Kearney man carries on father’s legacy through saddle shop

March 30, 2019

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) — The story told by a black-and-white photo dated 1951 on the back wall reflects a legacy.

A man in overalls leans against a workbench behind a saddle he’s making, while a little boy peaks out from under the workbench.

The lives of the man and boy — father and son — always centered on family, cowboying and saddlemaking.

The boy, Lyle Henderson, followed in his father’s footsteps as a craftsman of saddles and other horse-related gear by continuing the Platte Valley Saddle Shop business his dad, Elmus, started in 1942.

The shop was at several downtown Kearney locations during the years. It was moved in 1994 to a building on the southeast edge of town, between Interstate 80 and the Platte River, on acreage where Lyle and his wife, Lynda, have lived since 1976.

Lyle Henderson was raised in his dad’s shop.

“When I was a baby, they kept me in a cardboard box they shipped saddles in,” Henderson said. As an older child, he took naps under the workbench, sleeping on leather scraps his father tossed there.

Horses are another constant in the Henderson family.

“I’ve never been without horses,” Henderson told the Kearney Hub. “We always had horses and Dad was one of the guys who started the Rustlers Club for riding and rodeos.”

The once-empty space between Henderson’s house and Grandpa’s Steakhouse to the west once was used for team roping events.

“There are five horses and two donkeys here now,” Henderson said, owned by his son, Mike.

Lyle Henderson’s team roping competition days ended in 1990 with a broken left hip. “I had a horse get me off. I was pushing him and he was more stout than me,” he said.

“I can still ride today, but I don’t,” he added, because of other hip surgeries during the years.

Elmus Henderson’s business started as a traveling harness shop on a 1934 Chevy truck.

Lyle Henderson said his dad would go to Sandhills ranches each spring to make harness and saddle repairs before hay season, and then return to Kearney.

His grandfather and two great-uncles homesteaded in Cherry County, so he spent summers in the Sandhills as a teenager helping with branding and other cattle work. After his 1967 Kearney High School graduation, he “went cowboying” full time on a Whitman-area ranch.

He continued his bachelor cowboy life in Idaho before coming to the Grand Island-Hastings area for work that included the Terry Ranch, now Crane Trust property.

Friends introduced him to Lynda, a Grand Island native, on Labor Day 1969. “We were married Jan. 10, 1970. Everybody said it wouldn’t last,” Lynda Henderson joked.

Lyle Henderson said he always wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. “But when I graduated from high school, Dad told me to go out and get a job to see what it was like.”

Lyle and Lynda returned to Kearney in 1972 when Elmus needed help to keep the business going. They became full owner-operators of Platte Valley Saddle Shop after Elmus’ death on April 1, 1979.

Henderson likes to tell his customers that he’s had only two jobs, cowboying and making saddles.

He learned to make saddles and other leather items from his dad. His mom taught him to design and carve patterns, particularly flowers.

“I’m still learning today by what I do today,” he said. “If something don’t work, I have to throw it under the bench and start over. Dad always said that if you’re not happy, the customer won’t be happy.”

He describes Lynda as his “quality control” adviser.

She said that in addition to handling the bookkeeping and managing the website, she does oiling and other leather finishing work. “I always say he makes it ready for me to make it shiny,” she added with a smile.

A printed catalog was a primary marketing tool through 1995. Now, customers go to the website to get ideas.

Each saddle is custom made to fit the size and shape of the owner and horse, how it will be used — ranch work, pleasure riding, rodeo events, 4-H or other show competitions — and the amount and type of decoration wanted.

A basic saddle can be made in approximately two weeks and a fancy tooled one takes a month. “You’re working with wet leather and you have to let it dry,” Lyle Henderson said about the step-by-step process.

He most enjoys drawing and carving patterns.

“A flower pattern, you can do whatever you want to ... but if you get off just a little bit, it’s all off,” Lyle said about the precision involved. “I’m not trying to make a flower that comes out of the garden. I want something that flows.”

He said he can picture in his mind exactly what a finished saddle will look like after talking with a customer or writing a work order. Many customers are more surprised at the outcome.

“We hear a lot of ‘Oh, I didn’t know it would be this beautiful.’ They are just blown away,” Lynda said.

They get fewer orders now for highly decorated, more expensive saddles. Lyle said a basic saddle costs around $4,200 and fancy show saddles — some with silver details — can cost more than $12,000.

Most of the “small stuff” he makes also is horse related, including decorative wall hangings featuring animals.

“I don’t like doing animals if they’re going to turn out looking like a cartoon. I want it looking exactly like the animal should,” he said as he reached for a wall hanging featuring a horse head. “The eye. Those ears. Everything is a horse. They have character to them. That’s what I try to do.”

All leather pieces are cut from top grade cattle hides purchased from a Kentucky tannery. Each roll has 10 sides, or five full hides, with a side measuring 24 to 26 square feet.

Lynda explained that parts of a saddle are cut from different areas of the hide, based on the strength or softness required. The hides are from unbranded cattle because a brand makes part of the hide unusable.

She said they used to attend a lot of trade shows but haven’t been to one for a couple of years.

A changing horse culture has had an effect on shop business. “Horses are really disappearing around the country,” Lyle Henderson said. “When I was a kid growing up in the saddle shop, every farm within a couple hundred miles had horses ... the demand is not there anymore.”

“We do more for recreation riders now,” Lynda added. “Horses are expensive to keep and the economy has changed. If it’s not a part of your lifestyle, it’s not something you stay in.”

Lyle also repairs saddles.

No one in his family wants to take over the shop, but there is an even stronger reason why, at age 71, he keeps going.

“Why retire when you’re having fun?” he said. ” ... There are times when I can’t wait to get over here (to the shop) because I have an idea and I want to try it.”


Information from: Kearney Hub, http://www.kearneyhub.com/