Editor’s note: This story originally aired on September 26, 2014.
When it opened in 1963 Sheridan’s King’s Saddlery was a small shop serving surrounding ranching and horse backing community. In the forty years that followed King’s became an institution. Founder Don King’s distinctive Sheridan style leatherwork is the finest in its class, and enthusiasts come from around the world to see the saddlery and the attached museum.
It’s a Friday afternoon and King’s Saddlery is pretty quiet. The busy rodeo season is over and the shop is catching up on repairs. It’s a good time to catch Bruce King, son of Don King and current owner of the business. I’m a saddle newbie, so my first question has gotta be what makes a King’s saddle so good?
“Our name is on it,” he tells me. “And it is supposed to be made with a little more caution than some of the others.”
If you’re thinking Bruce’s being overly modest…he is. King’s reputation for quality and craftsmanship has been building since the 1960s, when a young ranch hand from Douglass named Don King settled down in the area and started making things for his cowboy friends. As other saddle shops closed down or were replaced by cheap, machine made goods King’s kept doing things slowly, and by hand. Bruce says part of that comes from his dad wanting King’s to remain a family business.
“You know they sat us down at the table and said, ‘now we are going to buy this building and said if you kids want to stick around you are more than welcome. If you do this we need you.’ We did, they did. And here we are.”
I asked Bruce how he would sum up the feel of this place. But before he could answer local historian Karen Watembach jumps in.
“Laid back western!”
Watembach works part time at the Don King Museum, a space connected to the shop that displays a lifetime of collected Western memorabilia.
“Anywhere else there would be an armed guard at that door. But they just say ‘give an offering, come in and enjoy.’ That is laid back western.”
That attitude carries over to the employees here too. Almost everyone I talked to has worked at King’s for more than a quarter century. Link Weaver does most of the saddle work. He says his daily routine is pretty consistent. But now and again he gets to meet some notable people.
“Wilford Brimley used to come in once in a while. John King made a saddle for Tom Selleck. Couple years ago Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top was in here. Happened to be my day off so I missed that. The Queen of England was in here once.”
Cheri Sullivan sits next to Weaver and is making a set of riding boots. She says, even without the celebrities, King’s can get interesting
“We had a group of strippers come through one afternoon. One found a pair of chaps up front she wanted. But they were a little too long on the bottom so she had us make a top out of the scraps. It was right close to closing time but not one of the guys left because they wanted to see what the outfit looked like when she came out.”
On the other side of King’s head leatherworker Jim Jackson is tapping out the inlay for a new belt. The intricate flowering pattern is called “Sheridan style.”
“It’s very tight, precise, nesting circles. And there is a nice flow with the stem work.”
Don King created the Sheridan style, and Jackson says its recognizable to other leatherworkers and enthusiasts all over the world.
“Its like painting or something. If you look at different styles of painting sometimes its hard to describe exactly what it is but you sense it and you know it.”
Suddenly there is a rush of customers–Chinese nationals on a tour of the American West.
“This is something really we don’t see,” says trip leader Annie Yeh. “Like, I never do the horseback riding, so every time I ask them all the stupid questions! It is just kind of amazing.”
Fay Fitzsimmons is visiting with her family from rural Texas. But she says even there its hard to find anyplace quite like King’s.
“Growing up on a ranch. Growing up with real cowboys and people who really value the land and love horses. That is the culture here. We feel totally and completely at home here. It is very special.”
For Bruce King it doesn’t matter whether its Texans or Chinese that visit the store, or if its celebrities or cowboys that buy his goods. What’s worth paying attention to is that the products are made as they’ve always been–with care.
“We don’t toot any horn very loud,” King says. “To my knowledge we have never said we are the best we just do what we do and try and do it well. And if somebody else says we are good that just makes us happy.”
Bruce is 67 and won’t be managing King’s forever. He says he hopes his son Ryan will carry on.