Saddle Tramps

After sixty years, P.R. Van Scoyk is still hot to trot -- as long as no horse is involved

The job had been arranged by his father, who'd left the family when his son was only five. His mother survived by breeding canaries and renting out sleeping rooms in her northwest Denver home. Meanwhile, it fell to her son to collect child support from his father at a bar called the Track Inn, "which moved and became the Wazee Supper Club after they fancied up the name," Mr. Van remembers. "My dad was a friendly guy who needed a shave and was never much of a dad. He finally died on 16th and Market at the Intermountain Hotel."

But in the meantime, he'd hung around with a foreman at the Heiser company, and that did end up benefiting his son. As WWII broke out, young Van Scoyk was learning to carve leather. Rejected for military service because of a hernia, he continued learning the saddle business--and, after a brief stint selling used cars, he set up shop with three friends making leather wallets, purses and the occasional saddle to pay their way through college.

"We were going to be brain surgeons," Mr. Van recalls. "We figured if you could cut leather, you could cut brains. And I made up my mind that there was no future in the horse. I was planning to get out of this horse thing as soon as possible. We went to school during the day and made machine-gun scopes for the government at night. Then a guy named Miller [as in Miller Stockman] asked us to make him some bridles. Pretty soon we were so busy we had to drop out of school, and we never had time to go back. And I began to think, as for the horse, he might have a chance."

It was during this time that Van Scoyk met and married his wife, DeeDee. After admiring her from afar at North High School, he finally summoned the courage to ask her out for a hamburger. "She ordered a hamburger with a beer and then pulled out a cigarette," he remembers, still impressed. "I figured she was the intellectual type."

The marriage was not intended to produce children--"We were going to be a sophisticated young couple," Mr. Van explains--but they soon had two sons, a daughter, a Wheat Ridge ranch house and a downtown building to house the saddlery. "Before we got here, it was the Crane-O'Fallon plumbing supply," Mr. Van says. "My sister had been a maid for the O'Fallons, and I had cut their grass in high school. Now I owned the building."

Indeed, he was becoming a pillar of the Western world, with fifteen full-time employees and a fifty-person union shop manufacturing saddles to be sold around the globe. But Van Scoyk was still uncertain about the horse. To this day, Mr. Van admits, he has ridden horseback only three times, and each time, the horse won.

"I always got the impression that any horse was bigger and smarter than me and I better leave him alone," he confides. "I never have been very horsey."

But no one would suspect that after a mosey around Colorado Saddlery, with its walls lined with "genuine Greg Dutton bits," its plywood bins full of products such as "No. 161 elkskin gloves size Xtra Large" and, of course, row upon row of saddles. The customers here are likely to be genuine cowboys in 4X beaver hats. Then again, they could also be gay caballeros from Capitol Hill or local artist types scrounging for leather scraps.

"Do you realize that Denver used to be the center of the world for the making of saddles and holsters and bits and spurs?" asks business consultant and sometime artist type Fran Miller, who rents out Colorado Saddlery's third floor. "Colorado Saddlery is the only part of that Denver that is left. It has intrinsic worth, and the Planet Hollywood guys, the sports bar guys--they have no idea. They have no appreciation that this is what Denver is all about. When it's gone, Denver will have lost a huge part of its heritage."

Miller coveted a piece of Colorado Saddlery the minute he saw it, on a foraging expedition for supplies he intended to use for his rustic-furniture-making hobby. At first, Van Scoyk told him he didn't want to be a landlord. "But one night about three years ago I was driving around with a truck full of rocking chairs I'd made," Miller recalls, "and I cruised by Colorado Saddlery, and there was old Van standing out on the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets looking up at the sky. I said, 'Van, are you ever going to retire? Because if you do, you'll need a rocking chair.' And I gave him one."

A few months later Van Scoyk agreed to lease Miller a floor of his warehouse--a space Miller refers to as his office, but a space that looks more like the fascinating assortment of taxidermy, rustic furniture and exercise equipment it is. Not that Mr. Van objects. "No," says Miller, "he is just the best guy--the grandfather you never had. Working here, I feel like somebody has invited me into their family for a couple, three years. And it's a wonderful family. No backstabbing. No bickering. None of that."

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