Cowboy craftsman: Wyoming saddle maker earns White House honors
President Trump declared Oct. 4-10 as Made in America Week. The dedication, which honors inventors, craftsmen, tradesmen and laborers across the United States, commends hardworking Americans for their skills and dedication to the workforce.
“I call upon all Americans to pay special tribute to builders, ranchers, crafters, entrepreneurs and all those who work with their hands every day to make America great,” proclaims President Trump.
During each of his years in office, President Trump has invited business owners from each state to display their American-made products at the annual Made in America Showcase on the White House lawn. The 2020 event was originally planned for Oct. 5, during Made in America Week. However, due to COVID-19 concerns, the event has been postponed to a later date.
John Lauren Blair, owner of J.L. Blair Saddlery outside of Greybull, was selected to represent Wyoming’s western heritage and traditions with his business and products.
Traditional and true
Blair, a second-generation saddle maker, builds saddles based on tradition.
“I build a very old type of saddle, as far as the saddle is constructed,” he says. “I always say, I build saddles the way they should be built, and I build true custom saddles.”
He explains many saddles are built with a modern, factory-type look and construction.
“Often people are looking for a price point rather than understanding what actually goes into a custom piece,” he adds.
“I make sure the tree will fit some horses, not just one horse,” explains Blair, in regards to some of his focuses when making a saddle. “I spend a lot of time on the ground seat, which is probably the biggest difference between my work and others. I shape the ground seat in – adding layers and shaving them down, while other makers put blocks against the tree, top it with a piece of tin and cover it with leather.”
A plain saddle, without intricate tooling and carved designs, can take Blair up to two months to complete.
“I make sure pieces fit together, and they fit tight,” Blair shares. “I also like to make sure everything is dried, as when leather is wet, it is still shrinking and changing.”
Along with making custom saddles, Blair builds leather basics like belts and horse gear, along with unique products such as backpacks, purses and recently, carved vases. Blair also restores historical and older saddles, whether the piece is a family heirloom or something built in the 1950s and still in use.
Learning the art
Blair studied the art of saddle making under his father, Neal L. Blair and Tony J. Holmes, a trophy saddle maker who was based in Cheyenne and made the Cheyenne Frontier Days trophy saddles. Now, he has been making saddles for well over 40 years.
“The first day I went to work for Tony, I went to the alley and pulled weeds,” Blair shares. “I think it was his way of seeing if I would stick around or not.”
Blair says while working for Holmes, he swept floors, tore saddles apart to clean them and handstitched leather.
“I never got to do any of the fun stuff,” Blair says. “But, those are all basic things one has to learn before moving on.”
Saddle making and leatherwork in general is a matter of practice, according to Blair.
“We might not like to practice, but we have to,” notes Blair. “My advice is to pick up books and read them.”
Blair belongs to an organization in Cody called By Western Hands, which is an art gallery and crafts mentoring program. He explains the program is tied into Northwest Community College in Powell.
“It was quite an honor to be selected to represent Wyoming,” Blair says. “J.L. Blair Saddlery was selected to represent more than just leather workers, but everyone in the agriculture industries, craftspeople and Wyoming tourism.”
A press release from the White House states President Trump is incredibly proud of the grit, ingenuity and use of American labor of those selected to represent their states at the Made in America Showcase to manufacture exception products on the homeland.
For more information, visit jlblairsaddlery.com.
Averi Hales is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.