Leather Bound

In every ounce of glue and stitch of thread Wayne Medley uses for his saddles, there's history holding it all together
MAIN PrintMy father commissioned the saddle from Aaron Davis, a Farmington saddle maker, sketching the circle with the inverted Y on a sheet of paper. It was the early 1970s, and the peace sign was controversial. Depending on one’s politics, it was either a call to end the Vietnam War or a secret insignia of the anti-Christ. Davis finished the saddle years before I was born, but my older sister Jacqueline remembers it arriving with the peace signs stamped upside down. It was an honest mistake, and when it was discovered, Davis, who was known for his fine work, felt bad about it. Everyone else found it endearing.

“I don’t know how you could live through that era and not see a peace sign,” Jacqueline has marveled at the error. “It was everywhere.”

Davis was a horseman. To him, the symbol likely resembled a cattle brand.

Jacqueline used the saddle when she showed a horse in Tulsa, and I rode with it when she gave me horseback lessons on an Arabian mare. Under Davis’ saddle, dozens of other horses carried dozens of other children, including our siblings and, later, Jacqueline’s children. The saddle now stays in her barn in Michigan. From time to time, she’ll cinch it on a pony for friends’ kids.

The saddle outlived its maker, but before Aaron Davis died in 2006, he taught his daughter, Jody, his craft—she still fills the occasional order placed by her father’s old clients when she can make time—and he taught Wayne Medley.

 

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Medley, 54, maintains a saddle-making workshop in a room in a small rented house off a dirt road near Prairie Grove, a town of 5,000 residents, best known for the state park on its outskirts commemorating a bloody Civil War battle. On the acre behind the house where he lives with his wife and son grazes a single quarter horse named Gus. In front, a plywood sign announces the saddler’s business, which is otherwise advertised almost exclusively through word of mouth—a duty that rests solely on his customers, for Medley is a man of few words.

When I met him last November, he was wearing a shirt with a placket of pearly snaps, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, a vest and a leather belt stamped with letters spelling “Wayne” across the back. The outfit identified him as a western-style rider.

Horse people in the Ozarks fall into a few camps. At two economic extremes are well-heeled weekend ropers who can afford to indulge in their expensive sport and day workers who hire out on ranches for jobs requiring grunt labor. In 1997, Medley was among the last group.

“A guy I know who lives out here about a mile, I was building fence for him,” Medley told me, “and he said go over to Farmington—he told me where to go—he said this old man over there needs his fence fixed and his barn dug out.” Davis put him to work.

Medley has lived in Arkansas most of his life. He’s originally from Colorado, where his grandfather had been a homesteader and his father kept horses but “didn’t mess with them much.” At Davis’s place, Medley, who does mess with horses, became intrigued with the making of equestrian equipment, or tack. “I had some little mules and wanted some new harnesses, and if you go to buy a set of harnesses, it’s pretty expensive, so I thought, well, I’ll just make it,” he said. “I bought some leather off Aaron, and he ordered me one of them things to pull it through the holes with and sold me some thread, and I cut it out and sewed the whole thing by hand.”

Medley began to apprentice in earnest. “I’d go over on Saturdays and sweep the floor, burn the trash—he might have me sewing on the cantle or something. All the time I was learning about it, I was kind of building a few of my own,” he remembered. “Every time I’d visit with him, I’d ask him about this, ask him about that. I don’t know if he ever got tired of my questions or not, but I had a lot of ’em.” Soon, Medley’s riding companions placed orders.

The clientele for western tack in the Ozarks has changed in the past several decades. Davis trained horses and mules on the side, but he made a living making tack. His customers rounded up cattle and checked fences on horseback, and regulars included loggers who skidded fallen timber out of forests with mule teams. Durable, hand-stitched gear was a necessary investment. Now, few locals work equines professionally, and a factory-made saddle purchased online and ridden a couple of years on the weekends will suffice.

Medley’s customers tend to be recreational riders looking for something unique. In a factory, leather is cut in stacks, and designs rarely change. “Guys like me, we cut out one piece at a time,” he said. “We end up making our own patterns.”

The saddle Medley uses, the fourth or fifth one he made, has a half-seat similar to those popular in the 1870s. He’s ridden with it for 15 years.

 

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The first day I visited Medley, I brought an old 35 mm film camera to photograph him as he worked, but the power mechanism malfunctioned, so we sat and spoke. Perhaps he used so few words because few were wasted—not on comedy, irony, nor anecdotal tangent—and the ones that remained were literal and faintly uttered.

In roughly the time since he made his half-seat saddle, he said, he’s owned around 100 horses and mules, trained them long enough to improve their worth, and then traded them.

“Have you ever cried over a horse?” I asked.

“No. I don’t guess so. They’re made to be bought and sold.”

It was a bright and brittle morning. I recall that we sat in a shaft of light in a doorway. The door was open to the air outside. “Even when one died?”

“I never have kept anything long enough for it to die.”

“Why is that?”

“Just buy it and sell it. Ride one, get it a little bit better to where it’s worth something, sell it, and get another one.”

Medley showed off two hand-powered sewing machines built specially for leather. One he operated by depressing a lever once per stitch. The other he purchased from a man who lived by the water in the Pacific Northwest. The seller, owning no telephone, negotiated a price with Medley by post, and the exchange of letters seemed to please the saddler.

 

 

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I returned the following morning with an even older camera, a 1970s brick of metal, and this all-manual solution to the previous day’s technical difficulty also seemed to please Medley. He brought me black coffee, and in an easy silence scented with pipe tobacco, worked on a saddle with a horn tall enough to suit a roper.

Upended saddle trees lined a low bench. Against a wall, harnesses, feed bags and headstalls cascaded from hangers like pretty things. There was Medley’s personal saddle on a stand, and on another was a saddle that Davis had made, now in for repair, and there was the saddle that Medley was building.

To make a saddle, Medley starts with a tree made in Tennessee and covered in rawhide in Oklahoma. He cuts pieces of leather to fit over the seat, swell and horn, splitting the leather to the correct thickness or stacking it to build up a seat’s height, and beveling the leather’s edges with a hundred-year-old tool.

Much of making a saddle involves waiting for glue to dry—while it does, he will work on small leather goods: harnesses, knife and gun holsters, belts, billfolds.

The part of a saddle most difficult to get right is its seat. Leave a lump in the leather, and a rider is going to feel it.

 

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Medley is employed at Walmart 144 in Fayetteville, where he is a sales associate in the toy section. He worked for the company for 13 years, left to look for work in Colorado but returned three weeks before I met him. With enough saddle orders, he could work full time in his shop, but it’s hard to compete with, say, Amazon, where a best-selling nylon saddle costs $190. As it is, he sells less than 20 saddles a year for about $1,200 apiece. Half that cost goes into materials.

He would have to leave at noon for Walmart. I asked if I could take a portrait of him in his uniform, but the soft-spoken saddler flatly refused.

“Walmart. It ain’t me. You gotta wear a little blue vest. It just ain’t me.”

While preparing for his second stint at the merchandiser, Medley bought tan-colored Levi’s jeans to wear in place of Walmart’s required khaki chinos, and white cowboy shirts with snap closures.

No one had taken him aside to complain yet.

“Can you wear boots?”

“Tennis shoes.” These words were, finally, high comedy. He laughed. “I can wear boots, but I can’t see standing on cement for eight hours in a pair of boots.”

Noon approached, and with it his post in the aisles of planned obsolescence where parents might ask him to look for the S.W.A.T. Team Child Costume Role Play Set with its pretend bullet-proof vest, mercifully priced at 15 disposable dollars or—for a junior homebody—the plastic lawnmower. The saddle maker might examine, for his own edification, the Sew Cool sewing machine, a choking hazard whose “unique threadless technology” whips up miniature pillows from fabric precut in the shapes of cupcakes and owls.

Medley carried his half-seat saddle outside and placed it on a stand in the light and posed with it for a portrait, and I took a couple of frames and left.

On the road, a deer jumped in front of my truck and trotted ahead for a spell, elegantly.

Deer season, modern gun, would open the next morning. A half-hour before dawn, the surrounding hills would pop with gunfire, and horses would tremble and pace in their paddocks.

The deer stopped and turned its head to look at me. Then it hopped over a fence, gathering its hind legs as if snatching up its own treasures, and I drove on to Prairie Grove.

 

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Perhaps on a Sunday drive and looking for a destination, you once visited Prairie Grove. Perhaps you went to see the battlefield, and observing that it looks like many other aged battlefields, a collection of hills mended with grass, you continued into the town to go antiquing. In the shops along the main street, you began to covet things that had outlived their makers. Perhaps you saw the shining lynx, its paws nailed to a log set in the storefront window (you sniffed the air for the scent of fur), and surely you encountered a number of eternal, cast-iron pots. It is even possible that you saw a handmade saddle. You picked up a certain thing that enchanted you, and you carried it through the store before placing it back on its shelf. As you drove away, you regretted that you had not purchased the item, and then decided you were glad you hadn’t, but you remember it still.

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