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:
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.