Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cowboy Artistry

Last Tuesday was a great day for an excursion into the Nebraska Sandhills, where one companion said she loved to watch the changing seasons.  We joked that the fall color is so evident on all the trees.... (Actually, there are almost no trees in the Sandhills, but the grasses definitely change with the seasons.)  Ten of us from The Art Society of Ogallala took a field trip to Arthur, a small cowboy town in ranch country, north of Ogallala.  Arthur County claims one person per square mile from the 2000 Census, and Arthur is the only town in the county!  The place is famous for the world's smallest courthouse, and the world's only church made from baled straw.  A brochure lists 18 current businesses.  We visited three.

We learned lots about leather working from Dennis Rose at Rose Saddlery, on the main street, "downtown".  He has some amazing industrial sewing machines and demonstrated for us on a beaded horse breast collar, commissioned for a young cowboy's birthday.  Dennis grew up in the Sandhills. He does beautiful leather tooling and has created 267 saddles,  as well as lots of horse equipment, purses, and biker clothing during the last 33 years.  He's designed a special saddle for handicapped riders with a high back support that folds to allow the rider to get into position.  Lots of his equipment was creatively fabricated to fit his needs, like a saddle frame mounted on a barber stool to pump it higher for ease in construction.

On the north edge of town, past the log cabin built by Buffalo Bill and some partners, we were treated to a demonstration of the hatter's craft by Jim Marshall of  Marshall Custom Hats.   I didn't realize the best felt cowboy hats are made from 100% beaver hair.  Varying amounts of rabbit hair are added at different price ranges.  We saw an antique conformeter--a rare contraption used to measure the idiosyncrasies of old British heads.  Custom hats really are made to fit different shapes and sizes of heads.  Jim steams the felt, shaping it on wooden forms, and flange boards,  presses with an ingenious Rhodes ironing machine, then actually sands the felt with sandpaper.   The inside sweatbands are sewn in by hand, and more shaping is done with steam and skilled hands.  In the last 10 years, Jim has created 1,059 special hats for rodeo queens, ranchers, cowboys, and even a birthday presentation hat for Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, who has the biggest head Jim has ever fit.

Fried onion chips, and a drink at The Bunkhouse Bar & Grill rounded out our field trip.  This place also serves as the area's senior meal site!  The food and atmosphere were great:  a table of women playing cards, men coming in for a late afternoon beer...all eye-ing us "tourists."  Hunting trophies and antiques adorn the walls.  Pithy quotations and snapshots of the locals are everywhere.  But, I'll have to go back for more than the food...my one bar photo came out too blurry to include here.  Many apologies.