Don Howe Working Cowboy Saddle Maker
The first impression you have of Don Howe is of a man who has “been there and done that.”
A Young Buckaroo
Don was born in Monterey, California and moved to the State of Washington where his family broke ground on a new irrigation project in eastern Washington around Warden. They ran yearling cattle, farmed, and grew potatoes. As soon as Don graduated from high school he headed out to the ION Region looking for a buckaroo job. He tried the ZX in Paisley, Oregon and they were filled up, then on to the MC at Adel, Oregon they too did not need help. Then Don headed for Paradise Valley, Nevada. The Circle A wagon was out and Don contacted Buckaroo Boss Brian Morris and got hired.
Upon arriving where the wagon was camped in the evening Don broke out his double-rig, swell-fork saddle with rubber on the horn and his 30-foot rope. He looked around at the buckaroos working on their horse gear near their tepees and found that they were riding single-rig slick-fork saddles, flat-plate rigging, with mule hide on the horn and long ropes. Some had nylon ropes and some had reatas that they had braided themselves. Brian Morris was packing 80 feet of reata on his slick fork saddle. Don said, “Talk about a fish out of water that was me. This gear and the buckaroos that made it and used it just blowed me away. I thought right then, I want to able to do what these guys do. This was also the start of my desire to become a leather-and-rawhide man.” Don said,
Don went on to say “While working on the Circle A Wagon, Stub Stanford, from Jordan Valley, Oregon took me under his wing and I began to learn the ways of cattle and buckaroos. I had never worked on a cow/calf outfit which is very different than a yearling outfit like we had at home. It changed my whole life right there. I learned how to work cattle a whole different way, a quiet way. I rode alongside Waddie Mitchel and Claude Dallas and worked pairs out of an “open rodear” The quiet way these men handled cattle and their skills with a rope and horse were something that I will never forget.” Don finished up the branding season at the Circle A, rolled up, and headed back to Warden, Washington where he got married to a Lakota lady from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Don and his new wife, Una Howe, headed to Idaho where he got a job in JR Simplot’s feedlot at Burley, Idaho.
Jess Brackenberry was part of the feedlot crew at that time. While riding pens there, he knew Dr. Baxter Black who was heading up the Vet crew. Don got to talking to Jess one day about getting a job on big cow/calf operation. Jess Brackenberry said, “Why don’t you go down to Nevada and contact Bill Kane at the Spanish Ranch. Bill is the cow boss and they always need help.” We gave this some thought and one fine day in early January we drove to the Spanish Ranch near Tuscarora, Nevada. We met Bill Kane and interviewed for the job. I said to Kane, “Do you want my see resume? And Kane said, No - you are hired. So here we are at the “Span” with a 30 mile-an-hour wind blowing the snow sideways and about two feet of snow on the ground. I said to myself, “hell, this cannot be too bad. I am 21 years old and bullet-proof. Little did I know what was coming in the following months. There have been people who have asked me years later if I had “a death wish” going to work for Kane on the “Span” in January??? We doctored cattle on the feed grounds in below-zero weather on solid ice. When one of the teamsters did not return from Elko on a big drunk I took over his team and fed. There were no tractors. All draft teams. You pitched the hay on the hay wagon and pitched it off. We calved out the heifers and branded up at the ranch. We worked every day except we got Sunday afternoon off. I rolled up about May 15 before the wagon pulled out and headed back to Warden, Washington and ran yearlings for my Uncle that summer.”
Don said “In the fall, I went to a saddle-making school in Eugene, Oregon run by Lawrence Dewitt and Ton Henderson.” Before Don left the “Span” he had wanted to buy a Capriola saddle but they were $450 at the time. He never could put his money together, but he did go to “Cap’s” in Elko and picked up a slick-fork tree. Don Howe had caught the saddle making fever and was hooked for life. He said, “I made two saddles, one a slick fork from the tree I had purchased at Caps in Elko, and I also made a swell-fork saddle. I then went to Othello, Washington and opened up my own saddle shop for about a year. I was called back to teach at the saddle school I had attended in Eugene. I taught there two years. We moved to Dupree, South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation where my wife’s family all lives. We opened a saddle shop here and have been here since 1992.
“When we arrived in Dupree I thought the team ropers and barrel racers would be my saddle customers because of the big interest in rodeo in this part of the country. That did not work out because most of them wanted cheaper saddles. So we started doing trade shows back out west and southwest. We have done shows in Arizona, California, Oregon Nevada, and Idaho. ”
Don’s biggest sellers at many shows are not just saddles but rawhide reatas. Don says, “I have customers all over the world that buy my reatas. I have sold them all over this country from North Carolina to California. I don’t buy any of the rawhide I use, I process my own. I flesh out the cow hides and cut my own strings. You have to have the right kind of hide. I make my reatas out of old “shelly” (thin) cows with very little fat. Red hides are better but I also use a lot of black hides. You can use thinner yearling hides to make lighter gear like reins.
“I picked up how to prepare the hides and braid from people like Claude Dallas, Brian Morris, and Bill “Blackie” Black. I make braided reatas in lengths of 50 to 80 feet. Most people want about 60 feet. Some hang on the wall, some are used.” He says most of the recent interest in rawhide gear and reatas has come from people who have attended horse clinics by folks like Ray Hunt and Buck Branaman and events such as The Californios. There is a resurgence in the use of the traditional equipment.”
Working Cowboy Saddle Maker
Don continues, “If I had one ideal saddle to build for someone to ride a variety of horse types, I would build a 3-B Visalia, 5/8 flat-plate, single-rigged saddle. Ever since I worked for Bill Kane I have ridden a single-rigged saddle. There is no real reason to ride a double-rigged saddle unless you’re roping heavy cattle outside or calves and jerking them over in the arena. In today’s market, I build more Wade saddles than any other saddle, again because the horse clinicians made them popular.”
“My deal is I will build a dog collar or a big time buckaroo saddle. Makes no difference to me. I am a rawhide and leather man. I can make any kind of a saddle, but gear and repairs are a big part of my saddle business. My wife does custom silver work which has added to our income. Straight saddle making is not a money making deal and you have to rely on other items to make a living. Saddlemaking has to be your passion to stay with it. You will never get rich just making saddles. I still do some day work for ranches in the Dupree area. If they have calves to brand or a bad bull, they call me to come rope him out of the herd. I still enjoy being horseback.”