Saddle Tramps

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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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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