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Sunday, May 30, 2010

That Good Lookin' Al Spence

Being Memorial Day..., and I have been posting stories that involve my Dad..., I thought it fitting that I post his obituary from last year here.

Alexander R. Spence, 79, Weippe

Born: Aug. 23, 1929
Died: Aug. 07, 2009

The spoken phrase, “Hello, I'm That Good Lookin' Al Spence,” will be spoken never again by the man who coined and used it throughout most of his life. Al has passed on to be with his beloved wife Wanda in the hereafter. The one and only time he ever referred to himself as something other than “young and good lookin' “ was when he described himself as “…an old, homely, older-than-dirt husband… “ when he wrote Wanda's obituary in November 2006. It was a true measure of the depth of the loss he felt.

Al was born in Ellensburg, Wash., to Alexander Spence and Ethel Vanderkar Spence, both deceased. The family, including sisters Ethel Pollillo of Kennewick and Mary Ann Chapman of Weippe, and half-sisters Ione Jones Layman, deceased, and Elna Jones Marner, deceased, moved to Weippe shortly thereafter and Al spent most of his life there.

While still in his teenage years, Al took a job horse packing for Steve Russell at the Lochsa Lodge near the Idaho-Montana border and Lolo Pass. The experience was one of his fondest memories and he reminisced about them on a recent road trip to that location with his two sons, Scott R. of Forks, Wash., and Larry of Weippe.

Al was drafted into the Army in 1950 and served in California and Germany. Before being deployed overseas, he married Wanda Kautz, on July 7, 1951, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Their marriage lasted a life-time and Al was at her bedside when she passed away.

When he returned to Weippe he worked for Potlatch as a cat skinner, and participated in the Clearwater Log Drive featured in the July 1951 issue of the National Geographic magazine. In the later 1950s, he bought his own dozer and became a contract logger. He continued to build his logging operation until the call of the north took him to Alaska and the pipeline project in the 1970s. When he returned to Weippe he sold the logging operation, bought a small ranch, and became the cowboy he always wanted to be. He ran his cattle-raising operation until an auto accident in the early 1990s. The injuries slowed him down physically and he could not continue the practice.

Al leaves three grandchildren, Keith Spence of Lewiston, A.J. Spence of Lewiston and Bert Spence of Weippe; two adopted grandchildren, Brianne Page of Sandpoint, Idaho, and Stacy Petty of Fort Hood, Texas; and three great-grandchildren.

Al will be cremated and no services are planned. Surviving family members ask only that he be always remembered as, “That Good Lookin' Al Spence”.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Biscuits & Gravy and the First Killing Frost

Encouraged by the comments from Ellen on my last post..., and of course by Don signing on as a follower..., I am posting this one from last fall. It was originally posted to my Diary on The Agonist (10/12/09). Hope Ellen (and Don) can smell the Biscuits & Gravey this time :)

There are few things in life better than biscuits & gravy on a frosty morning. Especially when it brings to mind fond memories of your recently departed father dishing it up inside a wood stove warmed tent in a hunting camp on Cook Mountain in Idaho many years ago. Yeah…, a little breakfast before the work begins. The fun is over but the thrill isn’t gone until we have saddled the horses and mules and headed back down the draw to pack the downed elk out.

But this morning…, it’s Julie providing the biscuits & gravy here on The Ranch on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Throw a couple of fresh eggs, provided by the chickens that roam The Ranch, fried to perfection on top, and you feel like you can take on any challenge. The game to harvest later today after this first killing frost isn’t elk though. I haven’t killed any game animal for meat since I left Idaho over twenty years ago. And I hope that I never have too. But will…, if I must. It’s been a few years since the elk have raised havoc with our fences…, but they aren’t far away. The horses and dogs attest to that. The Garden is closer though, and I feel confident that I won’t get the ambiguous feeling from pulling potatoes out of the ground that I did from putting an elk on it. We will see today how successful we have been at coaxing food from this ground we call home. A back up plan to put food on the table in never a bad strategy. In the days to come it may be a necessity to meet the challenges ahead.

I don’t see any back up plan for our nation. We are running on stimulus. We were served up a breakfast of dried biscuits in the form of a busted economic strategy to pull forward demand for housing and credit. Some say we couldn’t have chocked down those biscuits without an outlandish helping of gravy in the form of monetary stimulus. We will never know for sure now. But given the fact that the gravy wasn’t used for it’s initially stated purpose…, and has been spread over the plate to include things like enticing people to buy new cars that they don’t need…, I can’t help but doubt the wisdom of the plan. With real unemployment running around 20% and no real turn around anywhere in sight for the foreseeable future…, we are told we can count on a jobless recovery. The gravy hasn’t helped us choke down those biscuits either. What are we going to do when the gravy runs out?

I am going out to The Garden…, and think about better days and my father.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ray Holes Saddles

It was early fall in the low country…, but on top of Cook Mountain it was late fall. Water was freezing in the bucket at night and the heavy morning frosts looked more like snow in the meadows around our hunting camp. Inside the tent on those mornings you knew everyone else was awake, staying in their warm sleeping bags…, because the snoring had stopped…, waiting for some other brave fool to crawl out and get a fire going in the stove. The Western Larch trees that we call Tamarack, the only evergreen that changes color and loses it’s needles in the winter, were aglow with that rich golden color that deciduous trees aspire to…, but never attain.

We had packed in, on horses and mules, about five miles from our base camp on Weitis Creek a few days before. My butt told me it was much further than that and I was still more than a little saddle sore…, when my Uncle Leroy decided that it was safe to turn his bell mare loose. He figured that his horses and mules would hang around as long as Beer Nip was tied in camp. Beer Nip wasn’t a mare, but served as the bell mare for my Dad’s herd. Dad was already throwing his saddle on Beer Nip as I watched quizzically…, and my uncle shouted something like, “Oh shit,” as eight head of horses and mules headed across the meadow at a trot. They were headed the shortest route to the road that circled around to our spike camp. As Dad put the bridle on Beer Nip and handed the reins to me, he said something like, “Well…, if you can’t head them off before they reach the road…, they will probably stop at our base camp on the Weitis. If that happens…, you just as well spend the night there, load up some more grub and come back in the morning.”

That frost I mentioned earlier was long gone by that afternoon…, but the moisture it left on that dirt road made walking on that road a treacherous ordeal. Galloping a horse down that road was something else altogether. But my butt told me that it was worth the risk of avoiding a much longer ride. They say that some funny things can go through your mind when you have a near-death experience. Well…, my life may not have been passing before my eyes…, but mud and snot and sweat and slobber sure were. And I was thinking..., “Damn…, this is one fine saddle.”

The heavy brush along the road had more to do with turning back our quitters than any heroics on my part. But back at camp I remarked to my Dad that I kind of liked that saddle of his. He remarked, “That’s a Ray Holes saddle, boy.”

I didn’t even know what brand of saddle I had. I did know that I wished my Dad was riding it, with it’s padded “sissy seat”, and I was riding his hard seat Ray Holes when we headed off Cook Mountain that fall. I got half that wish the next day when it was decided that we would save a little gas in the stock truck by roading the herd up out of the Weitis. I got to ride Beer Nip and the Ray Holes saddle and lead my uncle’s bell mare…, while the rest of the head was turned loose. Dad and LeRoy took the vehicles about five miles up to the top of the ridge where we would load them up for the trip home. Beer Nip and Tillie didn’t much like the fact that the rest of the herd would gallop away up the road and out of sight, then turn around and gallop back to check that the alpha horses were still coming along. The fact that Tillie’s colt was one of the herd made her another type of pain in the butt for me to deal with. I had to keep a tight rein on Beer Nip to keep him from galloping away to catch the herd. I thought I was in for a miserable, bone-jarring trot that even a Ray Holes saddle couldn’t mitigate. I wasn’t so wrong about that…, but Beer Nip was a pacer. If it hadn‘t been for having to deal with a distraught mother in fear of losing her only child…, it would have been like riding a rocking chair. I now understand why Jake Spoon rode a pacer in “Lonesome Dove.” But he couldn’t have been riding a Ray Holes saddle. I bet he would have…, if they were made back then. He understood quality and comfort.

I never forgot about that Ray Holes saddle. Many years later when Julie and I had our own “ranch” here on the Quillayute Prairie and a couple of our own horses, she needed a saddle of her own. I searched Ebay…, and found a Ray Holes saddle…, with a $2500 reserve! I didn’t bid. I did call my Dad. He laughed at my astonishment at the price of a Ray Holes saddle.

So…, that’s the story of how my “saddle obsession” started. The George Lawrence saddles we have now…, that far outnumber our horses…, aren’t the quality of a Ray Holes…, but they are beautiful, well made…, and more in our price range.

In that 1945 issue of “Western Horseman” magazine I mentioned in my last post about George Lawrence saddles…, there is an ad for Ray Holes Saddle Co. It says simply:

Honest fellows

We’re swamped. No delivery less
than 8 months. Please order only
if a necessity.

Says a whole lot about the quality and character of Ray Holes and the demand for the saddles he built.

From Lee M. Rice’s book, “They Saddled the West”:

Ray Holes was living with the single ambition to become a full-fledged saddle maker with a shop of his own. At the same time, he was not blind to his lack of fundamental knowledge in the craft. He knew from experience that some saddles were good while others were bad: that many well-built and good looking rigs were uncomfortable to ride. Some were hard on a horse’s back and some would wear out a man in a day’s riding, despite their apparent quality. Occasionally he would come across some old hull, out of date and badly worn, that possessed a welcome comfort evidently bestowed by a superior craftsman who understood the secrets of overall perfection. Each day brought new questions for which Ray had no definite answers. The more he observed, the stronger grew his conviction that the most comfortable and best fitting rigs for all-around hard work on the range had been built by earlier saddle makers who had risen to prominence during the decades shortly before and immediately after the turn of the century, when the stringent demands of cowmen were at their height. Further study convinced him that the more important old-time saddlers were growing scarcer every year. If he were to benefit by their knowledge, it behooved him to undergo some first-hand studies at the feet of the old masters before rapidly advancing years took their final toll.

He therefore, set out to contact all the old-time saddle makers he could find who might initiate him into the basic principles of the craft. Some he was able to reach through correspondence; some he visited in person; others he worked with as a willing apprentice for varying periods of time. As might be expected, he met occasional rebuffs or cynical brush-offs. Not all men were willing to share their secrets with a stranger. Yet here were enough, who recognized in the eager young man a reflection of their own quest for knowledge, that he found himself led, step by step, into the inner circle of master craftsmen.

Armed with the best available knowledge, advice and practices gleaned from a wide variety of preeminent saddlers about the country, Ray’s main ambition was to produce something outstanding in saddles for the working cowboys, First in importance, he reasoned, was to set up the three basic qualities as his standard: mainly, comfort, durability and beauty. On this foundation it would be necessary to build a saddle that could meet all the requirements of the arduous range work that Idaho’s steep and rugged mountain country demanded. It was a big order. Yet his years of cow work and roaming the uninhabited wilderness, which had enabled Chief Joseph’s people to elude the United States Army in 1877, gave way an understanding of the special needs in riding equipment for such rough territory.

Along with these accomplishments, he developed a type of free-swinging stirrup leathers that avoided the bundlesome and awkward features of some patented stirrup leather hangers. In a mountainous country, where so much up- and downhill riding is necessary, these free-swinging stirrup leathers win praise from all who use them. They are only equaled by the Ray Holes carefully constructed saddle seats. As a matter of fact, the two items are actually combined to give the maximum in comfort. It requires extremely artful care to shape and place the parts that eventually combine themselves into a single unit of all-around durability, comfort and beauty, such as captured Ray Holes’ vision 40 years ago.

Rice’s book was published in 1975. Ray Holes started building saddles in the 1930’s, and though he has passed away, the tradition of fine saddle making is being carried on to this day at the Ray Holes Saddle Shop in Grangeville, ID.

Pictures added 5/30/10

The saddle that I rode in the story has disappeared. It was an older, pretty much plain with a "high-back" cantle if memory serves me correctly. Dad never would have sold the saddle..., my brother and I figure that he "loaned" it out before he passed away. Almost a year after he passed away now..., and no one has showed up to return the saddle. This one pictured above was numbered "1076" and it features some of the carving that Ray became renowned for. Ray began to number his saddles and records were kept of each order sometime in the 1940's. A Ray Holes saddle that I picked up on Ebay is numbered "1785" and was ordered by Coy Solander of Weston, Colorado on 10/28/55. It is a "rough-out" model and is pictured below.

Picture below is another Ray Holes that my Dad had. It was stamped "Caroline" on the back of the cantle. If I remember right..., it was an un-numbered saddle.

In David R. Stoecklein's beautiful book of photo's of "Saddles of the West" there is a picture of three saddles. The caption reads, SADDLES MADE BY THREE OF THE BEST SADDLE MAKERS OF THE 20th CENTURY - Lawrence, Hyser, and Ray Holes, Stoecklein Collection. (it should be Heiser I am sure). In the back of the book he says, "Ray Holes was born in 1911 in central Washington. He opened his first saddle shop in Cottonwood, Idaho in 1936. Soon after he moved near Grangeville, where his shop is still located today. Ray's son Jerry grew up in the shop and is now a master craftsman of the trade. They startd making their own saddle trees in 1955. Ray also invented tools for carving leather that are still used today. Ray, himself a master carver, considers Jerry's work to be even better than his own."

I don't have pictures of the one Ray Holes I have from Dad's collection yet. It is an older "high-back" (without carving)..., it is stamped "Cottonwood" as opposed to "Grangeville"..., obviously one of his earliest saddles. I have no idea how many "Cottonwoods" there are out there. Not many I think.