For over three decades, a western collectibles show known as the Old West Roundup has called Loveland, Colo., home on an annual basis. Over the last four years, however, the show has also hosted some of the best hand-crafted cowboy products in the world. They are part of a contest called the Art of the Cowboy Makers, which in 2012 consisted of 10 categories with over 100 entries from seven countries.
The included categories were boots, leather braiding, chaps, cinches, silver engraving, hats, leather carving, saddles, spurs and an open youth division. Displayed inside the building, the custom goods wowed visitors to the event, an effect organizers hoped translated into increased awareness of contemporary cowboy makers and their skills.
“It was my idea to start (the Art of the Cowboy Makers contest),” said Casey Jordan, a personable saddle maker from Phoenix, Ariz. “We started the contest mainly to get exposure for contemporary cowboy makers. We’re the worst at getting our own exposure. A lot of people collect (western) antiques, but I know this stuff is as collectable as that.”
Beginning four years ago with just a quartet of categories and 54 entries, it has more than doubled in size since, a development Jordan was happy to acknowledge.
“Actually, it’s what I was hoping for, but I didn’t know if it would ever happen,” he stated about the rapid growth. “And it keeps getting bigger and bigger because we keep adding categories. We’ve got seven countries entered this year and over 22 states or something,” Jordan continued. “We’ve got Peru, Argentina, Australia, Canada, (Czech Republic and) Germany.”
The organizer of the parent show, the Old West Roundup, was just as happy with the contest’s growth.
“It makes us feel really well to have it be so well received,” said Dave Wilson, a friendly cowboy from Dillon, Mont., who took over the production of the collectibles show four year ago. Wilson and Jordan, both saddle makers, put their heads together and fleshed out the Art of the Cowboy Makers contest as a part of the Loveland show. “These guys that are doing this work need a place to showcase what they do,” continued Wilson. “Most of these people work on ranches or they are in the Ag industry. These are artists, this just happens to be their canvas.”
A great aspect of the contest was the public’s ability to vote for People’s Choice winners in each category. Winner’s of the People’s Choice won a custom engraved buckle for the honor.
“The public loves it because (they) get to vote,” described Jordan of the People’s Choice award. “They pick their favorite in each category. Instead of walking by and going, oh, that’s cool, and moving on, you have to sit there and look and pick what you like from all the entries.”
Another honor in the contest was called the Makers Champion. The makers in each category voted for the award, which granted both a buckle and cash, a process Jordan explained at the show.
“For instance, everybody that enters the braiding, judges the braiding, so it’s not just one guy’s opinion,” he stated. “They are allowed to vote for themselves, but they have to pick the top four choices. And then we give them points from that and tally it up. For the Makers’ judging, we give first, second and third cash prizes. First gets a buckle and first through third get ribbons. This year we’re at about $15,000 in total cash prizes.”
One of those Makers Champions was Paul Krause, a boot maker from Prescott, Ariz. His “Black and Tan” custom entry was a throwback style of boot called a Full Wellington, a design comprised of just two pieces of leather making up the front and back of the boot, instead of the modern four or more pieces stitched together. Krause finished the dual-colored boots of French Calf leather with an intricate filigree of hops, a design inspired by his fondness for what is known as a “Black and Tan” beer. While he obviously enjoyed his beer, Krause also enjoyed attending the show.
“I think one of the cool things about entering shows like this is comments from other makers,” revealed Krause. “(But) the real turn on is to have a conversation with my fellow makers about the layers of leather that make up the heel or the insole leather or the way it is stitched or the construction techniques.”
Asked his opinion of the other categories, Krause was enthusiastic with his praise.
“This is really a great show,” he stated. “I’m very impressed by the work. The youth table at the other end is amazing,” Krause added of the work by makers under 18 years of age. “And we’ve got some of the best leather carvers in the country that have work represented here.”
The Makers Champion of the youth division was 17-year-old Rainie Schwarz, a member of a boot making family from Montana. Schwarz estimated she spent 56 hours on her entry; a pair of intricate, colorful buckaroo-style boots of ostrich with a goat upper. They were matched only by the wattage of her smile. Asked if her designs flowed as she was working or if she sketched them out beforehand, she agreed to both.
“Sometimes I (sketch out a design), sometimes I don’t,” she answered with a laugh. “That one I found in a book and drew it from there. We started, folded it in half and then traced it and put the other side over there,” she finished, pointing to the second half of the boot.
Making boots since she was 13, Schwarz now includes a cross on every design in a display of her faith.
“I’m going to go to fashion design school and design clothing,” she revealed of her future plans. “Whenever I come home, I’m going to be, guys, I’ve got to make a quick pair of boots!”
In case anyone missed the contest, a majority of the entries are on display until Labor Day at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“It goes on display until Labor Day,” confirmed Wilson about the exhibit. “They need exposure. These guys don’t have malls; they work out of their garage or a shack behind their house. Some of them don’t even have cell phones. They are cowboys. Seriously, they are cowboys.” ❖