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Two Elko craftsmen are keeping a cowboy tradition alive.
Photo: Matt Smith (Eddie Brooks above; John Wright below)
Nevada’s saddle makers come in all shapes and sizes, ages and ability, but two from Elko County—with backlogs of orders—stand out. Eddie Brooks, 75, and John Wright, 26, may be separated in age by a half-century, but they are connected through a mutual artistic talent that stands the test of time.
Eddie and John have never worked together and have only a nodding acquaintance, but their similarities have a certain family-like quality to them. Both have ties to Elko’s internationally known cowboy outfitter, J.M. Capriola Company, both love rodeo, and both have loved leather since their younger years.
John was born in Elko, but Eddie is a Texan who moved to the area—twice—because, as he says, “I love the wide-open country… The buckaroos here really use their saddles. They ride all day, every day, and their saddles have to fit them and their horses. They might be standoffish at first—they’re gonna watch for a while until a guy proves himself, but that’s the kind of people I like. They make me a better saddle maker.”
Even if the saddles that flow from the hands of these men are embellished with carved flowers and finished with silver fittings, most of them end up on the backs of working cow horses where they get rained and rolled on, scarred and skinned. But not all—a good number wind up in art collections or in the hands of public officials and entertainers.
Eddie has made saddles for former President Lyndon B. Johnson and former Texas Governor John Connally, and he made a special hatband for his friend, country singer Charlie Daniels. J.M. Capriola Company, where John has family ties, has made saddles for former President Ronald Reagan and actors Sylvester Stallone and Wilford Brimley. Both makers have sold saddles all over the United States, and in Europe, Australia, and Canada.
Saddle making certainly is an art. Eddie won the Nevada Governor’s Arts Award in 1993 and was named Saddle Maker of the Year in 2003 by the Academy of Western Artists (another Nevada saddle maker, Bill Malloy of Reno, won the same award in 2002). John’s first full floral-carved saddle was deemed best by judges at the 2007 Great Basin Cowboy Trappings Gear Show during the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.
John, blond, blue-eyed, and the father of two, is still riding saddle broncs and raising bucking bulls. Eddie, who ails from his competitive rodeo days, is the dark-eyed father of five, stepfather to two, and grandfather of seven.
John’s family owns the Capriola store, which was established by Joe Capriola in 1929. Working in a Western store means that John often has to put aside the saddle he is tooling to build a headstall or do an emergency repair. Eddie, on the other hand, works out of his home and can restrict his work to the saddles to which he is committed. He can concentrate on his art, one piece at a time. “I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he explains. “Carving leather and making saddles is just part of that lifestyle. Like the song says, ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.’ I always liked working with my hands, and I like beautiful things. I guess that’s why I am still carving leather. I love doing it.”
Fifty years of professional experience will earn you a reputation. Just ask Eddie, whose back order for saddles is five years long (the average saddle takes him two to three months to complete). Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on a “li’le ol’ ranch,” as a youngster Eddie hung around a leather carver and often brought home scraps on which he stamped with tools he made himself of sharpened bolts and pencils. He continued leatherwork during the two years he spent in the U.S. Army. In 1955 he landed back in Fort Worth, where he rode bareback broncs and bulls in arenas.
Eddie was an apprentice with the Leddy Brothers before he moved to Nevada to work for the late Paul Bear at Capriola in 1964. Paul had seen Eddie’s work and requested his services.
Eddie returned to Texas for a nine-year stint before settling down in the Elko area in 1975. He logged seven more years at Capriola, then opened Eddie Brooks Saddlery shop in Elko. In 1989 he moved his shop to his home in Spring Creek.
Eddie’s base price is $3,200. The saddle he recently finished for Aaron Stephens of Henifer, Utah, sold for $6,900. It includes a ranch scene carved by Karla Jones Chapin, who worked at Eddie’s Elko shop for five years.
John grew up in the business owned by Bear, his grandfather, who attended John’s junior rodeos and was always the first one there in the morning to greet customers. As a teenager John made tapaderos, belts, wallets, and headstalls. “I always liked playing around with leather, liked drawing on it, and started making rodeo chaps for me and my buddies when I was about 15,” John says. “You have to have an eye for leather carving. You need to be able to draw and to make a design flow. You have to develop a natural style. Saddle makers Bill Rogers and Andy Stevens helped me mostly while they worked here at Cap’s. Bill taught me how to build the saddle from the tree up. Andy showed me [design techniques]—the patterns and flowers and how to carve the leather.”
The base price for Capriola saddles is $3,400 with a 16- to 18-month wait for custom work. It takes 60 to 80 working hours to make one depending on the carving, and that doesn’t count drying time.
Custom saddles and trees
Custom-made saddles start with lengthy discussions about the rider’s height and weight, what kind of horn he wants for the kind of roping he does, what kind of cantle he wants, how much silver, plus a dozen other considerations, John says. In the Great Basin, buckaroos dally when they rope, so the horn is different from those built for southwestern cowboys who often tie “hard and fast.”
A saddle’s components consist first of the tree—and making trees is a whole industry in itself. If the rider is usually on colts, a Wade tree is often requested because the gullet is lower and wider to fit “mutton” withered young horses with broader backs. Older horses have more sharply defined, higher withers and are better served by saddles with higher gullets that accommodate their conformations. Trees like the Weatherly fit most horses.
Trees are made of soft wood (often yellow pine or cottonwood) covered by rawhide so screws can be inserted without splitting the wood. They are held together with wet, stretched rawhide and need drying time. Recently unbreakable poly trees have become acceptable because they are lighter. Trees can be mass produced, but custom-made trees are ordered for certain kinds of horses and individual riders who specify to their saddle makers what they want.
Saddle leather needs to be without flaw—no scars or brands—and of a certain weight and color. “In the old days, we could get a saddle out of one hide, but today, because of changes in the tanning process, it can take up to two and a half hides,” John says, adding that he uses kangaroo leather for lacing. Glue, dye, and latigo leather are further considerations. A rigging can have a flat plate sewn in the skirt and cinch positions can vary depending on what kind of work and what kind of roping—arena or ranch—a cowboy does.
Next, the cowboy chooses what kind of leather carving he wants: whether it will cover the whole saddle or just the corners and edges of fenders. Some saddles have Western scenes carved into them and color stained into the leather. Some are embossed with names or brands and are full flower or basket stamped. Some are rough out. Designs and styles are endless and some saddle makers create their own. For example, Eddie’s personally designed flower carvings are the Ruby Mountain Rose and Twisted Petal Poinsettia patterns.
Sheepskin, applied to the bottom of a finished saddle, needs to be thick and of good quality to protect a horse’s back. Cinches and stirrups of many designs constitute the final touch.
Bud Openshaw: A saddle is more important than a truck
On sale days in Fallon—when ranch folks from around Nevada sell their cattle and horses—buckaroos drop by Openshaw Saddlery on Maine Street to check out the gear. In the back of the store cowboys can find the latest saddle that Bud Openshaw is working on. “I love to build saddles,” Bud says. “The saddle is such a personal thing. It goes everywhere a cowboy goes. It’s more important than a truck. You saddle up every morning, and you can’t do without it.”
Bud has always liked leatherwork and went to saddle-making school in Bishop, California. He makes the traditional Nevada model, a slick-fork saddle, with a wider fork in the front and a higher cantle in the back. He carves and stamps the leather and adds the silver decorations that buckaroos prefer.
While Bud takes custom orders, often he’ll just begin a saddle and put it on a rack near his work area. Before it’s done, it’s sold. “That’s funny how that works,” Bud says.
Bud runs the store with his wife, Kathy, and children, Tyler (now at Great Basin College in Elko), Robin, and Tom. “There are quite a few horse people here, and our retail store kind of caters to everybody, not just the working cowboy,” he says. “We’ve got other saddles and the gear that goes with them, and some outerwear.” He also does repairs.
Hanging on the walls are well-worn hats left by their former owners when they buy new ones. “It’s kind of neat,” Bud says. “I can tell whose hat it is just by looking at it.”—By Joyce Hollister; Above photo by Jay Aldrich
596 Dunes Dr., Spring Creek
J.M. Capriola Company
500 Commercial St., Elko
105 S. Maine St., Fallon
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