During a road trip to Shamrock, Texas, I received a gift from bit- and spurmaker Ron Tollison that combines the legacies of several master craftsmen.

Cruising along historic U.S. Route 66 through the eastern Texas Panhandle, searching for an alley that leads to craftsman Ron Tollison’s workshop, I passed by several charming old buildings dating back to the 1920s.

Vintage motels, gas stations, cafes, curio shops and other structures boast kitschy signs and architecture that harken back to the heyday of the 2,448-mile “Mother Road,” which was build in 1926 and stretches from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California. The prominent art-deco Conoco Tower Station and U-Drop Inn diner, built in 1936 by James Tindall and R.C. Lewis, looks like something plucked out of the Emerald City of Oz and plopped on the Panhandle Plains. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the palace-like building was restored in 2003 and featured in the 2006 Walt Disney Pictures-Pixar Animation Studios film Cars. It now serves the community as a museum, visitors’ center, chamber of commerce and community center.

Ron Tollison makes bits and spurs
Ron Tollison hand-forges bits and spurs from his shop in Shamrock, Texas.
Photo by Jennifer Denison

While many of these buildings have undergone renovation and some seem abandoned, they still have an engaging, timeless curiosity that makes people want to stop and admire them. After spending the afternoon interviewing and photographing Tollison in his metal shop, I concluded that pieces of cowboy craftsmanship are the same way. 

As I packed up my camera gear and scanned the shop, I was drawn to his workbench once more. Light from a nearby window cast a glow on finished pairs of spurs and curb bits waiting to be shipped. Though many hours went into their construction, their clean, classic, simple design still appeals to horsemen all over the world. They’re made from the patterns and equipment handed down from master to protege for more than a century.

Design for a bit
Designs handed down from his mentors, Billy Klapper and Earlon Shirley, serve as blueprints for Tollison’s bits and spurs. He keeps them organized in a spiral notebook, and regularly adds to his collection.
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Tollison handed me a paper rolled in a plastic sleeve and a purple felt drawstring pouch with the Crown Royal logo embroidered in gold thread on the front.

“Don’t look at this now, wait until you get home,” he instructed. “It’s a piece of the Old West.”

When I arrived home, I curiously opened the pouch and pulled out a silver watch fob shaped like a spur rowel with my initials overlaid on the center. Tollison engraved his shamrock T maker’s mark on the back. Holding the piece in my hand, I felt the weight and texture of a finely crafted piece. More importantly, however, I also felt the sentimental value of a handmade piece influenced by a long line of makers.

Watch fob made by Ron Tollison
This watch fob made by Tollison is based on a spur rowel design by J. R. McChesney and represents a century of craftsmanship .
Photo by Jennifer Denison

As I unrolled the piece of paper and started reading it, the story behind the rowel unraveled.

“This Rowel is not old but the machinery and skills used in its manufacture date to the early part of the 20th Century,” Tollison wrote.

He continued explaining that he made the rowel with one of the punches and dies made by renowned Oklahoma bit- and spurmaker J.R. McChesney (1868-1928).

“This style of rowel was one of the most popular, worn on the heel of many a cowboy, coast to coast and around the world, as McChesney had obtained a contract with the US Army during WWI to supply bits and spurs,” Tollison explained.

After McChesney’s death on January 9, 1928, his wife sold the company to Enid Justin of Nocona Boot Co. His bit and spur patterns were sold through the 1940s, and his equipment went to a “junk dealer” in Oklahoma.

Ron Tollison's shamrock T maker's mark
Tollison marks his work with a shamrock T engraving.
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Luckily, Aldolph Bayers, “the godfather of contemporary bit- and spurmakers,” according to Tollison, purchased the equipment and used it in his shop in Truscott, Texas, until his death in 1978. Then, another well-known bit- and spurmaker in the Texas Panhandle, Billy Klapper, bought the punch, die and equipment in Bayers’ shop and moved it to his shop in Pampa, Texas.

“Today this punch sees liberal use in Bill’s Pampa, Texas, shop, along with an occasional resharpening this die still produces the beautiful rowels that are coveted today by descendants of cowboys that sought them over a hundred years ago, riding herd over the same ranges,” Tollison wrote.

Metal for bits and spurs
Using metal as is canvas, Tollison melds the style and techniques of his mentors in each bit and pair of spurs he makes.
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Tollison personalized the note at the end, writing, “For Jennifer Denison, Always Sunny Skies! Best, Ron Tollison” and dating it 9/28/2020.

Since the early 1900s, many a master maker has hung his shingle in the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, including Bayers, Jerry Cates, McChesney, Earlon Shirley and Klapper. Influenced by Klapper and Shirley, Tollison carries on their traditions using patterns, dies, punches and equipment passed down to him by his mentors. Collectors, cowboys and horsemen who not only appreciate owning a piece of history, but also value functionality covet his work.

My watch fob now serves as a bookmark and lucky charm. Each time I pull it out, I think of Shamrock, Texas, and the good fortune I had interviewing a master maker I met there.

Read more about Ron Tollison in the article “Melding of the Masters,” in the May 2021 issue of Western Horseman.

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