Tall in the Saddle: 'It's a hobby gone horribly wrong'

EMMETT, Idaho (KBOI) - In the back of his saddle shop, with his salt-and-pepper hair, and glasses pushed up on his head, Terry Rekow looks more like a college professor than the dyed-in-the-wool cowboy he really is.

At an age when most kids were dreaming of being a fireman or maybe an astronaut, Rekow dreamed of days as a buckaroo. And it made his momma cry.

"At 8 or 9, she thought I was too young to be like that," he says.

But dreams die hard and, luckily, Rekow got to live out his, doing whatever the job required, as long as it involved packing and riding in the mountains of central Idaho, "the Big Crick country," as he fondly calls it.

"I always liked the lonely places," he says wistfully of his past life. "I feel more at home there."

But one thing led to another, and Rekow now has pretty much hung up his spurs in favor of making custom saddles.

"It's kind of a hobby thing that's gone horribly wrong," he says, grinning. "And I make my living from it now."

Rekow sits hunched over a saddle form called a "tree" and strikes the pale, damp leather with a wooden hammer. A loud "thwack" accompanies each blow.

Wetting the leather makes it more pliable, he explains. Still, it's not an easy way to make a living.

"You have to be able to use either hand in some awkward positions," he points out. "And it's demanding strength-wise."

He strains and stretches the cowhide, tugging on it and tapping it repeatedly, as he shapes it to suit his concept.

"It takes a lot of hours," he says, and you instantly believe him.

A saddle is a curious thing. It's both utilitarian and an art object; both business and bravado, although you won't hear Rekow boasting about his skill as a saddle-maker.

The only hint of that is the painted sign on his shop window announcing the space as the "World Headquarters" of Rekow Saddle-makers.

Just inside the front door you find yourself in a space that looks like the inside of a log cabin with a bearskin stretching along one wall.

Rekow explains the rough-hewn planks are the result of a barter. A customer needed a saddle and Rekow wanted some decorative wood paneling. As quick as you can say "done deal," it was a handshake that made both men happy.

Terry also points with pride at the deer and antelope heads that peer out from a point almost near the rafters. They lend an air of authenticity and send a message that this is, in every way, an Idaho place.

Although the saddles suggest that, too. And maybe that's part of their appeal.

It's clear, though, that customers also respond to the fine craftsmanship, from the shaping of the leather to the design work and the final stamping.

"For all the manly things I've always done," says Rekow, "I've spent a lot of my time drawing flowers."

And also knights and dragons, not to mention the occasional bumblebee.

Ever old-school, he doesn't use apps, but a dog-eared 1932 Hamley & Co. saddle catalog as a reference guide. Hamley occasionally orders a saddle from Rekow and the pictures of vintage saddles tell him how the finished product should look.

But just as often, he's given to flights of fancy.

"I've made a saddle where I put Waldo in before," Rekow says in a conspiratorial whisper.

He reaches for a stamping tool that looks like a long nail with a wide, flat head. Then he holds it against the soft leather and taps it hard.

It leaves the impression of a flower.

His other tools of the trade include razor-sharp knives and, yup, even band-aids.

Rekow winces at the memory of past injuries.

"Once in a while we get out the Super Glue and needle and thread, too," he says, chuckling.

He maintains an open-door policy, but conducts most of his business over the phone. He gets calls from all over the country, mostly from people who appreciate hand-stitching and hand-tooling and who don't mind paying thousands of dollars for a genuine Rekow design.

The earliest saddles date to 700 B.C. and were nothing but fringed pads.

Watching Rekow shape a piece of fine cowhide suggests that we're not just eons, but light-years away from those merely useful items. When he's finished, he could display his saddles in a gallery or museum.

But he scoffs at the suggestion.

Saddles, after all, are made to be used. And, in fact, they increase in value as the leather acquires the patina that can only come from daily wear.

The elements work their magic, too. You wouldn't leave a good saddle out in the rain, but sun and wind and sweat can add finishing touches even the saddle-maker can't.

This isn't just about shaping leather. A craftsman like Rekow must also be skilled at sewing, but on an industrial scale.

Rekow's commercial machine is designed to work on heavy materials, with a needle like a vampire's stake. Using it on flimsy fabrics would be like using a blowtorch to light candles on a cake.

But he makes it look easy.

There are occasional slip-ups, but Rekow points out the mistakes are few and far between, simply because his materials are too expensive for do-overs.

"It'll cost several hundred dollars when you ruin an important piece on a saddle," he says.

Rekow says he takes great pride in finishing a project. But as gratifying as it is, he's even happier to know he's just a few steps away from his dad's barbershop next door.

Ron Rekow has been cutting hair here for seven decades and now dad and son watch out for each other.
And it's telling that both have established themselves as men dedicated to a craft.

Outside the shop, Terry isn't satisfied until he has me tall in one of his saddles. I grip the horn and pull on the reins and, for a moment, feel transported to the open range--to a life of trail bosses and campfires and rugged mountain beauty.

And here I am with a front-row seat, made lovingly by the man leading the way.