A rare ride on plastic
One man who really appreciates a good saddle is Tom Harrower, partly because he was born and raised on a Kemmerer, Wyo., working ranch. Living there for the next 50 years, he built himself a truly exceptional Western lifestyle.
Because the ranch used saddle and draft horses, tack and harness repairs were ongoing. Harrower had his own leather shop on the premises where he not only stitched up breaks but also crafted leather pieces for himself and neighbors. The all-around cowboy worked 43-years as an auctioneer and announcer at rodeos and horse shows.
These considerable skills gave him a deep appreciation for unusual tack, acknowledged Harrower. But it was an unpretentious basketful of bridles he purchased in 1982 from Bill Bonser that really piqued his interest, ultimately turning Harrower into an avid collector, historian and curator.
Those vintage bridles were made not of leather, nor of today’s vinyl or other complex composites, but of an up-and-coming manmade material that’s popularity ballooned in mid-century America: Plastic.
Revolutionary back then, the versatile substance is now ubiquitous. Everything from kitchenwares and gardening products, to car/computer/home building parts, to shoes and clothing, to carpeting and flooring, to credit/debit cards are fashioned from it or contain it.
Fast-food restaurants and grocery stores package products in plastic clamshell boxes. Big retail chains distribute theirs via hundreds of millions of plastic bags seen fluttering everywhere, including on fences, in trees, and clogging the world’s waterways and oceans. Discarded plastic straws by the billions annually decimate myriad wildlife species.
So although plastic usage now includes the good, the bad, and the ugly, it was seen by a few 1945 saddlemakers almost as a gift from above. Harrower noted that because of leather scarcity due to the WWII effort, the U.S. military began using a type of plastic known as “Geon,” produced by B.F. Goodrich.
As Harrower soon discovered, the plastic bridles he’d bought had been hand-crafted by a company from his own native state. They primarily produced (from Geon) fancy saddles, plus accessory lines including bridles, halters, breast collars, blankets, lariats, martingales and harness. Harrower became pleasantly obsessed in tracking down as many as he could.
PLASTIC SADDLE HISTORY
A January 1986 story by Bernard Thon appeared in Western Horseman Magazine. Appropriately titled “The Plastic Saddle,” the comprehensive article explained the history, manufacturing process and other details about this unusual type of horse tack.
Thon related that in 1945 he became an apprentice leather saddlemaker through the Veteran’s Administration post-WWII training program. Due to scarcity of leather and saddle trees, the local saddle shop owner in Lusk, Wyo., had 175 back-orders to fill.
For 1½ years, Thon worked on them under supervision of two top saddlemakers. He wrote that in 1946-1947, the shop’s owner T.C. “Tommy” Nielson and businessman William Vandergriff (aka Vandergrift) struck a deal to “construct an attractive, saleable and durable plastic saddle.”
He continued that it took him and several apprentices six attempts and two months to work out the kinks. When the finished product was revealed, a “stroke of good fortune,” as he called it, helped promote the saddles. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ordered a pair of them, both cream-colored with patriotic blue and red trim.
As Thon and Harrower both relate, the plastic saddle shop, All Western Plastics Company (AWPC) in Lusk relocated to Scottsbluff, Neb., in 1949. Harrower’s extensive research about the company indicated that AWPC bought an injection mold used to manufacture horse-related accessories and non-equine products including drink cup holders, buggy whips, toys, and (now a crossover collectible) the Roy Rogers plastic yo-yo.
An obvious consideration for parade saddles as well as working ones is comfort. Thon addressed the issue in his Western Horseman piece, noting, “It was a cold and stiff son-of-a-gun in cold weather. It was not very practical for the working cowboy. I do believe, however, that this could have been overcome by using the newer and softer types of plastic that were made later on. And material-wise, I think the plastic would have undersold the leather in a plain saddle.”
As Harrower observed, the plastic saddle was ahead of its time. Clever forward-thinking would ironically be its downfall. Sadly, All Western Plastics Company went out-of-business in 1951.
ON THE HUNT
By 2000, having enough spare time to devote to the quest for his quarry, Harrower located and bought a plastic saddle from Roger and Verna Allgeier of Brighton, Colo. The magnificent blue and white example exhibits quality craftsmanship and further fueled Harrower’s zeal for research about the product line.
Through 20 years of networking and other means, he’s collected, researched, compiled and documented plastic saddle history. He has determined a total of 65 saddles were produced by AWPC. To date, Harrower has located the whereabouts of 51 of them and owns several.
These rare saddles have outlived many of AWPC’s other items. Sheriffs’ Posse mounted units and Shriners, for example, purchased matching sets for use in parades and other public presentations. Frequent use destroyed some pieces while others were simply lost to time and disinterest/carelessness by secondary buyers or heirs.
The two Roy Rogers/Dale Evans AWPC plastic saddles mentioned in Thon’s article were not the end of the famous movie couple’s interest. Having acquired three more at some point, as Harrower’s research discovered, the saddles were eventually displayed at Rogers’ Victorville, Calif., western museum until disbursal following his death. Harrower regrets not having met Rogers but does know some of his family members.
In 2019, Harrower established the “Wyoming Traveling Plastic Saddle Museum and Exhibit.” Journeying to select events such as fairs and cowboy shows, he and full-size fiberglass horses display plastic saddles and miscellany from Harrower’s personal collection. Thus far, he’s travelled with them to California, Arizona, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
Through this endeavor, he seeks to share his extensive knowledge of these distinctive and beautiful Western items. And he’s always eager to hear from folks who have additional information.
Remarked Harrower, “Many people say they’d never heard of plastic saddles. Others tell me that a family member or someone else they know has one or more pieces of plastic tack.”
Through a fascinating pursuit of additional facts and representative pieces, Harrower is privileged to educate people about an ingenious and unique contribution to America’s Western history.
For further information about plastic saddles and accessories, or if you or someone you know owns any, please contact Tom Harrower at (307) 432-0404. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.