Saddle Tramps

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

"Leather, it lasts," says Manuel Montoya, who runs the repair shop at Colorado Saddlery. "A Western saddle is a beautiful thing."
It is also a remarkably durable thing. A true Western saddle's tree is still made of Ponderosa pine covered with sewn-on rawhide; its most basic parts--horn, stirrups, cantle--are all pretty much as they were back in the days of big cattle drives. Even the repair tags that hang from the thirty-odd saddles in Montoya's shop read the same way they might have a century ago: "Sew rig on. Lace skirts together. Patch jerk. Sew cantle binding."

The tag's return address, in this case, is a remote ranch somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, where a saddle is still as much a workingman's tool as a hammer or saw or briefcase.

"These saddles come from everywhere," Montoya says. "We got these pleasure saddles, with the padded seats. Parade saddles, with whatever silver a person wants. But a cowboy who uses his saddle eight hours a day--he puts some wear on it. If he ropes, he's gotta be able to get on and off quick. It tends to be plain, and it gets worn. This one here is only three years old, and look at it."

The leather of this one here is stained and rubbed thin in places, but it doesn't present much of a challenge to Montoya, who has forty years' experience in saddle-making and repair. "I have a mail carrier's saddle from eighteen-seventy-something. The man who used it for years and years ended up buying a Model-T instead, and the rats got ahold of the saddle where he threw it in the barn. I recovered it, and look at it," he says, holding out a snapshot. "About the only way you can tell it's old is that people were skinnier back then. That's a small seat. But we can do that here. Hey, we built saddles for John Wayne here, and that man was huge. A custom, eighteen-inch seat is what we built for him."

Technically, Montoya was not yet in the employ of Colorado Saddlery during the John Wayne years, which are well-documented in the autographed pictures that hang in the company's first-floor hallway. A native of New Mexico, Montoya went into the saddle business in his mid-twenties, building trees for a competitor of Colorado Saddlery. When that business moved to Sparks, Nevada, twelve years ago, Montoya went along, but he soon decided he preferred Denver. By the time he returned to town, though, Colorado Saddlery was the last saddle shop in lower downtown--a neighborhood where there were once five thriving saddleries. Pershing R. Van Scoyk, whom Montoya already knew as "Mr. Van," hired him immediately.

"Him and my old boss were the same type of man," Montoya recalls. "They went to lunch together every once in a while."

And they attracted the same type of repair jobs--fifty saddles for the Girl Scouts, forty for the Mounted Palomino Patrol. The difference between the two, Montoya says, is that Mr. Van is "an unusually great man. He comes up with solutions. If you have a problem, you go and sit with him, and he works it out. Go and sit with him," Montoya suggests. "Try it."

People have been sitting and talking to Mr. Van since 1939, the year he switched careers from chicken-coop cleaner to saddle manufacturer. His visitor of the moment is a construction magnate--"He's put up 6,000 condos, I believe," Mr. Van says--who has been shooting the breeze in Mr. Van's office since he was a Wheat Ridge High School boy.

Having already discussed the absurdity of Texans who drive on Colorado black ice, the visiting magnate has segued into the privations of his New Year's weight-loss plan.

"It's a liquid diet," he explains.
"Sheess!" replies Mr. Van, in a sort of punctuation.
"Fermented sauerkraut juice was all I drank the first day. I like to throw up when I smelled it."

"Holy smoke!"
"The next day was all the same ingredients as V-8 juice, only it cost me forty bucks more. But," the magnate concludes, "I'll drop ten pounds soon and be done with it."

It is not until after this man leaves that Mr. Van sums up his visitor's problem--and offers some sage advice on nutrition in general. "There's gotta be the bulldogs and the greyhounds in this world," he says. "They both eat a lot, but they are just never going to look the same. Holy smoke!"

Mr. Van, at 78, is the bulldog type. Ensconced behind his cluttered desk in an office crammed with paper, horseshoe sculpture, cast-iron Indians on horseback, notes from third-graders, outdated calendars, hula-girl figurines and bits of harness, he stares up at any visitor with large, watery, interested eyes. Occasionally, one of several people who answer the phone at Colorado Saddlery will yell something like: "Hey, Mr. Van! It's Mr. Jones from Kansas City! He wants to visit with you!"

Mr. Van almost always takes these calls, listening actively by throwing in "Holy smoke!"-s and "Sheess!"-es at regular intervals. If that gives people the impression that Denver's last great saddlery is nothing more than an extended front porch where folks from all over the West can chew the fat, it is fine with him.

But it is not entirely accurate.
"He's probably one of the most respected men in the saddlery business," says sales coordinator Bill Robinson, who's worked for Mr. Van for the past eight years. "Anyone would say that about him, from the small guys building custom saddles in their garages to the multi-millionaires. People come and go in this trade. Meanwhile, Van's been in it fifty years, and he has people working for him who've worked here their entire working life."

That kind of tradition impresses Robinson, whose own family has been ranching continuously in Eldorado Canyon for more than a hundred years. (In fact, Manuel Montoya is currently in the process of restoring his great-grandfather's saddle to working order.) Robinson caught the ranching bug early and spent his twenties working other people's cattle on horseback. "There are still some very big ranches left," he recalls. "I ended up on a Western Slope ranch outside a town called Mack, and we were over by the Book Cliff Mountains one February, and I was freezing, and I thought, there has to be a better way to make a living. So I came down and asked Van for a job."

Robinson worked his way up from the shipping department to his current position, which he describes as "doing basically everything." He spends a lot of time on the road between Denver and the saddlery's factory in Buena Vista. He also is trying to inject some new technology into an old-time tradition. Last year Robinson computerized the company's 46-year-old catalogue, and this year he introduced the alien concept of bar codes. All in all, Robinson says, he's very pleased with his job.

"It's inside, and I don't get cold," he points out. "Besides, I like people and I like saddles."

A Colorado Saddlery saddle, he insists, is particularly likeable--known throughout the world for its no-nonsense look and feel. "In a person's lifetime, he might have five, six, seven, maybe eight horses," Robinson explains. "A good saddle ought to last that whole time. What distinguishes us from other companies is, we build more of a workingman's stock-type saddle as opposed to a roping or a pleasure saddle. Our saddles have a plain, hard seat, made with a big, clean piece of leather, about as close as you can come to custom. There's not a lot of stitching and foam and padding, because that stuff wears out. What we make is like a stripped-down pickup truck, which is what you need on a working ranch. Automatic windows, fabric seats, a fancy radio--all that's gonna stop working after a while."

Meanwhile, a Colorado Saddlery saddle just keeps going. So does P.R. Van Scoyk. "He's just a big old Dutch farmer," Robinson says of his boss. "He's blunt, but he's relaxed. He wears his bib overalls, and he's really just a decent human being. You should see him in the outside world."

In the outside world, P.R. Van Scoyk can most often be found not lunching with his contemporaries or serving on charitable boards but standing on the sidewalk outside his building at 15th Street between Wynkoop and Wazee Streets, feeding his lifelong habit of looking around to see what interesting people or situations might have cropped up since he last checked. This is how he met artist Bruce Cody, who spent a week or so painting the buildings of Mr. Van's block and whose work he later began collecting. This is how he keeps up with real estate developments and hones his encyclopedic knowledge of Denver street addresses. This is how he reminds himself that he doesn't want to sell out and see his building turned into a loft project.

"The man who did that Ice House deal, he's come to see me quite a few times," Mr. Van says, then laughs. "I have no plans to sell."

He did, however, enjoy a brief period of real estate flirtation. That was about ten years ago, when the last of his three partners left the business and it seemed time to think about retirement. First Mr. Van bought a small cattle ranch near Brighton--but he couldn't imagine himself as a cattle baron, not even for a second. (Neither could any of his friends or relations.) Then, on the advice of a longtime receptionist, he took a trip to Paonia, where he looked at a few spreads and finally bought a hundred-acre apple orchard. ("I figured, as long as I'm here, I'll buy something," he recalls.) But a late frost got the apple crop.

Soon Mr. Van was back in the saddlery again. He'd listened to himself as assiduously as he listens to everyone else, and he finally discovered something: He didn't want to retire. What he likes--what he has actively appreciated for nearly fifty years--is coming to work.

"My first day in the saddle business was February 19, 1939. I was nineteen," Mr. Van recalls. "I got a job with the H.H. Heiser saddle company over where the Terminal Annex is now. An apprentice, they called it, and they paid me one dollar a day. Previous to that I had made one dollar a week cleaning out chicken runs. These were Depression times, and I was happy to have a job at all."

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."

Susan Van Scoyk, at 47 Mr. Van's oldest child, is in a unique position to discuss her family. Not only is she part of it, but in a development due in no small part to her inherited talent for careful listening, she is a licensed psychiatrist. As such, she is qualified to discuss the early influences that made her father the man he is.

There is nothing complex about them.
"He had a rough time with his own dad, but he came through," she says proudly. "He wanted to be a wonderful dad, and he was."

When pressed, Susan reveals more of her father's psychological profile: His mother was an early devotee of health food, which he still can't bear to eat. "Thank God there were so many Italians around north Denver," Susan says, "or my Dad would have had nothing to eat but wheat germ and yogurt."

Susan Van Scoyk spent her teenage summers doing various odd jobs at the saddlery and walking with her father around the neighborhood. "We couldn't make it two blocks before he fell into a conversation with a stranger," she recalls. This was true not only at home, but also on the family's first real vacation, in 1957.

"We went to Galveston, Texas, at the beginning or end of the hurricane season," Susan recalls. "Just the wrong time, but we went to the beach anyway. Also at the beach, in winter garb, was another family. A black family. And before you knew it, their dad and my dad were just chatting away. Later that day, my dad told me, 'You know, people make such a big deal about skin color. It actually means nothing.'"

His position on this and other timely subjects was never lost on Susan, who became a "polite young socialist" at Barnard College and brought her radical boyfriends home to discuss the plight of the proletariat with her successful, capitalist father. "My father had instituted health benefits and profit-sharing, it turned out," she laughs. "He was one of the first. It kind of took the wind out of the sails of the young socialists."

Susan came back to Colorado in 1974, not just for medical school, but to be near her parents--and the hot meals they provided. Three years ago, with nearly two decades of professional psychiatry under her belt, she decided to take a part-time job at Colorado Saddlery, "doing what needs to be done," she says. "I did this to get a sense of the history. I figured I would either like it here or not."

Well, she likes it. Her eleven-year-old daughter, Vanessa, and fifteen-year-old son, Jason, often accompany her to work. Sometimes the three of them will fan out over the floors of the building, packing saddles, answering phones, sweeping the front stoop.

But just as often, you can find all three generations shoehorned into P.R. Van Scoyk's office, listening raptly to whoever has dropped by.

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