Don King melded regional saddlemaking traditions with his own meticulous flair.
From California’s Spanish-influenced Visalia to Arizona’s practical Porter, Don King melded regional saddlemaking traditions with his own meticulous flair. In the process, he carved an innovative style and a rich saddle-making legacy.
Story by Jennifer Zehnder, published May 2007
FIVE-PETAL WILD ROSES IN FULL BLOOM TRANSCEND THEIR LEATHER BOUNDARIES.
Carved in tight, circular patterns, their leaves and stems flow one into the other in a seemingly endless, yet orderly, fashion. Skilled antiquing highlights the elaborate leatherwork, creating warmth and character. This loosely defined, often emulated and readily identifiable Sheridan style of saddle carving is generally attributed to Wyoming native Don King, whose firsthand experience as a horseman, and extensive knowledge of saddle-making traditions and personal innovations, have transformed a working cowboy’s most important tool-his saddle-into a work of art.
The Wild Rose
It’s been more than 60 years since Don and Dorothy King settled in Sheridan, Wyoming. Though the scenery has changed since Don’s first saddlemaking lessons in the back room of Rudy Mudra’s saddle shop, Sheridan’s rich tradition of saddlemaking and fine leatherwork has not. In this Western hamlet, timeworn ranchers and discerning outsiders share common appreciation, and even identity, in what’s now known as the Sheridan style of saddlemaking.
Don’s journey to Sheridan’s Main Street and to the heart of the saddlemaking community started at the tender age of 5, when he set out with his father, following the seasons as they cowboyed throughout the West. It seems like a tough life for a youngster, but Don remembers those years fondly in the pages of Ann Gorzalka’s Saddlemakers of Sheridan, Wyoming.
“Dad and I lived everywhere,” Don says. “In line cabins, tents; or sometimes I was boarded out. I went to school when and where I could, until the middle of my freshman year. I enjoyed those years with my dad; I don’t regret any of it.”
On his own by age 14, Don did what he could to earn a living, including breaking horses at Arizona dude ranches, exercising polo ponies in California and wrangling horses in Montana’s Glacier National Park. By day, Don worked from the saddle, and by night, the teen practiced his leather-crafting hobby, using homemade tools fashioned from nails. As profits from his carving and belt work surpassed that of his day job, Don began thinking seriously about a career in leatherwork.
His official entry into the carving craft came from Arizona artisan Paul Showalter, who hired the talented youngster to carve belts. In 1940, the prodigal son returned to Wyoming, where he began a leatherworking apprenticeship with Mudra. Early on, a bevy of distractions, including a rodeo injury, time spent cowboying throughout the Southwest, and a World War II tour of duty, kept Don away from his Sheridan studies, but not the leatherwork.
Discharged in 1946, Don returned to Sheridan to start a family and to finish his apprenticeship with Mudra. According to Gorzalka, Don refused job offers from several well-known saddle shops in California and Arizona to take a position with Mudra. For Don, the decision was easy.
“I wanted the best teacher, and I felt Rudy was:’ he told Gorzalka. “He had an ideal shop, and he catered to the cowboys. That’s what I wanted to do.”
An Emerging Style
During the next 10 years, Don’s focus was divided between his growing family, which included sons Bill, Bruce, Bobby and John, his saddle work, and breaking outside colts.
“When we were little, Dad’s shop was at the house,” remembers Dan’s second son, Bruce. “He’d ride colts during the day and work leather at night.”
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