Straight & even: Crowheart saddle maker strives for quality in every piece
Crowheart – “I used to start colts when it was 10 below zero, standing outside on frozen ground,” remembers Steve Mecum. “If your feet are frozen long enough, you start thinking it would be nice to do something inside in the winter. That was the catalyst to me beginning to learn how to build saddles.”
Mecum and his wife Kathy worked for the CM Ranch in Dubois for 15 years and have been cowboying for the Diamond D Cattle Company intermittently for the past 20. Mecum became interested in saddle making through his desire to ride good saddles, and looking at many of them through the lens of how he could improve them.
“Whenever I purchased a saddle of my own, I could only think about how it should be different,” Mecum says. “Once you start building saddles you find out how hard it is to make a perfect saddle. There are about 104 individual pieces of leather that go into each saddle, and there are about 10 things that can go wrong with each one of them. Every year something else happens that I’ve never messed up before.”
When the Mecums moved away from the CM, Steve had enough clientele to begin making saddles full-time. He found it hard to stay indoors and concentrate on leatherwork in the summer, though.
“I jumped at the chance to run the cow camps for the Diamond D,” Mecum says. “They were having trouble keeping people. As soon as they saw a wolf or a bear sitting on dead cow and they were supposed to run it off, they didn’t like it. But I guess I’ve been around enough bears that it doesn’t bother me, or I’m dumber.”
Mecum has built as many as 30 saddles in a year, but with cowboying in the summer for the Diamond D he now makes about a dozen each winter. For 10 years, Mecum enjoyed a waiting list of over two years. The troubled economy has lowered it to a steady one and a half. Mecum mainly builds slick forks, as their popularity has grown, which he attributes to natural horsemanship clinicians.
“Ray Hunt promoted quality horsemanship, and he was riding quality gear,” Mecum says. “Hunt traveled all over the world riding Dale Harwood saddles. Harwood has the highest quality saddles that I’ve ever seen, and they’re consistently smooth. People may think if they have a saddle like Ray Hunt, their horse will act better; too bad it doesn’t work that way.”
Mecum’s prices start at $4,500 for a basic saddle with minimal stamping and carving. He customizes everything from the stamping/carving to the saddle horn size to the type of stirrups. Mecum built his first saddle with oversight from Bob Douglas of Sheridan, and it took him over three weeks. Now he does a roughout in a week, with much better quality.
“I try to build a saddle absolutely as fast as I can build it without making a mistake,” Mecum explains. “I’ve had saddles in shows where there was a contest and I’ve had judges tell me that they couldn’t find a mistake. It is nice of them, but they just didn’t find it. It is hard to make a perfect saddle, but there is nothing wrong with trying.”
For seven years Mecum was a member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA). To join, a new member must be voted in by 75 percent of the membership and create two museum-quality pieces a year to exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“It was an honor to be a part of it, but also extremely stressful, as you’re under a lot of deadlines and pressure,” Mecum explains. “I did a lot of artistic saddles for TCAA and enjoyed it, but the saddles were mainly for rich people to display in their collections, and I didn’t like that.
“My base price is expensive, but it’s still within reason for many people for a good saddle. It is nice to see a museum-quality saddle sell for $30,000, but I find it more gratifying to see one ridden every day. Whether I’m in the TCAA or not, it doesn’t change how I do things. I make all my stitches straight and even, and the leather pieces fit tightly and line up exactly.”
Some customers have specific designs, while others choose from his patterns and a few allow Mecum free reign with the design. Smaller flowers increase the cost of a saddle, as they take longer to carve, while a basket weave stamp shortens the process and thus the price.
“I would like to make a saddle some day where every single open spot is carved,” Mecum says. “Everything from the gullet to the stirrup leathers, just to say I did it.”
Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup from Lander. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.