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Saddle Up: Kelly's saddles depict life stages of a cowboy

Sun Advocate publisher

Jim Kelly may be only 72 years old but he's been perfecting his craft for 63 years, something he started at eight years old living in the hills of Louisiana. Jim was raised by his uncles and a grandmother and their business as bootleggers brought them into town every Saturday to peddle their whiskey.

As a boy Jim says he got bored and tired of the old drunks and asked if his family could drop him off at the local cattle sale yard in Alexandria, just across the river from Pineville, where they sold their moonshine. Next to the sale barn was a saddle shop, western wear store and a restaurant. Jim walked into the saddle shop that first Saturday, pulled up a stool and watched Smokey Johnson repairing saddles. He recalls sitting there watching for three Saturdays in a row before Johnson spoke to him. On the fourth week the old saddle maker grunted, "Kid, if your going to hang out here you're going to have to help out." Thus started a career that has spanned over six decades.

"Saddles weren't new to me," says Kelly, explaining that he used to clean and oil them for his uncles and already knew how to tear them down or disassemble them and had put lots of saddles back together again.

At 14, Jim Kelly headed west, looking for a new life as a cowboy, taking with him six years of saddle making experience but a lifetime of hard work.

"Horses and saddles were my only interests and besides a little construction and truck driving along the way, I have been around them all my life," he says.

"I have always had a saddle I was working on and started gathering the tools when I was just a kid," he smiled as he pointed to several handmade tools he has worked with for over 50 years.

Jim Kelly, living off of Old Wellington Road is pictured working on a commemorable saddle he has been invoted to show at the PCRA Hall of Fame in Colorado springs, Colo. in September.

Walking into Jim's saddle shop, which takes the better part of what was once the family room of Jim's home that he shares with his wife Char, saddles in all states of construction crowd the room. Naked rawhide hangs on the walls, plastic bags are draped over the horn of a saddle he is currently building, while elaborately tooled cuffs, chaps, and spur strands hover the walls. A sewing machine, made in 1912, that is essential in the saddle making business sits behind his work bench. The counter is filled with jars, cans, tools all piled high among the beautiful shades of tanned leather.

One of Kelly's first destinations after he left home was Denver, Colo. where he explored the mile-high city. Along the way he worked with saddle makers like F.O.Baird, H. H. Heiser and Roy Barney. Colorado was home for many years, operating the Trails End Saddle Shops in Colorado Springs and Monta Vista, he eventually took his business to Cody, Wyo. In 1986 he opened a shop in the corner of the historic Irma Hotel, named after Buffalo Bill's daughter.

The round face, talkative Irishman loves to share his stories of working cowboys and cattlemen of the west. He estimates that he has built more than 3500 saddles in his lifetime and most of those have a story behind them.

Years of riding bucking horses took their toll causing Jim serious knee injuries. His days of riding the traditional Western saddle was over and forced him to ride English or side saddles. In the late 1960s he incorporated the comfort qualities of an English saddle into the design of a Western saddle that was easier on his knees. He designed a skirt or fender that fit the horse better, with flexible stirrup leathers that bring the rider's legs forward. This style became so popular that cowboys started asking for it and Kelly estimates that he has sold over 700 saddles of this design.

Kelly's success as a saddle maker was given a shot in the arm when one of his designer saddles was purchased by Arizona entrepreneur Morton H. Fleischer. Fleischer's collection of Western memorabilia, including Kelly's saddle, is featured in the museum of Perimeter Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Tribute to a Working Cowboy," a 1995 work by Kelly is titled like the artwork it is. A masterpiece of leather carving, it depicts the workaday life of a cowboy in scenes etched into the saddle's fenders, jockeys, and skirts.

His original western scenes have inspired him to create number two in his collection series. The current masterpiece he is constructing is titled, "It Ain't Been Easy," and will be part of an invitational saddle show at the PRCA (Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association) Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo. Only 12 saddle makers from United States and Canada have been invited to the juried show, which begins in mid-September. Kelly explains that the name stems from the numerous wrecks and storms a cowboy gets into in his lifetime.

That newest scene consists of an old cowboy, perhaps 75 or 80, bowlegged, broken up from years of hard work, no teeth, arthritis, wearing the expression, "boys, it ain't been easy," on his weathered face.

Other scenes he has created range from a young boy who struggles to climb up a horse and once in the saddle realizes one of his reins has fallen to the ground to another of a tired old cowhand sitting in front of his wood fire on the prairies sleeping with a cup of hot coffee in his hand after an exhausting day on the range.

Chuck wagon scenes, scenes of weathered cowboys biting the dust, a cowboy's wife hard at work cutting wood, while her husband trails cattle, are some of the others.

The saddles in the Colorado show will go from $20,000 and up, but Kelly explains that a good working saddle often runs around $2500.

Sitting there among his homemade tools like the swivel knife, burnisher, club bevel, crow's foot, undercut and mat backgrounder, Jim Kelly represents a dying trade.

"There aren't many of us left," he says, holding up one hand to make a point. He did, however, throw in that he has a couple students that are doing well in their saddle making businesses.

Kelly's experience as a cowboy gives him the knowledge and ability to tell the cowboy story on his saddles. The trials and tribulations that are etched on his masterpieces are preserving the cowboy story. His business is one that will be a showcase for generations to come.

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