This rawhide braider and master saddle maker crafts working gear and works of art treasured by cowboys and collectors alike.
As A YOUNGSTER, Duff Severe was offered a job threshing wheat near his home in southern Idaho. In need of horses and a wagon to perform the task, the enterprising young man approached his father and asked for the loan of his team. The elder Severe agreed to young Duff’s proposition, but he laid one condition on the deal: Do the job better than it had ever been done before.
Severe, who along with his brother Bill started the world famous Severe Brothers Saddlery in 1955, has always adhered to that philosophy. Throughout almost half a century, the Severe trademark has been stamped into only the finest of cowboy gear. From bronc saddles to roping saddles, from braided rawhide bosals to the sturdiest wood and hide trees, the Severe name has been synonymous with quality – both professional and personal.
Duff Severe was born 80 years ago in Oakley, Idaho, a small ranching community about 10 miles south of Burley. One of 15 children born to Carlos and Myrtle Severe, he grew up chasing cows and training horses amidst the sagebrush and rocks of Idaho’s buckaroo country. Ranching life necessitated hard work and ingenuity, much of which was exemplified by his father, who braided rawhide horse tack on a regular basis, using the skills of the old Spanish vaqueros. Much of this rawhide gear was used on the Severe place, and a lot was given to cowboy friends as gifts.
“I was always fascinated with my dad. He’d take an old, bloody cowhide that looked like next to nothing, and he’d turn it into something beautiful,” says Duff, who learned everything he could from his father before leaving Idaho for a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Stationed in San Francisco, Duff Severe took weekend sabbaticals to the workshop of Luis Ortega, one of the most famous rawhiders of all time. There he learned the skills that later made him one of the most respected artists in the world. Building on what he already knew of braiding, he learned how to braid with fine strings of rawhide, some as small in diameter as a toothpick. These newfound techniques, along with those he picked up at sea serving on a naval Marine detachment, gave Duff the foundation he needed to begin a life of creation that has made him an object of admiration for people all over the world.
After his tour of duty, Duff headed north to Pendleton, Oregon, to serve a government-subsidized apprenticeship at Hamley and Company, one of the nation’s premier saddleries. Bringing with him the skills of a rawhider and horseman, Duff naturally fit in to the program. The company displayed his rawhide work in their mail order catalog, and he was able to begin building the largest and perhaps most admired tool of the cowboy trade-the saddle.
For 10 years, Duff Severe honed his skills within the walls of Hamley’s, building at least 5,000 saddles and never failing to learn something from each one. “When I went to Hamley’s, they had some really good craftsmen there, but I wanted to be the best one of the whole bunch.” Taking with him .. the advice of his father to do every job better than it had ever been done, Duff became one of Hamley’s most sought-after saddlemakers.
But if one Severe wasn’t enough, Hamley and Company did not have to look far for another one. The year after Duff began his apprenticeship, his brother Bill stopped by the busy shop for a visit. The simple fact that Bill was a Severe, and an accomplished rawhide braider as well, prompted Hamley’s to offer him an apprenticeship as a treemaker. However, Bill refused the offer and went back home to Idaho to work on the ranch. After a short time of cowboying and mulling the offer over, though, Bill decided to take the saddlery up on their offer, and he returned to Pendleton to become a master craftsman.
Severe Brothers Saddlery
In 1955, with thousands of completed saddles and trees under their belts, the Severe Brothers finally decided they could afford to leave Hamley’s and start off on their own. Tim Bernard, a rancher from Omak, Washington, offered to build the two craftsmen their own saddle shop if they would make the trek north. To the two enthusiastic cowboys ready to put their stamp on some gear, that sounded like a deal they could not refuse, so they decided to pack their bags and go.
When word got around Pendleton, however, that the Severe Brothers were planning on leaving the country, a coalition of area ranchers formed to prevent the move. Vern Terjeson, Arvine Porter, and Tony Vey placed orders with the two brothers in order to keep them in town.
“They probably didn’t need the saddles, but Tony Vey even ordered two of ’em to keep us here. They really supported us,” remembers Duff. Because of that local support, Bill and Duff Severe hung their shingle on the old army barracks that they had been using to braid rawhide in, and thus began Severe Brothers Saddlery.
Perhaps the Severe Brothers’ greatest claim to fame was their revolutionary version of the Association bronc saddle. While every other saddlemaker in the country, including Hamley’s, was still including the saddle horn on their bronc-busting trees, Duff and Bill decided to go without it. According to Duff, “All of those cowboys were cutting them off, anyways, so we just left them off in the first place.”
In addition to removing the horn, the Severes also widened the swells on their Association tree. The narrow swells on many other bronc saddles hurt the cowboys’ legs. Many competitors removed the leather fork cover and placed padding underneath to lessen the pounding. The Severes’ wider swell eliminated the need for such work.
Hotel de Cowpunch
After revolutionizing the bronc saddle, the Severe Brothers attracted the attention of some of the most famous names in rodeo, including world champions Bill Linderman and Casey Tibbs, after whom Duff later named his son. Not only did Duff and Bill build the tools of these cowboys’ trade, they kept their front door open to them, as well.
They converted part of their army barracks into a makeshift bunkhouse affectionately known as the “Hotel de Cowpunch.” It was in that hotel that many of Duff Severe’s fondest memories were made. Although late night jam sessions on the guitar with such famous rodeo cowboys as Bruce Ford, Pake McEntire, Monty “Hawkeye” Henson, and Mel and Wilf Hyland brought more cowboys in than the floor would hold, each cowboy held a special place in Duff’s heart. But to those cowboys, Duff holds an even greater place.
Butch Small, 13-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier in the saddle bronc riding and good friend of the Severe family, praises Duff for his hospitality, friendship, and talent. “I got to know Duff in 1979, the first year I went to Pendleton. They had the saddle shop and the hotel, and I went over there with a bunch of the other cowboys. They treated us like kings. Nobody else would ever open their door to cowboys the way they did.”
Not only did Duff and Bill have a bed for any cowboy to sleep on or a cup of coffee for them to drink, but they also had their shop doors open, as well. Small remember breaking both bars on his saddle tree at the Calgary Stampede in Alberta. He had another horse drawn at Vernal, Utah, the following day, and he knew that it would be next to impossible to get it fixed. However, he called Duff and explained his dilemma.
“They shipped the tree and everything to Pocatello, where a guy helped me put it together,” Small relates, “and two days later, I was riding a brand new saddle back in Calgary. That’s just the kind of people they are. They’d stay up all night and half the next day to make sure you had it.”
Personal qualities aside, the Severe name has become synonymous with craftsmanship. While Bill kept busy building the foundations to every saddle, Duff continued covering each one with beautifully carved leather. Together, they created works of art.
Because of the magnificence of each saddle created in their shop, the place became a tourist attraction for visitors from all over the world. But in the midst of all the traffic, Duff and Bill Severe continued to turn out some of the finest gear available to both the working cowboy and the collector.
In addition to bronc saddles used by more world champions than any other, Duff and Bill turned out thousands of saddles for the everyday cowboy. Known for their beauty, durability, and comfort, Severe saddles are some of the most sought after tools in the western world.
Sheila Small, along with husband Butch, owns several of the Severe creations, which are often put to the test on their Dubois, Idaho, cattle and guest ranch. Sheila, however, is quite protective of hers. “I get mad when Butch lets the guests ride it. They’ll come in saying they want my saddle, and I have to ask Butch what they were doing riding my saddle.” In addition to Duffs talent, she praises him as a person. “Duff Severe is the greatest saddlemaker who ever lived, but on top of that, he is the most wonderful man I have ever met in my whole life.”
Perhaps the single most important trait that leads people to put Duff Severe on a pedestal is his humility. Regardless of how many good things are said about him, he remains true to his one ideal-do the job better than it has ever been done. That ideal is what separates Duff from other saddlemakers, and it is also what prompted the Smithsonian Institution to declare him the only artist in the saddlemaking trade.
His first invitation to display his work at the Smithsonian, however, did not come gracefully. Duff had a friend from Canada who had an uncanny ability to disguise his voice over the phone. One day, in 1982, this pal called Duff with an unfamiliar imitation of a trapper and hide trader. “He called me wanting to sell me a bunch of furs–coyotes, bobcats, and beavers. Then he said he’d throw in a packhorse to seal the deal. I told him, ‘Hey, I’m a saddlemaker. I don’t buy hides.’ But he had this laugh that gave him away every time.”
Shortly after the fur salesman called, Duff received another funny call. This time, a young lady called offering him an all expense paid invitation to display his creations at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Along with the trip, he would also receive awards and $10,000. Duff responded, “I suppose you want to throw in some coyote furs too,” thinking his friend had enlisted the help of a young woman for his newest practical joke. The two argued until the lady offered a confirmation letter written on official Smithsonian letterhead. Never expecting the letter, Duff agreed to accept a written invitation, and not long after, he was in Washington displaying his artwork.
Duff displayed his saddles at the Smithsonian a total of eight times. On his second trip to Washington, a man who worked at the museum approached him. Duff remembers, “He said, ‘Oh, you’re here again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it’s me.’ And then he told me that in the 30 years he had worked there, I was the only one he had seen come more than once.”
The Next Generation
Randy Severe, Duff’s apprentice and Bills’ son, was also invited to the Smithsonian to display the next generation of Severe handiwork. After growing up in the saddle shop, training horses for a few years, and finally settling down to marry, Randy was approached by Duff in 1974. “He just said it was time to go to work,” remembers Randy.
With a working knowledge of all the saddle making tools, Randy had an edge when it came to learning the trade. Not only did he see Severe products being produced over the years, he also saw them put to work. “Those guys would spend all day making that gear, and then they’d go train horses every night using it,” he recalls.
As a craftsman, Randy learned his style directly from Duff. “It’s always been my goal to emulate him, to do what he has done and what he’s still doing.” Randy says the only changes in Severe Brothers quality are the inevitable style changes in gear.
In apprenticing with Duff, Randy has learned just as much about life as he has about building saddles. “Whether it was bronc saddles, hobbles, or anything, Duff always guaranteed that it’d be a little better than the last one, and I try to do that too.” Duffs drive and dedication impressed the younger Severe, especially when Duff built the log house he now lives in. “He was bound and determined to get that house built. He shriveled up to where he was no bigger than a mouse, but he got it built.”
Whether it’s craftsmanship, friendship, or customer service, the Severe name has always fit the top end of the bill. According to Butch Small, “I have a lot of Severe stock saddles, and the trees are the best in the world. I have never sored a horse’s back with one of their saddles. And as far as Duff goes, he’s one of those people that will touch your heart, and you never realize how good it is to see him when you haven’t seen him in a while.”
Drive, dedication, and attention to quality have always been an integral part of Duff Severe. When Duff was breaking colts for Par Norton, an Oregon rancher who could have just as well been doing the job himself, he was well aware that the boss man knew exactly how far a horse should be in 30 days. Because of that fact, Duff made sure that each horse was a little bit farther along than that. Just like his saddle making, hospitality, and friendship, it’s simply another instance of Duff doing the job better than it has ever been done.
Article by Marty Campbell. Marty campbell is a western humorist who entertains everyone from bankers to the cattlemen they risk their money on.
© Western Horseman August 2000