and headed north to San Antonio. Upon arriving in the bustling Alamo City, Lucien landed a job as a shoe salesman. During three successful years selling shoes and boots across San Antonio and South Texas, Lucien absorbed everything he could about the footwear industry. The eager entrepreneur decided to take the plunge and go out on his own, opening his own store in 1915.  Initially offering factory-made footwear, it was the addition of a repair department that would eventually refocus the Little family’s business plan, from selling “off-the-rack” shoes to manufacturing and creating world-class, custom western boots.

Generation Two

Lucien’s son Ben came into the business in the ‘40s.  Always intrigued and impressed by the skills his father’s repairmen demonstrated, Ben started having the repairmen make well-built work boots. The word spread quickly with the South Texas cattlemen; Little’s Boots was the place to go to get the best built work boots. Ben’s creative juices began to flow and he sought to build fancier versions, featuring snipped toes, under-slung heels, inlays, overlays and multiple rows of stitching on the uppers.

At this time, Hollywood was churning out Westerns filled with the glitz of singing cowboys and cowgirls, like Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  The silver screen showed the country a whole new level of western fashion, with over-the-top designs and heavy embellishments. With the general public now desiring boots built for fashion, not just function, Ben decided to split the production between functional boots and fashionable boots, completely discontinuing the sales of shoes.

Littles 1

Generation Three

Ben’s two sons, John and Dave, joined the prosperous family business in the late ‘50s.  Raised around the boot shop, they learned early on the 100-step process required to build world-class Little’s boots. Then the unfortunate death of their father, Ben, occurred in 1966 and the business was dropped in the boy’s laps, to carry on what their Grandfather Lucien had started 50 years earlier.

As company co-heads, the capable pair remained committed to the family traditions of quality and impeccable service that their forefathers were known and revered for, learning with every hardship and overcoming the many challenges of working side-by-side with family members.

Eventually, Dave and his wife, Mary Jane took over the business in 1975. Dave decided to limit the company’s production to the high-end, completely custom, handmade Western dress boots. With decades of developing the best boot possible, the Little’s were primed for success when the movie, Urban Cowboy was released in 1980, extending Little’s customer base by making western wear cool and fashionable.

Dave and Mary Jane had given many years of love and dedication to Little’s Boots. The longest of any of the previous owners, they have passed the torch to their daughter Sharon (president) and son Duane (production manager). In fact, Mary Jane had been the office manager for decades until just recently. Sharon had hired her niece to come in and help out around the office, and Mary Jane decided to give her two week notice…via text.

Generation Four

All the Little children worked in the business.  Sharon, one of their four children, has fond memories of working in the shop after school and on Saturdays. Sharon worked in the shop throughout high school and during college, joining the business full time in 1985. Sharon used her skills, and soon was handling the bookkeeping and sales. Dave and Mary Jane groomed the fourth generation owner nicely; teaching her to stay in the lane of quality boot makers, with conscious organic growth, providing old and new customers the remarkable products that they have been producing for over 100 years. Sharon’s brother, Duane, also works in the business; he does all of the measuring and works in the shop to make sure the measurements match up with the custom lasts they use. Duane and Sharon were both taught that to have correctly constructed, custom boots you need incredible attention to every detail. There are over a hundred steps in building a Little’s custom boot: starting with custom measurement and ending with a wearable work of art that will last a lifetime.

Littles 5

The Tradition Continues

For 100 years and through four generations, experience has taught the Little’s that the best approach to achieving quality is to use top-grade materials, outstanding design and most importantly, talented experienced craftsmen. The Little’s have found and developed remarkable craftsmen that take pride in their work.  Dave states, “There is no other shop that has a better group of craftsmen that are more dedicated to the preservation of quality. The development of new techniques and our unique blend of traditional Old West style and modern styling have provided the new smooth line for Little’s – the great boot appearance and our ideal fit. We have also established a unique fitting system. We are proud of our family business and the fact that it has been operated by the same family for 100 years!”

Word of Mouth

Little’s Boots has sustained a boot factory for over 100 years by only selling retail, not wholesale, and their entire advertising budget is strictly by word of mouth.  Taking care of folks, so those folks will spread the good word to their acquaintances, Little’s has a fine reputation as the place to get true custom boots. When someone receives a perfectly fit boot with outstanding detail, they want to share with their friends and family – all the cool details in the design, who they worked with and where they had them made.

Many of Little’s customers are collectors, buying a new pair of boots yearly…yes; these custom boots come with an addiction warning!  After 100 years in the custom boot business, the Little’s have booted up a lot of famous people: rock stars, movie stars, politicians, billionaires, cattle and oil barons to name a few.  However, your status does not matter when you go into Little’s; they treat everyone like the most important person in the world.  No wonder they have successfully continued what Lucien started, way back at the turn of the 20th Century.

Little’s Boot Company

110 Division Ave.

San Antonio, TX 78214




Chicago’s Last Tannery: Still Thriving After 112 Years

Horween Leather Co. is all about high-end products, good customers and personalized service

By Lynn Ascrizzi

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The next time you’re glued to a TV screen during an NFL Super Bowl game, check out the football getting tossed and kicked around the field. There’s a 100 percent chance it’s made of leather processed and finished at Horween Leather Company, a tannery based in Chicago, Illinois.

Tannery owner and president, Arnold “Skip” Horween III, will be the first to tell you: the so-called “pigskin” has not been made of inflated pig bladder since the dawning era of the sport. And, he’ll be happy to point out that every Super Bowl is played with a Wilson football built from his company’s signature, pebbled steer hide. In fact, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., also of Chicago, is the NFL’s official ball maker and Horween’s biggest customer.

The same goes for the AFL (Arena Football League) footballs, CFL (Canadian Football League) footballs and NBA basketballs made by Spalding, of Bowling Green, Kentucky — they too, are built from Horween leather. And, there’s Horween leather in many Heart of the Hide series baseball gloves made by Rawlings. Since 1929, the Chicago tannery has been supplying leather to Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., Inc., currently based in Town and Country, Missouri.

Horween Leather, a 112-year-old company, is both a hide processing and finishing tannery. “We bring hides in the raw and process them here. There are not many tanneries that do that, the whole way through. We do some chrome and some vegetable tanned leathers,” Skip Horween said.

The 200,000-square-foot tannery, located since 1920 in a five-story factory in an industrial section near the North Branch of the Chicago River, operates with 150 employees. “We’ve grown a bit over the last three to four years and added about 14 to 15 people,” he said.

Good workers are hard to find, he added, a beef that many U.S. manufacturers can readily relate to. “If you’re tossing wet hides all day, that’s heavy work. People don’t want dirt under their fingernails. If you watch a really good finish carpenter, they can tell you what they’re doing, but can’t teach you how to do it. It comes from inside them.”

Amazingly, Horween is Chicago’s only tannery still in operation — one of the oldest, continuously running tanneries in the U.S. How did they survive the mass exodus of U.S. tanneries to Mexico, Asia and other parts of the world,a seismic, economic shift that began in the 1980s?

“The one reason we like to tell people is, that it was a combination of good fortune and being stubborn,” he said.  “The good fortune was that my great-grandfather, Isidore Horween, who started the place, really made good stuff. And, we’ve had good customers who have also survived — customers who recognize family. I can’t promise you that it was a lot of fun. We all play a bit of defense. The stubborn part is, that you stick with what you know and what you do well. We’re not trying to be everything for everyone.”

In the past decade or so, areas around the city’s designated industrial corridor, where the tannery is located, are fast becoming gentrified. “We are approached regularly by people who want to buy the property. If anything, I’m consistent,” Horween said, of his refusal to budge. “I see plenty of malls and condos, but I don’t see people making stuff.”


Ninety percent of the hides processed at the Chicago tannery are cowhide, primarily steer, used for instance, in their combination tanned Chromexcel®, a versatile, trademark leather only made by Horween Leather Co., since 1913. Its complex process takes 89 distinct steps, many done by hand, and almost a month to complete. Chromexcel® can be given a bright luster or a matte finish and is typically used in boat and classic shoes, belts and small leather goods.

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Horsehide makes up the remaining 10 percent of the tannery’s processed hides, largely used for the specialty leather, shell cordovan. Horween Leather is one of the world’s last remaining producers of cordovan, originally used for razor strops in the early 1900s.

Nowadays, this non-creasing, long-lasting, veg-tanned leather is used in high-end footwear, such as Allen Edmond’s Park Avenue Cordovan Cap-toe Oxfords. This pricey men’s footwear goes for $650 per pair and has been worn by U.S. presidents the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Horween’s biggest cordovan customer is Alden Shoe Co., of Middleborough, Massachusetts, a relationship that began in 1930.

Cordovan is a premium leather made from the fibrous, flat muscle (or shell) found in horse rumps, a term that easily becomes the butt of many jokes. However, processing high quality cordovan is an exacting art — a multi-step, six-month-long process that uses a proprietary tanning solution made from tree barks.

First, horsehides are carefully soaked, shaved and hand-oiled. After a month-long rest, the hides are rewet and expertly shaved, again. Next, the cordovan is run through a large roller to receive several, light coats of non-pigmented dye. Then, it’s allowed to dry. Only three employees at the tannery handle the process, Horween said.

“We have never kept up with demand. Horsehide is in limited supply,” he explained. One possible explanation given is that the practice of eating horsemeat is waning in parts of Canada and Europe.

The tannery sources cattle hides from the United States or Canada and horsehides from Canada or Europe. “No horsehide has been sourced from the U.S. in the past 38 years, since I’ve been here. We’re horse owners,” he said, referring to the culture in this country, regarding Equss caballus.


Horween leather is used in a multitude of everyday products — footwear, sports equipment, bags, belts, wallets, briefcases, clothing and accessories. Fifty percent of the tannery’s business comes from high-quality leathers sold to sports companies, such as Adidas and Nike.

Besides the aforementioned companies, including Wilson Sporting Goods, Spalding and Rawlings, here are some other Horween customers:

  • Under Armour, Inc., — Footwear, sports and casual apparel
  • Timberland Boot Co. — Boots and shoes (Horween supplies the leather shells for their footwear)
  • The Alden Shoe Co. — Custom shoemakers
  • Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters — Handcrafted shoes
  • Quoddy, Inc. —Handcrafted boat shoes and moccasins
  • Allen Edmonds — Premium dress shoes
  • Wolverine Worldwide — Boot and shoemakers
  • The Frye Company — Boots, shoes and other leather goods
  • Horween also makes special leathers for New Balance, a major sports footwear   manufacturer based in Brighton, Massachusetts, and for Johnston & Murphy, of Nashville, Tennessee, makers of men’s and women’s shoes, apparel and       accessories.  

 “We sell most of our leather to U.S. customers, but ship all over the world. Most of the sporting goods get made in Asia. We ship there for a lot of these guys. It’s probably 50-50,” he said, of the percentage of Horween’s domestic versus foreign sales.

“On average, we run about 5,000 sides, 2,000 shells and 2,000 horse fronts — tanned, finished and shipped — per week. We’re not so big. In the world market, we’re a rounding error. We’re big enough to notice, but not so big we’ll annoy you,” he said, with characteristic wry humor.

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The Wikipedia states that in 2012, the tannery’s revenue was $25 million, a figure that Horween called, “inferred data. . . . The way we make leather is expensive. For one year in the business, I’d like to make as much money as people think I do,” he quipped.


“One of the tannery’s team goals is to become a component brand,” Skip Horween said, a term that includes a brand’s core identity, image, personality, character and culture. “We want people to let their customers know that they’re using our leather, because our brand stands for a certain level of quality. We’re getting name tags put on products stating that they’re made from Horween Leather. We’ve built our reputation as a quality component.”

For instance, one of his newer customers, Nomad Goods Inc., a Santa Barbara, California company that makes leather phone cases for smartphones, promotes these products as “Crafted from Horween Leather.”

“Nomad does smartwatches and phone cases with a really cool battery in it, to charge your phone. They make great gifts. The battery is part of the wallet. You can plug in your phone and recharge it,” he said.

The tannery has developed relationships with other new customers, too, such as a group of companies that make watchbands for Apple smartwatches. “We don’t do the work directly for Apple — we deal with aftermarket people,” he added.

Global competition is stiff, but high quality is the tannery’s niche. “We fit in with those who want part of their line to be premium. We have the luxury of working with people whose first question is not price. They want to develop a certain look. When the conversation shifts to price, we typically show them the exit. I don’t walk in with a huge price, with the idea of knocking off a percentage. That’s not how we’re structured.

“The temptation is to say ‘yes,’ if someone asks you to do something. It’s not like we can’t do something, but if you say, ‘Hey, I need this in two weeks,’ I’ll tell you there’s somebody else who can take care of you . . . . There are times when ‘no’ is just as important as ‘yes.’ We do develop products. But it’s not an instantaneous process.”

Are tanneries coming back to the U.S.?

“That would surprise me. They did open a new tannery in Mississippi,” he said, referring to Mississippi TanTech Leather, Inc. in Vicksburg.  Opened in 2015 by foreign-based ISA TanTech, a German-invested company founded in 1995, which owns three tanneries in the United States, Vietnam and China.


Besides cutting labor costs, a big reason why U.S. tanneries shut down and/or relocated overseas, was stiff EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations for leather tanning and finishing wastewater; national standards first put into effect in 1974 as a result of the Clean Water Act (1972).

“My father had the foresight to see that proper chemical waste solutions were part of the tannery’s future,” Skip Horween said. “In the early ’70s, we built our water treatment plant. We’ve added on to it several times and improved its performance. Water is sourced from the city of Chicago, and all the water we use is returned to the city sewer system. The tannery treats and aerates it. It’s filtered when it returns. The city treats it a lot more. It meets Chicago’s standard for industrial waste water.”

The tannery also has an officer in charge of safety and environmental compliance, and the factory meets strict European regulations, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals). Each year, the tannery gets a letter from all their suppliers stating that every chemical they use is in compliance with REACH.

“Customers can get copies on request,” he said. “Bigger customers that use auditing agencies — we welcome that.  We’re not going to tell you our formulas, but we show you the process. You should be able to ask any question you want. If regulations change, which they do, then we change as well.”


Nick Horween

Recently, tannery staff has been running experiments on calfskins, Horween noted. “We’re aiming for limited, high-end, dressy-type calf, possibly for some leather goods or for ladies. At the moment, I don’t believe anybody is tanning calfskin in the U.S.  As we’re learning — it’s really hard. It’s the reason people got out of calfskin. There’s always a demand for top-end, but only a small portion of skins do that. Europeans still do a beautiful job (with calfskin). Our interpretation would be different, but would appeal.”

The company has also dipped its collective toes in other waters, like tanning specialty deerskin and bison, at the specific request of certain customers. “We probably do less formal planning than most people. But our direction is driven by the idea that we should be making the best. We will follow that wherever it takes us,” he said.