Leatherman

Craig residents keep the art of crafting with horsehair, rawhide alive

Before there were nylon and synthetic materials, cowboys made ropes from horsehair or out of rawhide strips skillfully woven together.

Boots would be resoled again and again until the tops were as worn as the bottoms, and saddles were reconditioned and repaired to keep the cowboy out on the range.

For some Craig residents, those times still occur. The group meets every Tuesday evening during the winter, with meeting locations changing from garage to barn to shed each week.

Ron Snowden has been working with leather almost as long as he's been ranching, and he's been ranching since he got out of high school.

On Tuesday, he resoled a pair of boots that had seen many miles on the ground and plenty of hours in the stirrups.

"We've been getting together on and off for about 10 years," Snowden said about the group gathered in his garage. "Some people show up one time, and some come back again and again. We talk a lot. It makes the winter go by quicker."

Snowden grew up in Steamboat Springs. He did boot repairs when he wasn't feeding the cows, and he fell into working for Ernie Allen in his boot shop, which increased his desire to learn about working with leather.

"I bought sewing machines to fix harness and saddles," he said. "It was just curiosity that got me started in this and a willingness to learn."

In 1979, Snowden moved to Craig, bringing his enjoyment in working with leather with him.

At the Tuesday gatherings, people work on whatever inspires them. Last week, the group pulled the hair off of a hide for a demonstration on how to make rawhide.

Some group members have taken on the task of making an entire saddle.

This week, Duane Rodewald displayed a braided lariat to the group gathered in Ron Snowden's garage north of Craig.

"Out of one bull hide, I cut enough rawhide to make two riatas," Rodewald said. "I cut around and around the hide until I had 604 feet of string."

Cutting the hide into strips and weaving the strips into a useful item was just one craft taking place Tuesday evening.

Doug Van Tassel was demonstrating the intricate process of weaving horsehair to Tim Rodewald, as the rest of the group gave input to the process.

Missing from this week's session was Steve Cattoor, known for making rope out of horsehair during the meetings with his rope-twisting machine.

Snowden recalled the old days when a wagon wheel was used to twist rope, with one wheel on the wagon lifted off the ground. A nail in the wheel spun the horsehair into strands, without removing the wheel from the wagon.

Snowden finished his "back in the old days" tale and smiled as he prepared to glue a new sole onto the old boots he is repairing.

"It's cheaper now days to buy a new pair of boots than to fix them," he said. "I think I paid $6 for these at a yard sale."

Removing all traces of the old sole, he cleans and preps the welt before applying contact cement to the boot.

He tempered the leather in water before applying the new sole to the boot.

"I like to put the leather wet into the freezer," Snowden said. "When the frost comes off, it's ready to work."

He will build up the heel after the sole is stitched into place around the welt.

A row of wooden pegs and a row of brass nails will be added at the instep of the boot to hold everything together.

Snowden recalls a time when many cobblers were blind men, because it was a trade that one could perform with their hands, feeling each process as they went along.

He tried making a living at leatherworking about three years ago. It can be done, he said, "if you charge a lot of money to the right clients," or get work on a big outfit needing a lot of repairs.

The garage is full of tools to sew, cut and shape leather. Artistic touches are added to the leather by punching in a design or carving out a pattern.

Looking around the garage, Snowden wonders where future projects will take him.

When it comes to tooling a pattern into the leather, "You never know where the next idea will come from," he said. "Maybe a wall-paper pattern."

The evening ends with the group agreeing to meet next Tuesday at Wayne's house.

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