Born in the southeastern Idaho town of Grace, Dale Harwood grew up on a ranch and as a young man he worked on the family ranch, as did most local youth of his generation. In addition to tending livestock, he learned to repair tack and saddles. He traveled in the region as a buckaroo and rodeo contestant, and it was during this time he began to appreciate the value of good gear, realizing that a desirable saddle must combine beautiful design and perfect fit. Harwood opened a saddle shop in Idaho Falls in 1961 and then later moved it to his home in Shelley. Soon his work was in high demand, as working cowboys recognized the fact that he gave attention to every step of the creation of a saddle—processing his own rawhide; making his own saddle trees; cutting, stamping, and applying the leather to the tree; and designing and engraving his silver finishes. Cowboy artist Joe Beeler praises Harwood's leather stamping work as unique because he first constructs a saddle and then "gives it life." Harwood became a co-founder of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, a group of master artists who display their work each year at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1997, he received the Best of Show Award, voted by saddlemaking peers, at the Western Folklife Center's saddle exhibition Saddle Up! A Renaissance in Leather.
Interview by Mary Eckstein for the NEA
NEA: Congratulations on your National Heritage Award. How did you feel when you heard the news?
Dale Harwood: To be quite honest, I was somewhat shocked. It was one of the last things I expected.
NEA: What's been the reaction to it there in Idaho? Are people finding out about it?
Dale Harwood: I'm not out and about a lot. I'm pretty isolated and I don't actually socialize a lot, but everything I've heard has been pretty positive. I've had several phone calls and I just got a letter today from the Boy Scout council who we donate to on an annual basis. They had read about it in one of the papers and sent a letter congratulating me.
NEA: When did you start making saddles?
Dale Harwood: I grew up on a ranch and farm here in southeastern Idaho. The earliest exposure was probably at the age of 12, when I was in sixth grade. I had rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for six months. My dad, to give me something to do, gathered up a piece of marble and made a little bench to go across my bed, and bought me a few stamp tools and kept buying leather. I made everything I could for everybody I could and that's where I got started. When I graduated from the eighth grade I went to work in what at that time was called a harness shop - there were still a few of them around in smaller agricultural communities. I worked in that harness shop during the summer and basically did a lot of repairs on older saddles and so forth. I've had no formal training as a saddle maker.
NEA: Your saddles have gained a reputation for having beautiful design work as well as having a really good fit for both the horse and the rider. What makes for a really good saddle?
Dale Harwood: Number one in the visual aspect is the workmanship. And it has to fit a horse and with a rider, be comfortable for both. A lot of my awareness of that came from the fact the I spent ten years on horseback and was able to work with some older fellows that had spent a lifetime on horseback. Through those relationships and work I gained a certain amount of knowledge of what was required.
NEA: What are your favorite designs and how have they changed over time?
Dale Harwood: That's a tough one to describe in a few words. I'm still changing. Early on, at the age I was and the experience I had, I was pretty average, maybe even below average. But just through comparing what I did today with what I did yesterday over a long period of time, I developed a style that's unique to myself. As for visual expression -- I'm always striving to make things more lifelike and the lines to flow. I work really hard at that, trying to make my designs more interesting visually. I think in most cases, people in my position tend to reach a point where they're pretty satisfied with what they're doing and then don't seem to progress much from that point on. I've never been satisfied with what I was doing. I continue to try to improve on it.
NEA: You do a lot with both flowers and elements from nature. Is that something you've always worked with or is that something more recent?
Dale Harwood: No, it's been that way the western saddle industry since the beginning. Even prior to that -- the Spaniards were into ornamentation of one kind or another. Flowers have inspired people for centuries and so it was natural that flowers came into the saddle industry. In the higher grade stuff there's pretty much always been flowers. In my own flowers I like to keep things as close to nature as I can. I oftentimes stop along the road if we're traveling somewhere and I see wild flowers, I'm inclined to pull off and stop and pick one and study it and try to figure out how I can put it on a piece of leather.
NEA: What about the materials that you use for your saddles. Where do you obtain those materials and has that source changed over time?
Dale Harwood: I make my own saddle trees, the base which we work on. The tree form is made of wood and then covered with rawhide which gives it the strength. The wood hasn't changed a lot, except at one time I used west coast vertically sawn fir, which is old growth and really difficult to obtain today. Today I use yellow poplar, which comes out of the Midwest and some of those northern countries. Most all eastern states have yellow poplar. As for the leather -- our leather industry in the United States has been on the decline for 40 years, maybe even longer. We went to more imports because EPA has cut the tannery industry down because of the chemicals. We virtually have no tanning industry in the U.S. today. The quality of leather is nowhere near what it was just even 25 years ago. Quality has gone downhill, which really bothers me. But there's not much we can do about it.
NEA: Have there been a lot of changes in the way saddles are made, any innovations?
Dale Harwood: In the case of the quality of saddles that I do, nothing has changed. We're still using the same tools and basically the same techniques that they used 150 years ago. In fact, the majority of the tools on my bench are well over 100 years old. Since I was self-taught and never had any formal training, I do some things quite a bit different than maybe someone that had some formal training. But I end up with the same and, in most cases, better results because of it. I was never locked into a specific way to do things. Like I said, I just compared what I did today with what I did yesterday and if it didn't work any better today than it did yesterday, why, I tried something else until I either confirmed that there wasn't a better way to do it or I found a better way.
NEA: Your son is a saddle maker. How does it make you feel knowing that the tradition is continuing with him and that he's helping to preserve it as well?
Dale Harwood: It's a good feeling. You know, we started when the kids were at a young age to encourage them to get an education, which I didn't have. And they did. You'd think that being well educated he'd find a job that paid much better than building saddles, but he decided that was the avenue he wanted to take, and I'm glad for it. There's places he could have done better in life, I'm pretty certain, but money is not everything. If you're happy doing what you do, that's much more important in my view.
NEA: Talk a little bit about what it means to to be able to pass along this tradition.
Dale Harwood: It means a great deal. Without some effort -- particularly by some of us older fellows' part -- at some point we're going to lose some of this. I'd like to keep it alive. There was a time in my lifetime that it was really difficult to get any help. When I was young, after World War II, the big shops were all going broke and by the mid ‘60s they were virtually all gone. Anyone that survived that was pretty protective, felt threatened if someone wanted to learn, and so it was really difficult to get any help from anyone at that point. If you wanted to learn, you did it kind of like I did. You just bowed your neck and went to work and experimented. If you survived that as time went on why then it was a little easier to start getting help through conversation or friendships. But today, and for the last number of years, it's been considerably different and I like to think I had a part in that as I've always had an open door policy. If someone wanted to know something, and I had the information, they were always welcome to it.
NEA: What advice do you have for younger saddle makers or other traditional crafts artists?
Dale Harwood: Pursue it with enthusiasm regardless of what it is and work hard at being the best you can be.
NEA: What's driven you through the years to continue this craft?
Dale Harwood: Number one, the love for it and the self satisfaction that I've gained from it. And the relationships that I've developed with the ranch community and people that I could relate to. I've been able to provide well for my family and do what I wanted to do, and I'm still doing it. Hopefully I can continue to do it for awhile. I still look forward to getting up in the morning and going to work. If I ever get beyond that, why, I'll retire.