I always get a kick out of those “Small World” moments that occur in life. Here’s one. I was planning to stop in to see Wes Schenk at his custom saddle shop and ask him for an interview. I missed his turnoff on the way out of Harlowton one day but was definitely knocking on his door on my next return trip. That night, there was a message on my answering machine when I hit Lavina. I was told that someone was “remodeling” the Lavina property of our longtime friend, Lester Krause. I had to call him up in Laughlin, Nevada, and find out “the news.”
Well, Lester is selling his property. More interesting was the turning of the conversation to Clay Schenk, who has been attending Gunsmithing School in Trinidad, Colorado. Then, to his father, Wes Schenk, and his saddlemaking.
Lester, who is not easily impressed, said, “Wes is one of the premiere saddlemakers in the United States.” Lester is proud to have purchased more of Wes’s saddles than anyone except a Texan. Krause is looking for his sixth Schenk saddle now, hoping to buy the one that Wes puts on his own horse when he rides. Schenk told me, “I might sell it to him some day. But, not just yet.”
One saddle that Krause bought from Schenk traveled on a western art exhibit as far as Malaysia. Krause sold another to an elderly woman who remarked to him, “All the cowboys fall in love with my saddle and want to buy it.”
Lester, a talented musician himself, also let me in on another little secret, “Schenk’s saddlery may be well known, but his music making isn’t. He and his sons play some great bluegrass.”
Talent and hard work may be the best descriptors of Wes Schenk and his saddlery. Until taking an engraving class with his son at Trinidad Junior College, Wes has been an entirely self-taught saddlemaker. Schenk wanted to be able to do his own horn caps and conchos and engrave them. He said, “It was a good course. It was worth it, every dime of it. I recommend it to my friends. One from Shawmut has already taken it and others are on the way.”
Soft-spoken, mild-mannered and sincere also describe Schenk, who is four years behind on saddle work. “In order to keep customers happy, I work long hours. I grew up that way. When I get something halfway done, I have to keep at it to complete the project.”
Wes raised his prices not too long ago in hopes that demand would settle a bit and he could get closer to caught up on his backlog. The strategy didn’t work. It seemed to have backfired. When he warned customers that prices were going up, they quick got their orders in. Over 50 percent are repeat customers and “they all have saddles already.”
The Schenks had their Saddle Shop on Main Street for over two decades until they decided to build a new one next to their house on the east edge of Harlowton. Work is Wes’s main hobby, so he is out in the shop most of the day. Schenk turned a hobby into a business. He had made a saddle or two before opening a storefront. After making lots of belts and wallets and saddle bags, Wes graduated into the real thing: saddles. He puts in 12+ hours a day. Asked what he would do if he wasn’t working, Schenk responded, “I’d be carving leather.”
In the past, he did quite a bit of team roping. Not so much now. He also played music when his sons were home - guitar and fiddle. (Older son, Will, lives in Lewistown where he's a butcher and fireman. Younger son, Clay, is just finishing his gunsmith training and will be working at Sharp’s Rifles in Big Timber.) Now, Wes's relaxation time is taken up with hunting, riding, and packing into the mountains, on occasion.
Schenk grew up in Winnett where he took a leather class in high school which apparently whetted his appetite. After graduation, he worked as a ranch hand and cowboy into his mid 20s around White Sulphur Springs and Two Dot. He told me, “Due to low wages, I opened the saddle shop. It was tough getting started. Tammy and I worked extra jobs. I did night calving. But, hard work and determination paid off.” Tammy now works at the Hutterite colony, does the books for the shop and helps out with leather work when she has time.
“At first, boot repair was a big part of the business. But now, not many people buy high quality boots, so that work has gone way down. I used to repair 60 to 70 pairs of boots a week. Now, it’s just two or three.”
Custom made saddlery, and the like, have taken up the slack over the years, and then some. “Most people know exactly what they want. People come out from Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida. They buy and order holsters, gun scabbards, leather-covered canteens, briefcases. But, mainly saddles and horse-related gear.” Fifty percent of Schenk’s business is done through mail/telephone order. The rest face to face.
Wes admits that leaving Main Street two years ago was scary. But, he can get more work done at the new shop. He has less traffic and more time to work. On Main Street, people stood around the woodstove to visit and pass time.” Schenk enjoyed the company, but it slowed done his work production.
As we talked, he sadly reflected on the passing of an era. “Characters, real old time cowboys, used to come in and visit. I loved those people. They were really FULL OF IT. But, times are different now. People are different.”
We both recalled our experiences with Mr. Lester Krause and agreed that, “When Lester comes in, work stops.”
Wes’s favorite customers are “poor old ranch hands who use their saddles and gear every day,” and use them well. Schenk knows how to work and to make the best of his own skills and tools.
For him, his hands are his greatest tools. “My hands are my livelihood. They’re pretty important. You use what you were born with. You adapt. I think about those tools (hands) all the time.
“People have told me that I shouldn’t do team roping. But, I can’t hide in the basement. If I lose a hand or finger, so be it. I will live with it.” Wes was laid for six weeks some years back with a broken arm. Tammy learned shoe repair and Wes learned patience and how to sit still.
For a man who works as hard and as much as he does, Wes Schenk is very reflective on his path as a professional saddlemaker. “I used to be intimidated by top notch saddlemakers. It was difficult for me to compare myself to them. But, I’m not intimidated anymore. I can turn out a quality product like the best of them.”
Wes Schenk has reached that level and better. He believes every customer is important. All of his business is done direct. Fortunately for him, most saddles he makes are luxury not work items. His saddles have been shown at major exhibitions and prominent programs such as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Schenk uses only the best America dairy cattle hides which are also tanned in the US. His friend, Ben Swanke of Billings, provides him with saddle trees. Wes has to keep a six month supply of saddle trees because Swanke is behind in producing them. Sound familiar?
If Wes Schenk is not selling fresh leather products, he is repairing old ones. “I love it. I’ve had opportunities to move. But, I like the people here. I like the lifestyle. I get up every morning, like what I do, and feel rich in that way.”
Looking over the past years, Wes says, “Nothing stays the same. The oldtimers are gone. But fortunately, people are still doing things with cattle and horses. As opposed to some other places, we’re still making history out here.”