Butler honored for leather craftsmanship
Sheridan — “This is one of the bigger honors I’ve ever had, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” says saddle maker Don Butler of receiving one of the Governor’s Arts Awards presented Feb. 12 in Cheyenne.
The awards are designed to recognize artist, arts organizations and patrons who provide outstanding service to the arts in Wyoming and who have displayed excellence in the arts. They were established in 1982 and made possible by an endowment from the Union Pacific Foundation. To date individuals from 20 Wyoming communities have been recognized.
Butler started stamping belts in 4-H and put himself through high school stamping for Otto F. Ernst.
“The Ernst Saddlery was a very well known old saddlery in Sheridan that closed in 1976 but had been open since the turn of the century. It was quite a neat old saddle shop and most, not all, but most all the saddle makers in this area have worked at Ernst’s at least once during their tenure,” he says.
“I put my first saddle together with a book, well the back of a book, on how to make cowboy horse gear. It had a little section in the back by Lee M. Rice on how to make a saddle. I didn’t probably read everything there was to read in the deal; I was ready to apply leather to tree. I was on a cow camp on the head of the Little Big Horn River that summer and put a saddle together with that book. Needless to say it lacked a lot of ‘finish’ and it has never seen the light of day since then. But I gained a lot of knowledge from it and the most important thing I learned is that I needed to get some help if I was ever going to do it again,” explains Butler.
He put the saddle up and didn’t give saddle making another thought for several years. In 1972 Butler returned to Sheridan. He started stamping for Bob Douglas, who had a shop going and had learned from Don King.
“I spent the winter trading whatever stamping I could do for Bob to show me how to put a saddle together. I had a tree at home and whenever we’d work on a saddle in the shop I would do the very same thing that night at home. So I built two at the same time more or less and from there it kind of took off. I took a lot of notes and Douglas would help here and there,” says Butler.
“I just built a saddle or two in the winter until 1976 when my wife Kitty and I went out on our own. We had a bunch of cows and I was day working and riding colts and anything I could do to turn a dollar to buy groceries for the cows. Up until then I hadn’t given any thought to pursuing saddle making as a career. I wanted to paint pictures and I realized very suddenly that the picture market was pretty iffy and cows get a little hungry between sales of pictures. So I decided that maybe I ought to pursue something that generated a little more steady income, so I took to the saddle making and opened a shop and still day worked until the very early 1980s,” Butler explains.
In 1982 Butler went to work for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as a brand inspector and held that position for 14 years. He says that up until then he had a little extra income from day working, riding colts or anything else that was available and he would build saddles at night.
Butler’s leatherwork isn’t limited to saddles, but includes leather goods of all kinds. He says he used to build a tremendous amount of chaps. “It didn’t take long after opening the shop before we were a long ways behind, then we got more and more behind. I would say that saddles have been an important part of our business and I’m not sure how many more than 500 I’ve built, it’s just over that. But, in the course of time, I have built equal that in belts and what-not in total volume,” he explains.
Don and Kitty had a full retail shop in Sheridan and opened another store in Cody during the Wyoming Centennial. “We ran two retail stores for years and about three years ago I decided it was getting to be too big a burden and tougher to find help, so we closed the retail portion in Sheridan. My daughter runs the store in Cody,” he says.
In addition to leatherwork Butler also does all of his own silver work. It was originally a diversion and hobby that turned into another business. “There’s always a blur of distinction between want and need and I decided that I needed a mill and lathe to make dyes for my silver work. Kitty asked how I would pay for it and I decided to make stamping tools to sell to the public. That became overwhelming,” says Butler.
He was producing everything by hand and when Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines came out they took over the business. Butler says he had too many balls in the air anyway and quit the tool business. He still produces his own tools and says selling tools served a purpose to the business and allowed him the machinery to make dyes for his silver work.
“Right now people call for a saddle since our front door isn’t open all the time. I shut off taking orders in the year 2000. I had a lot of orders on the books at that time. I finished the last of those in August of 2008. To qualify that I was hurt and laid up for about a year and half and didn’t produce much,” says Butler.
“Over the years I’ve put people on the list. Now I work on three orders at a time and when I finish or nearly finish those I get on the phone and call the next three on the list. So far is has worked extremely well. No one has cancelled and everyone I’ve called has wanted a saddle.”
Butler also enters saddles in shows around the United States. Some are gallery shows and others are competitions. Butler’s saddles have performed well at several shows and he sees them as a means of validating his skills and being compared to his peers.
Butler saddles are also featured in a number of collections, but are built to be used. “More and more are going into collections, but they’re all built to use. Even the really high priced ones you can jerk down a rope and go trip a steer or whatever. The first thing about any of this stuff as far as I’m concerned is that it has to be functional first before it can be artwork.”
“There are certain things in life that people look at as kind of a glamour thing and saddles are one that people look at and go, ‘that’s so neat,’ and they are. Having done a lot of painting and other forms of artwork, there’s just as much art that goes into making a saddle as painting a picture. There’s a lot of mechanics that go into saddles, but a lot of art too,” states Butler.
“It’s been quite a trip and it’s treated us incredibly well,” says Butler of his career to date. Adding that he often jokes he is the luckiest man in the world for being so accepted in his trade.