How Leather Carving Became a Part of Sheridan, Wyoming’s Identity
By Shawn Parker
From May 12 through September 5, 2022, visitors to The Brinton Museum can experience an exhibition unlike anything ever before produced in Sheridan County. Master Leather Carving from America and Japan features work from 25 master leather carvers in a show that aims to, according to The Brinton’s Chief Curator Kenneth L. Schuster, “give the public a greater understanding of the approach both cultures use in the creation of fine leather items. In the comparison of floral tooling patterns, carving techniques, design and tool preferences, we can get a sense of the artist’s influences, as well as his or her creative contribution to each design.” Visitors will learn how Western saddle makers and leather carvers influenced artists in the Far East, and how, through the reciprocal nature of this ever-evolving artform, Japanese artists are now influencing carvers in North America.
Leather craft is inextricably linked to the culture of Wyoming and is woven into the very fabric of Sheridan’s identity. There have been saddle makers and leather toolers in Bighorn Mountain Country for as long as there have been cowboys chasing sunsets across the frontier, yet leather craft as art is something of a modern phenomenon, one born of the fusion of rangeland utility and upcountry escapism. Yet it would be impossible to tell the story of this artform without understanding a bit of the history of Northern Wyoming.
Western stock saddles common to Wyoming in the late 19th century were utilitarian at best. Think frames made from wood or hard leather covered with tough fabric to provide cowboys a bare minimum of comfort. These saddles were built to withstand long days of use and the extreme weather of the Mountain West; they were all function and little form. When Nelson Story Sr. and his cowboys drove more than 500 Texas Longhorns north from Texas along the Bozeman Trail to Montana in 1866, the potential of fertile Powder River Country and the Big Horn Basin as prime rangeland were widely exposed. The cattle industry boomed. Subsequently, leather craft proliferated, yet it retained its utilitarian purpose. The little cow town of Sheridan was still some years away from making a meaningful contribution to western America’s nascent art scene. That would change with the arrival of the railroad.
Wyoming was, to a large extent, too remote to be culturally connected to the booming population centers in the northeast and along the West Coast prior to the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne in 1867. With rail systems expanding across the state, cattle ranchers found ways to ship both live animals and frozen beef to markets previously unavailable to them. Business soared, ranches expanded, and opportunity emerged. Quick to capitalize were foreign investors; demand for beef bloomed across the United States after the Civil War, but also in places like Scotland, England, and Germany. Large ranches in what would become Sheridan County were purchased by wealthy British, some with deep connections to the Crown. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s original train depot was built in 1892. The Sheridan Inn was built the following year. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was auditioned on the front lawn of the Inn, expediting Sheridan’s transformation from Bighorn backwater to cultural touchstone. Bill Cody’s performers were garlanded in spectacular dress, and his riders sat atop ornate saddles, carried intricately carved firearms, and displayed tack tooled by the master craftsmen of the time. As life often imitates art, the pomp and circumstance of Bill Cody’s traveling show began to define the image of the American cowboy.
Visions of the wild American West captured the attention of painters, writers, and journalists. The wealthy – both domestic and foreign – began to explore Wyoming. The youngest son of an English earl named Oliver H. Wallop established the sprawling Canyon Ranch at the mouth of Little Goose Canyon in 1888. Wallop is credited with being the first to raise thoroughbred horses in the region. The Quarter Circle A Ranch was built by Scottish immigrant and businessman William Moncrieffe in 1893 (the ranch would be purchased by Bradford Brinton in 1923 and become a museum in 1936). Eatons’ Ranch was settled in 1904 by brothers from North Dakota. Spear-O-Wigwam, HF Bar, and other destinations catering to upmarket explorers followed suite. Polo fields were built in the tidy community of Big Horn, which would in turn lure visitors from Europe and South America.
Otto F. Ernst’s saddle shop, open in Sheridan from 1902 to 1975, became a hallmark of the western experience. Shirts, hats, jeans, wallets, knives – cowboys and those who played cowboys on TV would garland themselves in the best dress out west when visiting Ernst’s. Yet it was saddles that made the shop famous in cowboy circles. Unlike those simple early saddles, Ernst’s pieces were considered art from the beginning; his precise, intricate floral designs would become the foundation of the “Sheridan style” of leather tooling. A sharp and creative businessman, Ernst developed a catalog that he distributed across the west and the south, and he produced a calendar that showcased his finest tack. His models proudly showcased spurs, bits, bridles, chaps, and, most importantly, saddles – with a “complete cowboy outfit” selling for $100 in 1916 ($2,500 in 2022 dollars). Out of reach for most contemporary working cowboys, Ernst’s custom saddles and tack were marketed to the affluent both at home and abroad. Collectors would eagerly place deposits for saddles that they may not receive for many years.
The story of leather craft as art does not begin and end with saddles. Ernst and his contemporary craftsmen understood that saddles alone were not enough to drive a profitable leather trade. The saddle tree, the wood base that the saddle is built upon, could take an experienced builder six weeks to finish (considering time to fit and measure both horse and rider). From there, a saddle might take one to three additional months to complete. Thereafter a maker would need to consider design, slicking, wetting, shaping, fitting, tooling, and finishing – for each of more than a dozen pieces, including the horn, swell, seat and stirrups. To craft a saddle was to engage in a laborious effort. Not to mention that most people consider buying only one or two saddles in a lifetime. Ernst and other leather crafters understood that diversification was the key to success. It is no coincidence then that experienced makers would stock store shelves with finely tooled belts, wallets, bags, briefcases and boots. Popular films, television shows, stories and serials helped shape western iconography that proliferated from one storefront to the next across the west.
Sheridan has remained the craft capital of Wyoming thanks in part to King’s Saddlery, established by cowboy and leather crafter Don King in 1947. The iconic cowboy emporium remains the foremost tack and leather shop in the west, even as it has become a major destination for visitors – indeed, King’s Rope hats have become something of a ubiquitous hallmark of a trip to Sheridan County. King himself is considered one of the finest leather crafters to ever ply his trade in Wyoming, and his namesake museum, located at King’s Saddlery, features some of his most spectacular pieces – along with work by the likes of Bill Gardner and Chester Hape. When Queen Elizabeth visited Sheridan in 1989, she made a trip to King’s (in a case of art inspiring life once more). What she saw there then was what you will find today; handmade ropes, utilitarian tack, bits, spurs, belt knives and hats set out alongside some of the most spectacularly carved saddles ever made – not to mention hand-tooled wallets, belts, bags, vases, and much more.
Stamping, tooling, and carving traditions are upheld today by the likes of Barry and Ryan King (Don King’s grandsons), and Joe Smith at King’s, as well as James F Jackson of the Brinton Museum. James Jackson, known in the leather trade as Jim, was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2019, and was awarded a Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award the same year. The son of Edward Jackson, Jim was stamping leather in Ernst’s Saddlery by the age of 14. He began hand-stamping belts at King’s in 1974, earned degrees in Fine Art at the University of Wyoming, and began taking custom orders at the shop in 1989. Jackson spent 43 years epitomizing Sheridan craftsmanship at King’s Saddlery before transitioning to the leather shop at the Brinton Museum. Jackson’s art is celebrated globally, and he is an icon not only in Sheridan, but in countries like Japan, a nation known for its own robust history of leather craft. Artists like Akiko Okada, winner of the prestigious Al Stohlman Award for Excellent in Leather Craft, have studied under and been inspired by Jim Jackson, while the likes of Seiichi Koyashiki, considered one of the finest artists in the world, were inspired by Al Stohlman himself. Stohlman, of course, was an iconic figure in leathercraft who apprenticed under Guy Lauterbach, and is known for his long, storied career in the industry – perhaps most notably for his work producing the books “Figure Carving” and “How to Carve Leather” for Craftool Co. These publications were instrumental in introducing new students to leathercraft (across the world).
“The influence of tooling “styles” from North America on Japanese leatherworkers, however, has been relatively recent,” writes Jackson. “This serious fascination with the character of “Western” tooling became popular in Japan around the middle of the 20th century. It started developing when movies, magazines, and popular culture began their love affair with the “American Cowboy.” The floral patterns that you would see on the saddles, belts, boots and other everyday items associated with the cowboy’s way of life, conveyed a certain character that many Japanese found attractive. When these “Western Style” patterns began showing up on purses, wallets and belts in Japan in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there was a surge of interest in floral carving on leather items. Today, if you walk into most any leather shop in Japan and mention “Sheridan style tooling,” the leatherworkers will most likely know you are talking about a particular style of carving that developed in Northern Wyoming.”
Master Leather Carving from North America and Japan, with work by Jackson, Okada, Barry King, Koyashiki and many others offers an exciting glimpse at Wyoming’s impact on what has long been viewed as a solely American trade. Some of these Japanese masters work in the “Sheridan Style,” while others have cultivated distinct signatures in a medium that has evolved along with the western frontier itself. In the words of Jim Jackson, “the focus and intention of this exhibit is to give insight and recognition to the valuable and influential artistic exchange between distinctly different cultures. By comparing the floral designs, tooling methods, and carving styles that embody this leatherwork, we have an opportunity to visualize how creative ideas are reshaped.” Kenneth L. Schuster writes that “the exhibition will focus on the qualities and characteristics that define the work of leather artisans from two distinctly different cultures separated by the Pacific Ocean. It will explore the design, layout, carving, tooling and some construction methods used in the leather trade,” and provide the public an opportunity to witness artists from wildly disparate cultural backgrounds work the same medium to remarkable creative ends.
The Brinton’s exhibition opens in time for the annual Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show, presented by the Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal. The trade show takes place May 20 through 22, 2022, at the Ramada Plaza by Wyndham in Sheridan, Wyoming.
The Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show features a week of leather workshops, Tuesday, May 17th through Saturday, May 21st:
- Hands-on, in-person instruction from professional leather artists
- Meet leather workers and artists in a fun and educational environment
- Improve your skills and enhance your art or profession
For more information on the exhibition visit thebrintonmuseum.org
For more information on the trade show and workshops visit leathercraftersjournal.com