Cowboys consider Pendleton, Oregon’s Severe Brothers Saddlery more than a full-service saddle shop. Sure, it’s the place where they purchased some of their best gear, but it is also where some of their fondest memories and most-lasting friendships were made. Story by: Jennifer Denison
Each September, when rodeo cowboys travel to Pendleton, Oregon, they usually have winning the Pendleton Round-Up on their minds. But beyond the thrill of competition, there’s also a sweet familiarity about the historic Western town, a sense of coming home.
That’s because for more than 50 years, two sets of Severe brothers have rolled out the welcome mat in front of their saddle shop for road-foundered cowboys filled with dreams but down on their luck and without a place to stay. With the porch light and coffee pot on, the saddlemakers have not only put up the cowboys for a night or two, but have also serviced their tack needs.
Furthermore, the first generation of Severe saddle-shop owners influenced rodeo with their revolutionary bronc saddle design. Today, that tradition continues with the next generation of saddlemaking siblings catering to world-class cowboys and horsemen.
Setting Up Shop
Started in 1955 by Duff and Bill Severe, Severe Brothers Saddlery has earned a reputation for producing top-of-the-line cowboy gear, from rawhide bosals to saddles. Displayed in the Smithsonian Institution on multiple occasions, Duff’s work escalated saddlemaking from a craft to an art. Part of the company’s success was due to the fact that its owners were both horsemen and knew about the gear they were making.
Raided in Idaho’s high desert, Bill and Duff had both earned a living from their saddles and knew the importance of quality, well-fitted, functional gear. Both men had also honed their saddlemaking skills in the famous Hamley & Company saddle shop before starting their own business.
Bill’s specialty was making trees, while Duff had a knack for braiding rawhide and carving leather. Duff had studied under master rawhide braider Luis Ortega.
“He could sit and watch Ortega braid till his heart was content,” says Duff’s nephew, Randy Severe, while looking at the glass case filled with examples of his uncle’s intricately woven masterpieces. “But he couldn’t ask any questions.”
Renowned for their quality craftsmanship, the Severe Brothers declined an offer to open their shop in Washington. Instead, they opted to remain in Pendleton, where a group of ranchers placed several orders to keep the saddlemakers around. They based their business in a 1940’s U.S. Army barracks on top of a hill overlooking Pendleton and the Umatilla River Valley.
During the height of production, the company employed up to 10 full-time craftsmen and produced dozens of saddles each year. The tree, saddle and rawhide divisions were housed under one roof. The saddlemakers utilized four primary tree styles and nearly 40 different patterns, which could be modified to fit any horse or rider’s needs. Each saddle is archived in the shop, where the present-day owners can access records that will help them make repairs, replace parts and replicate past models.
The Severe Brothers’ clientele ranged from trainers to working cowboys, but Bill and Duff had a special appreciation for rodeo cowboys. Severe Brothers saddle trees, known for their durability and balanced fit on a horse’s back, were popular with calf ropers and steer ropers, but the bulk of the company’s business was producing bronc saddles. Bill’s sons, Randy and Robin Severe, who now operate the shop, each learned their trade building bronc saddles.
During the late 1970s and early ’80s, it was easier to count the number of top bronc riders who didn’t ride Severe Brothers saddles than it was to tally those who did.
“One year, 14 out of the top 15 rode in our saddles,” point out Robin.
Some of the great bronc riders who bucked out on Severe Brothers saddles include Ivan Daines, the Etbauer brothers, Monty Henson, Clint Johnson, Tom Marvel, Bud Munroe and Casey Tibbs.
“The first time I rode a Severe Brothers bronc saddle was at Fort Worth, around 1976,” recalls world champion saddle bronc rider and Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee Munroe. “My old Hamley was worn out, so I tried a Severe Brothers and won the bronc riding.”
He was instantly sold on the saddle and wrapped up his 14-year career in it. The Severe Brothers made a habit out of building saddles that were comfortable, fit a horse well and lasted a lifetime. They modified the design of a traditional bronc saddle to help give cowboys a competitive advantage.
Until the 1950s, bronc riders rode whatever saddle they had. Then, one day, Casey Tibbs came into Hamley’s and asked Bill and Duff to saw off his saddle’s horn. Not only was a saddle horn dangerous on a wild bronc, but a rider was disqualified for grabbing the horn.
When Bill and Duff began building their own bronc saddles, they made a few modifications to make their saddles as functional and as comfortable as possible for the riders. They make the first bronc saddles devoid of horns, and also created thicker swells, providing more surface area for the riders’ legs, which was more comfortable. Severe Brothers saddles also sat as close as possible to a horse’s back, enhancing the riders’ timing and feel. Minor adjustments to the tree set the industry standard.
“Bill and Budd were masters,” Munroe says. “They built saddles the old way and didn’t cut corners. They didn’t overcharge, which made it possible for cowboys to get good bronc saddles.”
Robin and Randy uphold those traditions today.
Robin had cuts and carves saddle trees out of Douglas Fir, using the same methods employed by his father. Randy applies the leather to the trees and had carves it to perfection, like Duff did. His handiwork also has been displayed in the Smithsonian.
Machinery will mass-produce saddles, but Randy says that a machine can’t carve as well as he can. Robin ads that, in his view, mass production compromises a saddle’s integrity.
“Dad always told me that the key to building a great saddle tree was to learn to feel it,” Robin says. “He said to work on the tree until it looks perfect, then feel it. Your hands will pick up any imperfection your eyes can’t see. A machine can’t feel things.”
Randy adds, “One of the things that sells our saddles is that they’re made the same way as Dad and Uncle Duff made them. That tradition can’t be duplicated.”
Home on the Road
Since the 1950s, Severe Brothers saddlery has made the trophy saddles presented to the winners of each event at the Pendleton Round-Up. During the week long event, it’s tradition for cowboys to stop by the saddle shop. Some come to visit, some to drop off tack for repair, and some to simply get a little sleep in the makeshift bunkhouse on the shop’s upper level, appropriately named Hotel de Cowpunch by frequent guest Casey Tibbs.
“It all started when a couple of guys came to town and didn’t have a place to stay,” explains Randy. “Hotels are at a premium during Round-Up, so Uncle Duff let them stay here. The next year, the guys came back and brought their buddies. Before long, Dad and Uncle Duff were looking for more bunk beds.”
Tibbs named the cowboy quarters after performing in a rodeo exhibition in France. A flamboyant prankster, Tibbs returned to the United States telling everyone he could speak French. He had a wooden sign made that read “Hotel de Cowpunch,” in honor of his new second language. On the way to a rodeo at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Tibbs stopped by the saddle shop and hung the sign over the bunkhouse doorway.
The Severes went out of their way to help cowboys in need of tack repairs, and even shipped new saddle trees overnight to cowboys on the road. Randy recalls, as a youngster, working all night during Round-Up week to repair stockpiles of broken tack cowboys needed repaired before the next day’s performance.
“They guys saved up all their broken gear and brought it here,” he says. “We’d sit up all night working on it, while the cowboys oversaw repairs.”
At any one time, you could find up to 75 cowboys bunking in the saddle shop. It was a place where lasting friendships and memories were made, hair-raising stories were told and larger-than-life legends emerged.
It’s still that way during Round-Up week. Contemporary rodeo cowboys are on the move more than those of yesteryear, buy they know they always have a place to stay in Pendleton. The upstairs of the saddle shop still has bunk beds, and a kitchen, living room and laundry area. Old photographs, tattered hats and rodeo memorabilia provided by bunkhouse guests through the years adorn the walls. A guitar sits in the corner – the same on Ivan Daines, John Denver and Bruce Ford once played.
Randy enjoys taking a break from carving by sitting down and strumming that guitar. When he belts out a tune about Tibbs, a sentimental air breezes through the shop, and it’s clear why Randy and Robin have chosen to continue their family’s saddlemaking traditions.
“A hundred years from now, I hope people see how well-used and liked our saddles were, and how they’re still holding up to hard use,” Randy says. “A well-used saddle has so much character to it that you wish it could talk.”
It’s the same feeling you get inside Severe Brother Saddlery. If walls could talk, the old clapboard building would speak volumes about some of the rodeo’s greatest legends.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor.
© Western Horseman November 2007