Saddle Tramps

"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!"