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Saddlemaker Ken Tipton

The following is part of a series of guest posts by Carl Fleischhauer of the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.  Carl is a former staff member of the American Folklife Center and participated in many of the Center’s field collecting projects. All the photos embedded in this post were shot by Carl in August 2014.  The first post in Carl’s series can be found here. The second can be found hereThe third can be found here.

Ken and Cathi Tipton in their store, Tip's Western, in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Ken and Cathi Tipton in their store, Tip’s Western, in Winnemucca, Nevada.

This is my fourth and final blog about my August visit to Paradise Valley, Nevada, the site of an American Folklife Center ethnographic field project from 1978 to 1982, some fruits of which are online as Buckaroos in Paradise.  In the last two blogs, I described what I saw in the valley–home to about two dozen cattle ranches–and the 150th anniversary celebration of one them: Stewart’s Ninety-Six Ranch.

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Manuel Mercado finishing work on the tree for a new custom saddle. Mercado is talented associate of Ken Tipton, shown here in the basement workshop at Tip’s Western.

One of the events in the week-long celebration of the Ninety-Six’s 150th birthday was a barrel-racing competition at the Humboldt County fairgrounds.  There I was reintroduced to a  superlative craftsman in leather: the saddle-maker Ken Tipton.  I had photographed Ken in 1979 (some images are in Buckaroos in Paradise online), when his work was being carefully documented for our field project by Dick Ahlborn, the Smithsonian’s expert in Western saddles and horse gear, now retired. (Dick’s 1978 photos of Ken are also in the online collection.)  In 1980, Ahlborn invited Tipton to demonstrate his craft at the National Museum of American History as a part of the Buckaroos in Paradise exhibit at the museum.

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New custom saddle made by Ken Tipton, inspired by a 1904 example from Guadalupe Garcia and also by a classic design from D.E. Walker’s Visalia Stock Saddle Company.

At the barrel-racing event, I arranged to meet Ken and his wife Cathi at their shop in Winnemucca, where I photographed three of his most recent custom saddles, got a tour of his workshop, and met his associate, Manuel Mercado.  Ken recapped highlights of his career, which was just starting to mature when Dick Ahlborn first visited.  Ken’s interest in leather began when he was a youth, continued in high school and college, and received special focus right around 1970, when he worked for spell at the famous and respected J.M. Capriola company in Elko, Nevada:

When I arrived at Capriola’s they had a saddle maker whose name was Chip Drusch, he was very interesting, he was a real artisan, a great saddle maker, gun engraver, silversmith, and he played guitar and banjo, he had played with Dave Dudley, he traveled with that group  . . . he had a lot of good stories and he was a pretty good storyteller too.

Ken described his learning process as a mix of apprenticing with men like Drusch and self-study that employed reverse engineering.

I apprenticed quite a bit — at Capriola’s with Chip, but then I took my work to another level by tearing apart things that I liked.  I would even buy saddles that I liked and tear them apart to see how they did things so that I could incorporate that into my work.  And then I taught myself to do silver work and when I got to be at a stage where I thought I was pretty good and realized that it was really lousy, I went to other masters to get help from them.  And I continue to do that today.

Under the seat jockey and fender, Ken raises the stirrup leather and exposes the "center-fire" brass rigging ring for the cinch.

Under the seat jockey and fender, Ken raises the stirrup leather and exposes the “center-fire” brass rigging ring for the cinch.

Most of Ken’s customers are from the region, and include working buckaroos, riders who are active in team roping and rodeo competition, and well-to-do “gentleman” (and lady) ranchers. Ken said that the saddles he builds today represent both continuity and evolution in regional design.

We talked about one saddle that was in his showroom the day I visited, shown in the photographs that illustrate this blog.  This saddle pays tribute to a more-than-century-old example from Guadalupe S. Garcia, the founder of another Elko company that eventually merged with Capriola’s.  A second influence stems from the famous California firm founded by David E. Walker in 1870: the Visalia Stock Saddle Company.  These are both great bloodlines for a buckaroo saddle.  Here is some of what Ken told me about the saddle:

This saddle uses a copy of a Visalia Walker saddle tree.  The style is also influenced by some pictures in a 1904 Garcia catalog.  It has an old timer loop seat and what we call a four-button seat or some people call an eight-button seat: the saddle has eight strings on it.  The seat and the front jockeys are separate pieces and underneath is in-skirt rigging, which was rare for those days, but we did find pictures of them.

Ken provides another view of this saddle's unusual double stirrup leathers.

Ken provides another view of this saddle’s unusual double stirrup leathers.

The saddle has center-fire rigging, meaning that the rigging for the cinch is set right in the middle between the wide points of the bars.  The horn is a dally horn–it’s a brass horn covered with rawhide suitable for those who dally a reata when roping [that is, give it a turn around the saddle horn], rather than tying hard and fast.

One especially interesting feature is the full double stirrup.  The stirrup leathers go around the bottom of the stirrup and around the bar of the saddle two full times.  Then they lace together up under the seat jockey, where most saddles only go around once.

Tipton’s handmade saddles are priced in the mid-four-figures and Ken reported that he had a three-year backlog of orders.  “If I am going to retire,” he said, “I’ll need to plan ahead.”