Museum apprentice program breathes new life into dying art form

Posted 10/15/20

At first blush, it may appear the new Scout Saddle Company at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is yet another display in the expansive collection of museums. But hidden within the warmth of the …

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Museum apprentice program breathes new life into dying art form


At first blush, it may appear the new Scout Saddle Company at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is yet another display in the expansive collection of museums. But hidden within the warmth of the stamped tin ceiling, bare bulb lighting and the comforting smell of fresh leather is the only master’s class in the West – if not the world – teaching the quickly dying art of traditional saddle making.

Large open windows offer an intimate view of the shop; a portal meant to link leather craft professionals with museum visitors. Inside, one of the world’s top saddle makers is guiding three apprentices through a five-year course to perfect the craft and develop their own distinctive artistic styles. The coursework is intense, even though each of the students have had years of experience working leather prior to being chosen from hundreds of applicants.

“We get applications week after week after week. We can’t take any more apprentices, but we continually get applications,” said Keith Seidel, the program’s director and owner of Seidel Saddlery in downtown Cody. “Everybody in the saddle business knows about us. They all want to know what’s going on.”

The coursework has nearly broken hardened cowboys in the program’s inaugural quarter. “This is graduate school. This is PhD time. And it’s not fun. I have to figure this out. And I have to get it right at a very high level,” said apprentice Levi Nelson.

“There have been days where [apprentice] Mark [Barcus] and I have talked and we’re like, I’m going home and I’m selling all my tools.”

As hard as the course may be, Seidel’s education didn’t come as easy. He worked his way through high school for Wayne Lundvall’s boot shop. “I started on my 14th birthday. That was the law back then,” he said.

After graduating, his passion led him away from his home in Cody. As a kid, he never thought he’d leave the mountain trails in his “backyard.” Park County is where he met and married his high school sweetheart, Lisa. Inseparable, they love, ride and have worked together for decades.

“It’s still touch and go. You never know,” Lisa said with a giggle.

“She reminds me every year there may not be another,” Keith replies, peering at her with smiling eyes from under his pristine, wide-brimmed hat.

He dragged her across the west from saddle shop to saddle shop. He stayed long enough to learn from each maker. And when he felt he had become accomplished in their methods, he’d find another shop hoping to reach a new plateau or a different style. “In the beginning I went wherever they’d take me. After a while, all I had to do is walk into a shop and say, would you like some help and they’d clear me a bench.”

Confident in his abilities, Seidel returned to Cody and opened his own shop. He bought a building on Sheridan Avenue; Cody’s main drag. Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel is across the street and kitty-corner to the Cody Theater. It was the best corner with the biggest draw for millions of tourists moving through the gateway-to-Yellowstone city in the past quarter century. He had a 10-man crew working his designs upstairs as he and Lisa worked the sales floor. After closing he went to work.

“After everybody left, I’d come up here and work.”

Once the retail doors were locked, he’d work alone for four or six hours every night for the next 25 years. “I’ve made more saddles in my career than most people could make in two or three careers. I started young and didn’t have a life. This is what I do.”

For the first time since beginning his career, his hand-crafted saddles and accessories were appreciated, commanding high prices and affording his family a comfortable life. He has been commissioned to make display saddles, some bringing more than $50,000. Products were flying off the shelf, leading the couple to open a second store in Carefree, Arizona. They’d work the summers in Cody and the winters in Carefree, grossing as much as $2 million a year in sales.

Seidel credits his success to his time horseback. Spending “a million hours in the saddle” gave him his understanding of what his customers want in a saddle, as well as cowboy credentials. Yet, it was a cheap saddle that led him to working with leather. “I broke a lot of gear and couldn’t afford to pay somebody else to fix it. It’s a lousy way to learn, but it’ll get you in the business.”

The youngest apprentice is Kali Shatto, of Orange County, California. Making the decision to leave home was difficult, being forced to leave friends and family far behind while at the same time starting her own family.

But, there are few women in the industry and Shatto is keen on making a difference at a time when women represent the fastest growing segment in the saddle and tack market.

“Being the only woman in the program I feel gives me a unique opportunity to inspire other young women to want to learn how to work with and create pieces of functional art out of leather.”

She comes to the program being mentored by her grandfather, famed Southern California leather products and tool maker, Chuck Smith. He’s been working with leather for more than 70 years and is one of the best toolers still alive today, Seidel said. Shatto can see herself carrying on the family tradition, including making Ol’Smoothie Swivel Knives.

“I’m blessed to have had a mentor who is not only one of the biggest names in the industry but is also family.”

She quickly learned that she “didn’t know anything,” she said during a break at the shop. “I didn’t even know half of the tools in our shop existed.”

The apprentices are learning quickly, Seidel said, but there is a long way to go. Five years is a major commitment. Yet, the opportunity to learn from Seidel was too much temptation for the trio to pass up. Before shutting down his retail stores, Seidel won the Saddle Maker of the Year Award from the American Academy of Western artists. He won’t spend time bragging about his numerous awards, but his proud wife doesn’t mind. “It’s a lifetime achievement award. That’s pretty cool,” she said.

The shop serves two main purposes; an attempt to save the artistry and craftsmanship of traditional saddle making, and bridging the generation gap between an older generation eager to revisit the past and new generations who desire interaction. Peter Seibert, executive director and CEO of the center, brought the idea with him from his previous job as executive director of the Education, Research, and Historical Interpretation Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in Virginia. That museum is the largest outdoor living museum in the country, upholding an educational mission through immersive, authentic 18th-century experiences and programming.

Seibert knew bringing his experiences to the center would appeal to new generations of visitors. The saddle shop is the first in a series of traditional crafts. “It’s not just an interpretive experience. It’s all about preservation,” Seibert said. “It’s about keeping those hand skills — work skills, alive today and well into the future.”

It’s also important to engage visitors, he said. He was looking for more than that TV cooking show experience, where they have the raw ingredients, dump it in a bowl, then turn around to pull out a beautiful cake.

“People want to see the process.”

Nelson said he has seen proof. “They’ll stand there all day. They’re just fascinated watching someone actually producing something.”

The shop is equally important for the future of the saddle and leather products business. In interactions with visitors, the apprentices have found most have no idea the amount of time it takes to handcraft the merchandise. It give the team a chance to explain everything that goes into handcrafted products and the difference between the quality versus that of similar products that are mass produced.

“Sure, Walmart sells a belt. It says it’s genuine leather. But it’s two paper-thin pieces of leather over cardboard. That’s not a leather belt. What we build here is an all-leather belt. It’s leather from top to bottom, inside and out. There’s no fillers,” he said.

Products from the shop are already making their way to the museum’s gift shop. The Scout Saddle Company has been years in the making, but Seibert is already looking into other trades, both important in the West and in danger of losing contemporaries. A traditional 20th century hat shop is at the top of his list.