Texas family marks 100 years of making saddles
AMARILLO, Texas — In a converted gas station on the bend of Plains Boulevard resides Richard Oliver, his two sons, Bryan and Zeb, and a small group of employees busy with handiwork in a business that’s not found much of anywhere any longer.
Beyond the one-man shops here and there, there are shops in Fort Worth and another in Alpine on the edge of the Big Bend. It’s work for specific clients who are a throwback to a time when this part of Texas was young and open with promise.
“In the last few years, I’ve considered ourselves moving more into the art world,” Oliver said. “I’ve always considered myself a craftsman, and most in here consider themselves craftsmen. But that has faded away some because of tooling. We’re working really hard on doing some beautiful tooling, so it’s becoming more of an art form.”
It’s Oliver’s Saddle Shop, makers of custom saddles and a business that recently celebrated its 100th year.
While time and demand have caught up with many such places since Claude Oliver first opened his shop in 1917 in Vernon, the Olivers are now in their fourth generation of making saddles with the working cowboy in mind.
“One of the biggest deals is the personal relationships we have with our customers,” Oliver said. “Each one is special to us. We build it for them. We’ve always strived for the highest quality.
“It’s serving our customers and doing a good job and developing that relationship. You don’t trade with people you don’t like.”
Claude, Oliver’s grandfather, opened his saddle shop the same year America entered World War I. He had two sons, Bill and Jack, to help. They eventually took over as Oliver Brothers Saddle Shop.
As brothers are apt to do, they got cross. Bill moved to Prescott, Ariz., in the early 1950s to open a shop, but returned to Vernon in 1955 to do the same. Family strife, as Richard called it, had his father, Bill, looking to open a business elsewhere in the state.
“He looked at Lubbock and Amarillo and decided Amarillo was the better of the two,” Oliver said. “Vernon was too small for two saddle shops. The economy looked better to him here. Amarillo was more of a cow town. Lubbock was a farming town.”
Richard didn’t know what he wanted to do after he graduated from West Texas State in 1971. He was certainly familiar with the saddle making business, but didn’t feel any pressure to continue.
“Dad didn’t really encourage me one way or the other,” he said. “In fact, he wanted me to apply for a job somewhere, but I really didn’t have any interest. I came back here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Here” is the shop at 3016 Plains Blvd., where they’ve been for 50 years. His father started the Amarillo business at 110 Polk St. in 1960, then moved next to the old American Quarter Horse Association building at 2737 10th Ave. in 1962. After AQHA purchased that building, the business moved just a little bit down the street to their current location in 1967.
With each completed saddle numbered, Oliver’s is closing in on 4,000 saddles in its 57 years in Amarillo. Each of the four saddle makers will finish about 22 a year. In Oliver’s younger days, when there wasn’t as much help, he could turn out about 50 to 60 saddles yearly.
Uninterrupted, it takes about 40 hours to complete a plain saddle. Add three to four days for a fancier tooled style.
“And we’re building more other items than we used to,” he said, “so we don’t strictly work on saddles each day.”
They make tack, belts, chaps and chinks, but saddles have been — and always will be — their calling card. By attending ranch rodeos, along with Facebook and their website, Oliver’s has expanded to ship saddles to California, Florida, Kentucky, Wyoming and Montana, but the bulk of its customers are from the five-state area of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.
Ray Adams bought one of the first custom saddles in Amarillo in 1960. His sons, Don and Joe, have been customers through the years.
“It’s good quality work, and it fits you and the horse good,” said Joe Adams, who runs a cow/calf operation between Tulia and Silverton. “They are built to last. It’s something I’ve got years out of with mine.”
Repeat customers know the size, style and horn. As Oliver said, it can be as simple as, “Build me one like that last one.” A new cowboy will require a detailed conversation.
“If they’re looking for something a little bit different, we’ll recommend some things to them,” Oliver said. “We’ll talk to them about some of the problems they’re having. We might recommend a new style they’ve never ridden before.”
Oliver’s has built cutting, roping and show saddles, but for the last 25 years they’ve honed in on those for the working cowboy with about six styles for that. In 1970, Oliver said a base saddle cost was $185. Now, it’s $4,350.
Without any sterling silver on a saddle, but with elaborate tooling and custom hardware, a $10,000 saddle is possible.
“In the early ’70s, I made one, a show saddle, that had sterling silver, a silver rope roll. I mean it was fancy, fancy, fancy,” Oliver said. “It went up to New Jersey, and it was about $7,000. It would be close to $30,000 today.”
Sons Bryan and Zeb are master saddle makers, while Colt Vernon is a journeyman. Andrew Cook, an apprentice, has been with Oliver’s for a year. Hannah Morman specializes in making chaps and belts. Sharon, wife of 46 years, helped design the website and is the second set of eyes on the books.
“Each time we finish a saddle, there’s a certain amount of pride, plus we know we’ve built something good for that customer,” Oliver said. “After each saddle, we pick it apart — things we wished we had done differently or done better. None of us have built our best saddle.”
But they have fun trying in a loose work environment where employees take their craft seriously, but not themselves. A few good-natured barbs make the work day go faster.
“We spend too many hours at work not to enjoy it,” he said. “Each of us feel like family. I’m trying to get better at not teasing so much. Sometimes you may not get along with someone on something, but by the next day, we’re all working toward the same goal.”
Zeb Oliver earned a psychology degree from Texas Tech, but found himself working full-time at the saddle shop in 2003. Like his father, he felt no pressure to continue the family legacy. Richard, like his father, put none on him.
“I encouraged them to do what they wanted,” he said of his sons. “But they grew up in this. They were down here all the time. They built saddles when they were 16.”
Zeb, 40, knows what his great-grandfather started. It is a career Zeb fell into, but not out of obligation.
“I don’t feel any sense of responsibility necessarily,” he said, “but feel the honor of doing what is now 100 years old. I was never forced into it, so it’s just the honor of continuing this on.”
Richard Oliver is 68. His father died in 1976 at age 66. Richard has some good years left, but he can’t go forever.
“Both of the boys love the lifestyle, and both love what our family has done,” Oliver said. “They certainly have the capabilities. They have taken what I have learned and built on it, which makes me work harder. This is what they have chosen.
“I can’t explain what our success is particularly, but I do know God has an important role in blessing this family. He’s led us and taken care of us. Things come to us that I really don’t have any explanation for other than that.”