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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.


  1. What great memories. There is nothing quite like hunting camp and those cold fall mornings. I can almost smell the campfire. And the horses.

  2. Thank you for this wonderfully written piece. A customer of mine owns a Ray Holes saddle and has shown it to me in order to convey to me the quality level he expects. Doing research on Ray Holes I came across your article.

  3. Sorry about the belated "Thank you" JB..., didn't notice your comment until today..., but that certainly doesn't dampen the appreciation for your kind words about the piece.

  4. Scott, I wanted to thank you for posting your article and including the story from you and your Dad about Ray Holes saddles. Ray Holes was my grandfather. Jerry Holes is my undcle; my mother was Sallie Holes, Jerry's little sister (she passed Jan2010). I was searching the web for pictures any folks may have posted of my Grandpa's saddles when I came across your article. I have always been very proud of my Grandpa; seeing your story makes me smile because I know Grandpa would have loved knowing your story. I turn 50 this year, and I still remember the summers spent with Grandpa, going into the Tree Shop (I was a city girl from Las Vegas, but loved spending my summers with my grandparents), and going into the Saddle Shop (which is very different now than it used to be). When I was a little girl, Grandpa let me do some leather carving with his tools, commenting to me to be very careful and watch where I put my fingers. Yep, you guessed it... My great Uncle George (Grandpa's brother) came into the shop and announced himself so I could jump up and run over to get a hug from him, and I was in the midst of moving the crescent moon shaped knife across the leather... when I glanced up, smiled and then let out a scream as I cut about 1/3 of the way into my middle finger/fingernail on my right hand (I am left-handed so held the knife with my left). It was quite the scene of rushing me to the bathroom to wash all the blood off; was it still attached? does she need to go to the hospital? and all the while me hysterically crying & saying no no it's fine. Grandpa washed it off, bandaged it up, said no hospital was necessary, gave me a few pieces of one of his favorite candies he kept hidden in his work desk (orange slice candies), told me again to be careful about my fingers, and down I sat, to "get back on that saddle" and continue with my leather art work. :) I still look at that scar today and vividly remember that day. My Grandpa was the main male influence in my life - my father figure and someone I adore over most people. He really was a good, honest, considerate hard working man who loved his work. I thought I would share that with you since you shared such a great story. Thank you again. Sincerely, Annette (granddaughter of Ray Holes, Sr.; daughter of Sallie Holes who also adored her Dad)

  5. Annette..., thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story and memories of your Grandfather..., and thank you for the kind words about my story. I hope to get some pictures up of the old "Cottonwood" saddle of mine. I would dearly love to find out how many of them he made there, before he moved to Grangeville.

  6. Scott, you are most welcome. I don't know where most of the saddles Grandpa made ended up. Nor do I know how many he made nor where (next time I talk to my uncle I'll ask but am guessing he wouldn't really know... if he does, I'll let you know). But I do know he made a saddle for my Mom when she was young and my cousin now has it for his daughter. I'll see if I can get him to snap a picture or two. If I get those, I'll let you know. Take Care. :)

  7. Hi, we have two of the old Ray Holes Saddles. My father in law had his made in the 50's and his sisters saddle is a 1940's saddle. I have ridden the 1950's saddle for years and really love it.
    We are getting older and are thinking of selling them since our kids have No interest in horses or the tack we have. We have taken good care of the saddles and they are in our house and not subject to bad weather. My Father in law was a cowboy and used his saddle every day for years. I had it relined and a new seat put in. Both saddles are in excellent condition.
    I met Ray Holes in Enterprise Oregon years ago and he was a nice man. The original owners of these saddles knew Ray Holes well and lived most of there lives in that area.

    1. Hello! My wife's grandfather worked at Ray Holes in Graingeville, ID. His name was Earl "Tex" Mott (everyone knew him as Tex). Tex used to stamp his name in the saddles he made. We are extremely interested in locating one of the saddels he made. If anyone out there has information, I surely would appreciate an e-mail!

  8. Yeah Anonymous..., Ray Holes saddles are built to last..., and last. I like the older "high back" saddles as opposed to the newer "roper" saddles with a low back and Cheyenne roll. It seems to me that you get the feeling of sitting "in" a saddle, rather than sitting "on" as saddle. When my Dad pasted away I kept the old one marked "Cottonwood" that is still in fine shape. My brother and I let the other two saddles that are pictured go with the rest of the saddles and tack. I really don't know what kind of market there is for the old Ray Holes saddles..., you don't see an of them often on Ebay. But there must be some interest in them as I get lots of hits here on the blog about them. And thank you reading and taking the time to comment.

  9. I have a very old saddle that I think may possibly be a Ray Holes saddle. The buckles are stamped Al Ray. Does this ring a bell?

  10. Hi StacyJam..., a Ray Holes saddle will be clearly stamped on the seat of the saddle usually. You appear to be referring to the quick change stirrup buckles. Al Ray was a manufacturer of those. Later model Ray Holes saddles used the Blevins quick change buckles I believe. I believe that the Al Ray buckles were an earlier model of those devices. Thanks for checking out the blog !!!!

  11. If Any of your blogger are interested they started numering the saddles in 1947 according to my records. The oldest copies of saddle orders date back to 1939 when he established the shop in Grangeville. The number of saddles marked "cottonwood" are about 150. there and only 17 marked "fenn" which is where he spent one winter on his way to grangeville. I have worked with John Calhoun the owner-master saddle maker since 1989. I know all of Gerald Ray Holes children ans i went to school with two of them. I know Alot of the Ray Holes saddle history and don't plan on ever giving up this job. The more I see of the Older Ray Holes Saddles the more I learn about the man who built them. What a woderfull place to work.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the new information about the history of Ray Holes saddles. I am sure it will be of interest to many others as well as myself. This piece is the most viewed section of the blog. When my Dad bought the "Cottonwood" stamped saddle he said it was in "really rough shape" and was concerned that he may have paid too much for it. He had John Calhoun do some restoration work on it. Don't know what it looked like before..., but it is a real beauty now..., and my most prized possession in the saddle collection. I really need to get a picture of it on here. By the way..., is this you "Honey"?

    2. Thanks for the great stories about the saddle making of Ray Holes. My brother Glenn G. Law started out working for Ray in the 1940's. He worked in the shoe repair business. He use to watch Ray do the leather carving for the saddles. One day he brought in some paper drawings he had done. Ray then let him do leather carving. Glenn made many saddles along with Ray and the free hand carving was legendary. My brother continued in the shoe and leather business up until his death. I have pictures of some of his work. thanks again... Park W. Law

    3. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for adding to the history of Ray Holes saddles Park. :)

  12. I have a saddle built by Schiller and Simon Cottonwood Idaho I believe probably built before 1928 having trouble finding out anything about Schiller and Simon can you help me I'm still riding the saddle

    1. Sorry for the late reply..., Google used to send out an email notification when I got a new comment on the blog..., but they have discontinued that service and I just can't check my whole blog for comments regularly. And even worse news..., I can't be of any help to you on Schiller and Simon. I have checked my saddle books and found no reference to them and since I no longer live in that area of north-central Idaho I would have a hard time trying to trace them down. Thanks for checking out the blog and commenting though.