Staying in the saddle

Dixon rancher takes pride in his gear

Wednesday was a busy day for Keith Duncan.

Irrigating, doctoring an injured bull and branding tail-end calves was just part of the day for the Dixon, Wyo., cowboy. Then, he headed for the shop, where he makes saddles.

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It is a craft he has grown in into.

Keith and his brother Bill grew up around leather working, but they both admit that as teens, they really weren't interested in the business.

"I finally got into it when I wanted a custom saddle, and it was cheaper to make one myself," Keith said.

He spent two months at Hat Creek Leather Company in Saratoga, sewing leather horns and making strap-work while learning the art of making saddles.

"I worked out of my brother Bill's house in the dining room when I got back," Duncan said. "Things started snowballing, and I got some tools and equipment."

His great uncle had a Heiser saddle that his uncle rode for 50 years after buying it used in 1951. Duncan set about building a new saddle identical to that one, now worn and broken.

Half-a-dozen saddles later, Duncan recently was awarded a scholarship to the Traditional Cowboy Artists of America, where the country's top gear makers gather to discuss latest innovations in saddle making, silver-smithing and braiding.

He already has worked with some of the countries top saddle men.

"Dale Harwood is the most famous living saddle maker alive," Duncan said. "I also spent a week with Steve Mecum from Crowheart, Wyo."

The two veteran saddle makers are known for quality workmanship on their saddles, which often sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

One goal of the older saddle makers is to find young people interested in keeping the tradition alive, and maintaining the high standard they have established during the years. Duncan is that type of saddle maker.

Insisting on quality materials and workmanship, Duncan said a saddle won't leave his shop if he doesn't like it.

"There's things you won't do because your name is going on it," he said. "I don't do trends or gimmicks. I like to stick with what's tried and true."

Having all of his client's information is an important part of making a saddle, Duncan said. Knowing what kind of work a rider is doing is as important as the size of the man and the horse.

"I use custom tree makers. You can give them every measurement you want, and they can duplicate it," he said. "Then you look at the swells style, the horn style, the cantle height and weight."

The style of the bars used in the saddle depends on what kind of work a cowboy is doing. Working cowboys want Arizona bars, Duncan said, referring to the long portion of the tree connecting the front and rear of the saddle.

Producing only a couple of saddles each year is all Duncan has time for. He has orders for repairs and other work all around his shop.

"That one belongs to Charlie Duffy," he said pointing to a worn saddle. "He likes that saddle. I need a project for the Sheridan Leather show."

Duncan likes to make working saddles, with large diameter horns for roping heavy animals. He puts mule hide on the wooden horn to allow the rope to slip easier, saying it eases things to a stop rather than jerking.

His materials come from all over the country, with leather from Sheridan, bronze metalwork from an Oregon foundry, and saddle trees manufactured in Utah.

The Keith Wilson stirrups used on a saddle he has on display in the gift shop at the Little Snake River Museum came from Alberta, Canada.

His sewing machine is a 90-year-old J.D. Randall harness-stitcher hook and awl machine that pulls a tight thread.

He also uses a Pearson machine made in England that will stitch one inch of leather with ease.

When asked about personal preference, Duncan likes a basic saddle.

"I like real classic looking saddles, like one you ordered out of a Visalia (1923) catalog," he said. "Clean and functional. No matter how pretty it is, you've got to ride it."

More than a saddle maker, Duncan also helps run a ranch.

He and five partners -- which include his brother, uncle and grandmother -- run about 700 cattle up Slater Creek on a fourth generation ranch homesteaded by his great-grandparents, Tom and Tilly Duncan.

"They're an Angus-Cross that seen to be getting blacker every year," Duncan said about the cattle. "The bottom country was all settled, so great-granddad went up Slater Creek because that's what was left. I think we got the better end of the deal."

The family ran sheep on the ranch until the early 1980s, when "times got tough" in the business. They switched to cattle soon after.

In the upper country, they cut hay with a sickle, "The way they did it before swathers and rotary cutters came along," because of the rocky and steep ground.

Duncan's grandfather on his mother's side worked on valley ranches since the 1950s and he was soon, "building chaps for everybody in the valley."

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