The seat of excellence in Western Craftsmanship
Over the past 40 years, the Severe Brothers Saddlery in Pendleton, Oregon, has refined the skill of making saddles into an art. No high-tech equipment in this workshop. The saddles are all customized, and the labor is by hand. Their reputation is strictly word-of-mouth, yet the Severes’ saddles have received international acclaim.
According to National Geographic Magazine, the Severes’ bronc-riding saddles are used by 90 percent of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bronc-riding contestants and are considered the “Mercedes-Benz” of the business. ‘The people that use and depend on them are most grateful,” says Marjorie Hunt, Smithsonian Institution folklorist. ‘The cowboys know they can count on Severe gear to hold when they’re on that ride.”
In an industry where annual U.S. revenue is in the billions, expenditure on saddles and tack in Oregon alone was $78 million in 1993. Producing about 60 saddles per year, with a starting cost of $3,000, the Severes have a market share that might seem modest in comparison. But considering it takes 80 hours and one full month to produce a basic saddle, that’s understandable. The time and cost vary with the amount of design and tooling. The quality never varies. Saddles are designed to last a lifetime; roping saddles will hold the biggest steer a horse can handle.
The Severe story began with a sheepherding father in Idaho who taught his sons, Bill and Duff, the art of braiding rawhide and turning it into beautiful pieces of gear. After working for 10 years at Hamley’s, the famous saddle shop in Pendleton, the brothers founded Severe Brothers Saddlery in 1955. Through the years, this successful business has grown, garnering much national and international recognition along the way. Celebrities and politicians (former President Gerald Ford among them), as well as the working cowboy and the pleasure rider, are on Severe’s client list. Due to heavy demand, the Severes only accept orders during the month of January each year.
Although Duff and Bill are deceased, the shop remains a family-owned and -operated company, run by Bill’s sons Randy and Robin. Robin carves the wooden trees that provide the saddles’ framework. Randy and Robin put leather on and do the intricate tooling. The designs are all freehand and original and drawn on wet leather with dental instruments, then tooled. “I try to make the saddle I’m working on the best I’ve ever made,” Randy says. “And the next one more beautiful than that.”
In 1982, Duff was one of the 15 original master craftsmen named National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. He was selected after Smithsonian judges found his name most mentioned by his peers when asked to identify the best leatherworker in the country. The miniature saddles Duff crafts are becoming collector items. To date he’s made 85, 75 of which he’s sold for $4,500 to $15,000 each. The miniatures have been exhibited at the Smithsonian six times along with the regular Severe saddles. Last year, Randy accompanied Duff to the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian, and together they displayed their saddle-making and rawhide-braiding talents.
Says the Smithsonian’s Hunt, “They are without a doubt the best Western saddle-makers in the country.”
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