Saddle Saga

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the March-April 1940 issue of Western Horseman. For more on the Visalia Stock Saddle Company, see this month's print feature, "Visalia Style."

Someone has said, "the institution is the shadow of the man." The Visalia Stock Saddle Company is the progressive living shadow of three men of three generations: Dave E. Walker, its founder, Edmund Walker Weeks, his nephew and successor, and Leland B. Bergen, the latter's stepson and present owner and manager. In this series of "Saddle Saga," we would seek to bring to you tales of events and men of the three periods of the cattle business which coincide with the seventy-year era already served by the Visalia Stock Saddle Company.

From 1519, when Cortez brought with him to Mexico the Spanish saddles-not so very different from those used by the knights in medieval Europe-not a single improvement of note was made to add to the comfort or practicability of saddles until in 1868 when there came into an obscure harness and saddlery shop in Hornitos, near Visalia, California, one of these crude saddles for repair.

These old Mexican-type saddles were cumbersome atrocities in most cases, and could be almost depended upon to cause sores on the horses' backs. The tree itself was really little more than a wooden frame, rawhide covered, while over all was thrown the loose-fitting leather cover called the mochilla. The stirrup leathers had no fenders or rasderos, so of necessity the rider wore leather leggings to protect himself.

For 350 years then the knights of the American cattle range, from Mexico north, endured this discomfort until the day Ricardo Mattley determined to improve upon the Mexican saddle brought to his humble shop for repair.

So well had he done, that the year following, which was seventy years ago, Mattley moved to Visalia where he associated with the company that now bears the town's name, making trees by hand. Here, Dave E. Walker, realizing that upon the three the reputation of a saddle depends, developed his saddle business in the very center of the rich cattle industry of the southern San Joaquin Valley and from Visalia oak and Kaweah willows were made the first of the slick fork Visalia saddles that enthroned not only the cowboys of that early fenceless range period, but the cattle barons themselves.

Those were the magnificent days of the great Miller and Lux ranch expansion. They were the days also of the banditry of the Dalton gang and Sontag and Evans. The latter shortly before his death in 1917 appeared at the Visalia Saddle Company store in San Francisco, crippled and partially blind, seeking to sell in a long familiar institution a book telling the story of his life that was led in the very shadow of the old Walker saddle shop. Indeed he as well as the financially secure ranchers who owned an estimated 288,483 cattle which grazed the ranges of the California cattle country in the 1870s spent many a starry night pillowed in crude comfort by the same Walker saddle that bore him day by day over the miles of range he rode.

These then are the saddles, made since 1870 under a trademark that bears the name of Dave E. Walker, pioneer, that were to bring at long last comfort to horse and rider. The twang of taut reatas held secure by the sturdy horns implanted in the oak crotches that made the fork, sang out in a strange accompaniment to the shouts of the men, the bawling of the calves, the smoke of the fire, and the putrid smell of hair singed and hide scarred for the sake of ownership identification by the brands that are truly the heraldry of the range., the coat of arms of cattlemen from Calgary to Buenos Aires.

Nor was the Visalia saddle a local institution. Trail drivers from Texas rode horseback into Visalia with men from Idaho and Montana in search of the improved stock saddle for which the little town in California had become famous.

The western cowboy is a strangely conservative individual for even now though he may crush his hat at a different angle, it is still as in the seventies a Stetson; his Levis are still standard range equipment; he still wears chaps though they are not apt to be Angora; his good stock horse is still the apple of his eye-though he may ride luxuriously in a trailer from corral to roundup; and for himself and his horse after seventy years, there is still the D.E. Walker Visalia stock saddle.