|“Fitting Anybody’s Fanny!”|
"I can make the seat fit anybody’s fanny," Jeff Thompson said.
And he can!
But not only that, his custom-made, one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn saddles can also be made to fit any particular horse and the main activity it will be used for AND he can custom engrave the leather with anything you choose.
The former Vietnam fighter pilot, who flew 1,256 combat missions during three tours of duty there, began working with leather as a child, like so many other folks do. Utilizing Tandy Leather kits he made billfolds, belts, purses and more.
But it was while he was serving his 28 years in the military (the first eight in the Army and the following 20 in the Air Force), that he learned the intricate details of making saddles.
"I was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana when I made friends with some real cowboys," he explained. "One operated a shoe shop whose other half contained a saddle shop. That was more than 30 years ago, but it all stuck with me."
Jeff was attending the University of Alabama on a special program through the U.S. Army in the early 1960s. He was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, but his meeting and marrying Blount County-raised Joyce at the University meant he’d found a new home as well.
After his retirement from the military, they had eight horses and more than 200 head of cattle on their 240-acre farm, known as Grey Coat in honor of Joyce and Jeff’s work with the Blountsville Historical Society in sponsoring many reenactments and the resettlement of historic buildings in a pioneer village along U.S. 231 in Blountsville. (Joyce is known throughout the Southeast as a Civil War expert as she writes and promotes preserving history.) They also trained working and hunting dogs for years.
"There was a time I could saddle a horse at daybreak and my bird dogs and I would hunt all morning," Jeff explained. "Then we’d come in and I’d change horses and change dogs and go out again all afternoon, down by the river and all along and never cross a fence."
"But our daughter married a lawyer so there’s not a lot of those big burly boyfriends to come and help us with haying and fixing fences now," Jeff joked.
They downsized, selling off about 200 acres of the gently rolling hills of the farm situated in Blount but near Cullman County.
Jeff’s parents both died while living on the farm and only Joyce’s mother is left living on the adjacent farm, still gardening and loving her country life.
So Jeff has outfitted the workshop he shared in later years with his father into a complete saddle-making home. Although he has made numerous saddles through the years (he can’t adequately count how many!), he’ll make them for the public now. IF they are willing to be patient enough to wait at least six weeks for the perfection he prizes.
"All stitching is hand-done," he said. "It’s very labor intensive."
He begins by ordering the "tree" from a Louisiana company. Their carved wood is covered with rawhide. Even the trees can be custom-fitted to a particular horse by measuring the wethers and other crucial points.
"I can change the measurement including the width of the bar and the height of the gullet," Thompson said.
Specialized screws are utilized along with ring shank nails which are threaded to never pull out during the life of the saddle.
"I use flat-plate rigging. 7/8 position instead of full position. It’s much more comfortable for the rider and there’s less bulk underneath the rider’s knees."
Displaying a roping saddle, Jeff explained, "I use a rawhide wrap on the cantle. It prevents the rope from rubbing the leather."
It takes "both sides of the cow" to make a saddle, with his leather ordered from a company in Ohio which is primarily Amish-based. All is cowhide except for small distinctions like where a mule skin wrap is used on the horn for better gripping on the roping saddle.
An entire sheep skin is used underneath each saddle. "I don’t use anything man-made there," he explained.
If the leather is dyed, he does it in stages, using a special oil-based dye that penetrates completely through the leather. He recommends a saddle be thoroughly cleaned with saddle soap and oiled at least once each year, more so if the saddle has gotten wet in rain or by riding through creeks or lakes.
While dampness is the finished saddle’s biggest downfall, when crafting a saddle, Jeff soaks the leather to reset it for each position.
"Pulling the seat to make it conform to the tree takes a lot of elbow grease," he noted.
Carefully wrapping the horn with leather and hand-sewing it can take up to two days.
A huge variety of hand tools line the workshop’s walls and tables. A six-inch hand-edge beveller cost $65 while a stitch groove tool cost $85. That tool leaves a tiny groove so Jeff’s hand stitches aren’t level with the leather so they are more protected from use and wear.
Jeff can make a "plain" saddle or intricately engrave it with designs and/or the rider’s name.
"If they can come up here for at least one fitting, we can make sure it is really special," he noted, pointing out a saddle on a stand he is now "shaving" the leather to perfection.
"These saddles should last generations. Leather lasts lifetimes if it’s treated right, and I build these saddles to last," he said proudly.
Those wanting more information on Jeff’s saddles may phone him at (205) 429-2828. If he doesn’t answer the workshop phone, please leave a message.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. You can reach her at www.suzysfarm.com.