My father completed a four-year saddlemaking apprenticeship in Grangeville, Idaho, under the GI Bill during the 1940s. This launched him into an approximately 60-year career, during which he made about 6,000 Ben Tarrell saddles.
Dad worked for a time in Grangeville, and the Oregon towns of Pendleton and Heppner before moving the family to Weiser, Idaho. I was in the sixth grade at the time, and it is during the following years that I have the most memories of being a saddlemaker’s daughter.
Dad worked for a short time at John’s Leather Goods in Weiser, then started his own wholesale business in a remodeled garage in our backyard. He made custom saddles, selling them through dealers in southern Idaho, which meant we had very few customers coming to our house. My mother helped by doing all of the bookkeeping. If the saddle was hand-tooled, she did the color background dying. My brother and I made extra money by sweeping the shop.
There was always the activity in the garage, with the shipments of rolls of leather or the saddle frames, called trees, being delivered to our house. My dad worked long hours, well into the evening, but we always knew he was close by and took great comfort in that. We could visit him or consult him with problems no matter the time of day. Since he was an artist, I used his expertise to help me with school projects.
Sometimes, after my school day, I would read to my dad from my lessons while he worked in the shop. He enjoyed learning with me, because he had quit school at an early age. Later, he studied and received his GED certificate, which made us all, including him, very proud.
Even though Dad was at our house every day, he always reserved Sunday to rest and to be with his family. The day included attending church and usually eating at one of the restaurants in a town nearby.
The summer months were filled with attending local rodeos. One summer, we made it to 11 rodeos! Sometimes Dad would be recognized for being a local saddlemaker, or he’d present a hand-tooled photo album or belt to one of the queens or rodeo participants, adding to the excitement of the day.
Dad’s business grew and prospered over the years. After I graduated from high school, my parents moved to Boise, Idaho, where Dad created a shop in the basement. There, he made saddles for about 30 years. During some of the time in Boise, my dad made saddles for a dealer in Switzerland.
Dad also became acquainted with a horse camp in Southwest Washington, near Battle Ground, called Royal Ridges Horse Camp. He combined his talent for saddlemaking and his generosity to others by making numerous saddles and repairing used ones for the camp. In 2008, Dad and others were honored by the camp at its 30th anniversary celebration for their many donations throughout the years. At the celebration, Dad’s saddles were displayed, and we were amazed at the large number of saddles he had made for the camp. We are pleased and proud to know that campers will be riding Ben Tarrell saddles for many years to come.
Whenever I catch the scent of leather or hear the sound of heavy-duty sewing machines I will always think of Dad’s shop at our house. I am also proud that my kids have memories of visiting Boise, where they tried their hands at using Grandpa’s leather tools, earned money for sweeping the shop and watched their Grandpa make saddles.
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