After nearly 100 years, the Miles City Saddlery is still smooth as leather
By Matt Villano
Life in Miles City revolves around horses.
Head from I-90 into town and you'll likely pass a cowboy running some errands by horse. On the near side of Main Street, east of the old train trestle, you can still spot some old businesses with hitching posts out front. The town's annual and rollicking Bucking Horse Sale draws thousands of visitors from all over the Big Sky State and around the world. Heck, even children's author Ronald Dahl paints an equine picture of the big MC - in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Miles City native Violet Beauregarde has a fast-talking father who sells cars and rides a big ol' horse.
With horses everywhere, it should come as no surprise, that tiny Miles City is world famous for its saddles. At one point in Montana history, Miles City boasted more saddle shops than any place on Earth (see sidebar). Today, while most of these saddle shops have closed up, one glorious throwback remains - the Miles City Saddlery. This saddlemaking Mecca is to saddlery what Hershey, Penn., is to chocolate. It contains a museum. It's a tourist destination. And it's still the only place in the U.S. where cowboys can still buy an original Coggshall saddle, the highest-quality saddles ever made.
"We're the last of a dying breed," quips Jack Diebel, a stern and lanky sixty-something who's owned the Miles City Saddlery since 1989. "If you want an authentic original Coggshall saddle, you got to come to us."
The Coggshall is the Holy Grail of saddles: firm, comfortable and durable. Diebel says that "nobody ever rode a Miles City Saddlery Coggshall saddle that didn't last forever," and he doesn't exaggerate. Some of the saddles he keeps on display in the store's museum are more than 100 years old. Just last year, a seventy-something cowboy came in with a Miles City Saddlery Coggshall he had been riding since he was a teen-ager, and it was in perfect shape.
But the Miles City Saddlery today sells more than simply saddles. The store is a veritable clearinghouse for everything a cowboy could possibly need, from leather wallets and checkbook covers to chaps, holsters, hats, belts, jackets, and more. The Saddlery's top selling items are cowboy boots, and Diebel recently annexed a neighboring shop to build a separate wing of the store for boots. With such a diverse product base, the Miles City Saddlery has become the centerpiece of Miles City's quaint downtown, inspiring tourists and locals alike to avoid the nearby Wal-Mart and throw their hard-earned money back into the local economy.
"We've been here in the heart of Miles City almost as long as Montana's been a state," Diebel says, referring to the day Montana joined the Union on Nov. 8, 1889. "We're as much a part of this town as anything, and we intend to stay that way for a long, long while."
A Saddle Shop Begins
Indeed, the Miles City Saddlery dates back pretty far. Miles City itself was a legendary cattle town in eastern Montana and the "end of the trail" for many longhorn cattle drives from Texas in the 1890's. While towns may have been fewer and farther between, most had a store where one could at least buy a saddle, and the larger cities boasted one or more custom saddle-making shops. Miles City, however, boasted a plethora of saddleries, and two of them in particular helped put the tiny cow town on the map.
The first was the famous Al Furstnow Saddlery. Furstnow, a saddle-maker by trade, learned the saddlery business from his father, and by age 19, was making saddles on his own. He opened his saddle shop in August 1894; in December of that same year, his shop got a boost in capital and another able business mind, when a fellow named Charles Coggshall bought a half share. Although Charles himself was not a saddlemaker, his years of experience as an avid horseman enabled him to recognize the virtues of a good saddle. It was under his guidance that the Montana Saddle Tree was perfected.
"Furstnow and Coggshall were the two biggest things to hit saddle making in the history of saddles," says Dick Swanson, a 65-year-old saddlemaker who made his first saddle at the age of 15 in 1958. "And Miles City had 'em both."
The duo worked together under the Furstnow & Coggshall name for five years, adding workers annually to become the only major saddlery between Billings and Dickinson, N.D. Then, in 1899, Furstnow and Coggshall split up, forming a rivalry that outlasted them both. Furstnow went back into business for himself - a business that survived with the help of a second saddlemaker named Al Moreno until 1982. Coggshall, on the other hand, launched the C.E. Coggshall Saddlery, the immediate predecessor to the current-day Miles City Saddlery.
In a competitive effort to meet the world's need for saddles, the firms started by Furstnow and Coggshall blended assembly-line techniques from the Eastern U.S. with the custom care exercised by one-man shops of the Old West. The two saddleries employed dozens of men who came to specialize in various aspects of the design. Some saddlemakers made four to six saddles per week; others stayed in the business long enough to make 2,000 to 3,000 saddles each. Coggshall, for his part, tweaked the design completely, shortening the fork and flattening the plate to create the saddle that came to bear his name.
In 1909, the Miles City saddle scene changed forever. Coggshall employees Clem Kathmann, Frank Jelinek and Bert Coleman bought out their former boss and formed the Miles City Saddlery. Business took off like a colt. In 1910, the Miles City Saddlery nearly doubled the output of Furstnow's shop with 800 saddles. In 1916, the Miles City Saddlery made 1,937 saddles, each of them with the inimitable Miles City Saddlery "Makers" stamp. At the outbreak of World War I, two dozen men were employed in the shop. Between 1910 and the Depression years of the 1930s, there were as many as 40 saddle makers crafting saddles the way Coggshall had showed them how.
"There was a time when everyone in the country knew the name Coggshall," says Diebel as he recounts the Glory Days. "In the ranching world, the name was as big as Morgan and Carnegie - even bigger than that."
All good things, however, must come to an end, and the heyday of the Miles City Saddlery was no exception. Coleman died in 1917, and Kathmann died in 1936, leaving Jelinek as sole proprietor until former bookkeeper Joe Conway bought him out in 1939. In 1954, Joe Conway handed the business down to his sons, Dick, Bob, and Luke. In 1962, the saddle shop changed hands again, this time to a man named Merv Fuller and his son-in-law and daughter, Tat and Tamara Cain. Later that same year, former Conway employee Carl Wilson, bought the saddle-making end of the business; after years of barely breaking even, he finally closed shop in 1982.
The Miles City Saddlery remained shuttered for nearly seven years, when in 1989, Jack and Mary Lou Deibel stepped in bought the shop from Tat and Tamara Cain. In 1997, the duo started building hand-made custom Coggshall saddles again under the Miles City Saddlery name. Gradually, the most talented craftsmen in the industry surfaced and started clamoring to get involved again. By the end of 1998, the Miles City Saddlery was quite literally back in the saddle, selling custom Coggshall beauties to collectors and cowboys all over the world.
"[The Diebels] really rescued that place," says Bob Nebble, 52, who has been making saddles for Brotus native Diebel since he bought the saddlery seven years ago. "It's amazing to think about what would have happened to saddlemaking in Miles City without them."
Today, the main floor of the Miles City Saddlery is a lot like any other showroom - quiet, bright, and totally intimidating. Along the front section of the showroom, saddles range in price from $2,500 to $5,000. Along the back wall, near the stairs, the prices are considerably higher, ranging from $10,000 to $14,000 depending on the style. Within these figures there are saddles of every shape and size, including a perfect miniature by Bob Nebble on the front cash wrap for display only. On a recent visit to the store, saddles outnumbered humans by a ratio of nearly 12 to one.
The quiet afternoon gives store manager Debbie LaBree a chance to chat a bit about what it's like to be the only destination for Coggshall saddles on Earth.
"When you're working here day after day, you forget how special the Coggshall saddles are to some folks," she says, almost sheepishly. "Then someone comes in and gets real excited about them and you remember, 'Oh yeah, these are one in a million.' It's pretty amazing how people react to these. It really makes you feel like you're part of something special."
In years past, Miles City Saddlery saddle-makers crafted saddles right there at the shop, a strategy Diebel attempted but abandoned because the saddle-makers became too easily distracted. Instead, today Diebel prefers to have his saddle-makers work in the comfort of their studios and drop off their saddles when they're done. Today, Nebble, Dick Swanson and a third saddle-maker create saddles for the shop; Diebel estimates that he sells between 15 and 20 new saddles every year.
Many saddle-makers work on commission, driving the prices for custom saddles way up. The saddle-making process is a laborious one, frequently taking even the quickest saddle- makers an average of two to three weeks per saddle. First, saddle-makers must find the leather for a saddle. Next, they must stretch that leather out over a cedar saddle tree. Finally, once the base of the saddle has been completed, the saddle-makers can set out on the most intricate part of the process - carving the features. This can take anywhere from days to weeks, depending on the features. Generally, the more intricate the features or patterns, the longer a saddle will take to make.
"Sometimes I'll work on four or five different saddles at a time," says Swanson, whom Diebel considers his "primary" craftsman. "It's a creative process, and so long as I get the saddles done on time, I can approach them however I like."
However Swanson and the other saddle-makers approach their craft, no two saddles are alike. One saddle, design number 4 in the original 1925 Coggshall Saddlery catalog, boasts the carved silhouettes of a buxom woman and an eagle; another, design number 52, boasts a bunch of stars up and down the chops. Swanson says his personal favorite is a saddle he created with the faces of 16 different animals carved into various spots. Then there's the saddle with the pattern of a manta ray sewed into the seat. Finally, there's Diebel's pride and joy, a traditional Coggshall with the name "Jack" carved into the back side of the bridge.
Of course these more intricate saddles are the ones that cost the most. Surprisingly, Diebel's "Jack" saddle retails for more than $14,000, and is the only one of its kind ever created. The saddles that are replicas of those in the original Coggshall catalog sell for a bit less, but still fetch upwards of $7,000 or $8,000 a pop. Diebel says he has collectors who own 14 or 15 of these replicas, and jokes that he's constantly receiving orders for more. This kind of interest and buzz has even attracted the attention of the Oklahoma City-based Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, perhaps the most famous saddle-making group in the country.
"We know [the Miles City Saddlery] as one of the best in the whole nation, and its stronghold on that distinction hasn't changed in years," says Don Bellamy, the organization's president. "That shop is one old saddle shop, and it's withstood the test of time."
Of course for the real saddle buffs, perhaps the biggest attraction at the Miles City Saddlery is upstairs, in the Saddlery museum. In this historic collection, some of the oldest and rarest saddles known to man are lined up nicely around Diebel's office - a treasure trove of some of the original Coggshall saddles that Furstnow and Coggshall worked on together. There's Coggshall catalog No. 11, a worn saddle with silver accents, and Cogshall catalog No. 22, which bears a lighter leather and white trim. There's also the original No. 52, which, with the initials EHB on the back, has Diebel thinking it once belonged to Edward H. Bohlin, saddle-maker to the stars.
Diebel compliments these relics with photos and other mementos of the past, tying the Miles City Saddlery story together for all to see. On hand are photos from the days of Furstnow and Coggshall, as well as chaps and holsters believed to be used by the founding fathers themselves. Diebel also has on display original drawings of the first Coggshall saddles ever made, and some of the first saddle trees Coggshall used to develop the saddle that would change the face of horse ranching forever. In the back of the store, he's even stashed the store's original cast-iron safe, which he estimates at more than 100 years old.
"Walking into this place is like walking back in time," Diebel jokes proudly. "Even in Montana, there aren't many places today where you can do that."
The Miles City Saddlery is located at 808 Main St., in Miles City. For more information, call 406.232.2512.
Since the late 1800s, Miles City has been home to more saddle shops than any other spot in U.S. History. Here are few of the highlights over the years:
* Pioneer Saddlery & Harness Shop: 1850s to 1879
* Goettlich & Debord: 1880 to 1881
* Moran Brothers: 1884 to 1887
* Robbins & Lenoir: 1891 to 1894
* Furstnow & Coggshall: 1894 to 1899
* George E. Robbins: 1895 to 1902
* Al Furstnow Saddlery: 1899 to 1982
* C.E. Coggshall Saddlery: 1899 to 1909
* Miles City Saddlery: 1909 to present
* Pete Verbeck's Saddle Shop: 1946 to 1976
* Carl Wilson's Saddlery: 1961 to 1983
* Nunn & Thibault Saddle Shop: 1978 to 1984
* T-Bone Saddle Shop: 1984 to present