A cowboy can be pretty proud of his own style. After all, his boots, his hat, even his choice of pickup truck say something about who he is and what he stands for. But, turn back the clock about a century and a half, to a simpler time, before extended cabs and Diesel engines; back to when the west was a wild and untamed place. That same buckaroo would have been known for his horse instead of his truck, and for one other important item as iconic as the old west itself — his saddle. “You could tell where a cowboy was from by his saddle and his tack” Says Jerry Stewart, founder of Sawtooth Saddle Company. “You could tell if he was from Texas, Colorado, or Montana because different areas had different styles.”
Understanding saddle history has helped Jerry carve out an important place in the saddlery business. Named for the Sawtooth Ridge in the Ashley National Forest visible from his shop just outside Vernal, Utah, Jerry’s company specializes in the type of saddles that are proudly used today, but could easily have been ridden into town a century ago. “We started making the old time saddles before a lot of people got into it” says Jerry. “I thought well, that’s my niche.” His wife and partner, Kaye Stewart, says old style saddles are just part of who Jerry is. “You have to realize he feels like he was born 100 years too late. He’s always liked the old way of life and he’s very, very creative”, says Kaye. “Yeah, I’m a romantic” agrees Jerry.
Sawtooth Saddles are the union of beauty, utility, and history, and have been since 1990, when Jerry founded the Company. He has researched hundreds of old Saddles over the years. He’s poured over books, taken photos, and visited museums. “Especially in the west here, there’s always two or three old saddles in [the museums]”, says Jerry. One particular visit to the Don King Museum in Sheridan, Wyoming, was especially memorable. “They’ve got hundreds and hundreds of old saddles. It’s like going to a university to learn”, states Jerry. “They’ll let you take pictures and lift the skirts.”
Looking at Jerry’s work, it’s clear that history has had its influence all right, but that’s something people realize only after they have had some time to soak up the absolute artistry of a Sawtooth Saddle. “We tell people when they start riding with friends, they better take a rag to wipe the slobbers off”, chuckles Jerry. Kaye, who both Stewarts agree is the talkative one, remembers one particular beauty of a saddle they made for a customer in California, whose wife was especially taken with it. “When they finally got it she said to him, ‘you’re not riding that”, recalled Kaye. “You’ll have to order another one you can ride because it’s too beautiful… that’s going to go in our bedroom.” Jerry says “we’ve got a reputation worldwide. The next saddle I’m working on is going to Russia.”
It’s easy to see why Sawtooth Saddles are so coveted.
Bent over one of his large work benches, Jerry hand cuts the leather with incredible precision, and painstakingly stamps each piece with gorgeous patterns, called tooling. “The tools are about 3/8 of an inch square, and you gotta’ cover the whole saddle with them” says Jerry. This drive for authenticity and quality has given Sawtooth Saddles its reputation. Over the years Jerry has developed many unique saddle styles based on older designs. He explains most saddle types are named after the foundation of the saddle, which is called the tree. “It’s made out of wood, and it’s carved to fit the desired style, then it’s covered in rawhide”, says Jerry. “They get the strength out of the rawhide and the flexibility out of the wood.” The tree on Jerry’s workbench possesses an almost skeletal quality. It’s clearly the shape and size of a saddle, but is an off white color, bone hard, and covered in a shiny lacquer. It shows none of the supple, dark warmth of one of his completed saddles, but under Jerry’s touch becomes a thing of beauty. “We go to the customer to get the seat size and spend quite a bit of time talking to find out how they like to ride and what type of horse they’re riding”, says Jerry. “I start from the tree and build each component with a piece of leather. We start with a ground seat, and we carve and carve, depending on what the customer wants. “Sometimes people will go through our order form”, says Kaye “but Jerry absolutely loves it when people will say ‘you be creative and add what you want to make it special.” Jerry laughs, “They always get more for their saddle that way.”
Jerry has made a career out of taking raw components, layering and dressing them, and making something beautiful. His life with Kaye has been built up in much the same way. They moved just outside Vernal in 1979, because they wanted to raise their family in the country. “I was raised in Star Valley, Wyoming, and Kaye was raised in Magna, Utah, and lived on some acreage”, Jerry says. “We couldn’t stand to live in a subdivision so we decided, well, we’re going to gather up our kids and go find a place.” They looked for about a year, when an old friend who lived in Vernal suggested they come out for a visit. “He brought us up this canyon and we thought, there’s no better place”, says Jerry. “In a month our house sold, and we were back out here.”
In June of ‘79 Jerry, Kaye, and their six kids moved to Vernal — although moving isn’t really the right word. It was more like homesteading. “I had a big wall tent and I chopped down the sage brush, and we put it up”, says Jerry. “That back corner of the shop I built as a tool shed and we lived in that while we built the house.” Kay remembers those early days too. “We cooked on a camp stove, ate out of a cooler, and bathed in a #3 tub”, recalls Kaye. “We went down to some friends’ house for a Saturday night bath and hair wash so we could go to church the next day.” By fall, they had the roof and outside walls of a charming log cabin home. “We had blankets and sheets separating the rooms, and a ladder for the girls to go up and down”, recalls Kaye. “We had a toilet on the back porch and a tin shower downstairs.” Today the house is warm and lived in. The walls are decorated with western regalia, much of it featuring Jerry’s hero, John Wayne. There are also lots of family photos. “We always felt like this was really good for our family”, says Kaye.
It’s clear that both Jerry and Kaye value their family. After all, Jerry credits his father for giving him the inspiration and wisdom to make something he could be proud of. “Dad used to say the difference between a carpenter and a craftsman is that a craftsman can fix his mistakes,” laughs Jerry. “I started out as a carpenter, and my dad was a carpenter. I’ve been building things my whole life.” In turn, Jerry has passed on his love of saddle making and the old west to his own children. “Two of my boys are saddle makers and they’re better than I am anymore,” says Jerry. “They’re younger and their eyes are better.” Jerry and Kay hope one of their sons may take over the business someday, but are also just grateful for the grandchildren, who get to come visit, make them smile, and learn the trade too.
Jerry Stewart is most certainly a master craftsman. His carpentry, his home, and especially his saddles reflect his love of making great things. Jerry’s work is beautiful, practical, and known around the world. Making saddles has put food on the table, but it’s clear Jerry does it because he truly loves it. For Jerry, the greatest reward is seeing someone appreciate his work. “Oh, I get a kick out of it”, says Jerry. “The best thing is when somebody decides they want to come and pick it up, or we’re going somewhere and we’ll deliver it. They’ll stand there and look at it, especially ladies, and tears come down their eye. They say, ‘oh I never thought I’d get anything like that.”