Fleeing the Bakken, leather worker lands in Shepherd

Ron Jore poses with some of his tools at his workshop near Shepherd.

David Crisp/Last Best News

Ron Jore poses with some of his tools at his workshop near Shepherd.

Like many people, Ron Jore came to Yellowstone County because of the Bakken oil field. But he wasn’t trying to get closer to the field. He was trying to get away from it.

Jore brought his leather-working business here two years ago from Watford City, N.D., where he had planned to spend his entire life. His grandparents had moved there from Norway, and his parents had spent their lives there.

Jore grew up far enough out in the country that he couldn’t see the house of his nearest neighbor. Perhaps a dozen vehicles a week would pass by his house.

“I hadn’t intended to leave,” he said. “I was two miles from where I was born and two miles from where they were going to bury me.”

But when the Bakken boomed, the population of Watford City exploded from 1,744 in 2010 to an estimated 6,708 last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. At the height of the boom, Jore said, as many as 15,000 people were living in and around Watford City.

Traffic by his house climbed to as many as a thousand vehicles a day, he said, and a half-dozen oil wells were within 700 feet of his place. He and his wife, who had taught there for 30 years, decided it was time to get out.

They have a son in Billings, so they moved into a place on Scandia Road near Shepherd. It’s a comfortable place, with a small fire burning on a rainy afternoon, a few horses behind the house and the pelt of a coyote he shot nailed to a wall.

Jore, in glasses and with a toothpick firmly attached to his jaw, isn’t quite ready at age 56 to retire, so he has gradually been getting his leather work going again. Working with leather has been a lifelong passion.

You can tell a workman by his workbench, says Ron Jore, shown working at his bench.

David Crisp/Last Best News

You can tell a workman by his workbench, says Jore, shown working at his bench.

“I like the feel of leather,” he said. “I like how it smells.” And, he added, “I like how it ages.”

His parents gave him a Tandy leathercraft kit for Christmas when he was 14 years old, spurring his interest in fancy leather belts.

“I didn’t want to wear one,” he said. “I wanted to make them.”

He worked his way through Williston State College making belts and billfolds. When he was 23, he bought a leather-working shop in Watford City and began learning the fine art of making chaps, holsters and knife sheaths, as well as repairing boots and saddles.

“You feel guilty charging sometimes” for some of the more complicated projects, he said.

He also has made eight saddles, starting with one he made for himself. That came, he said, after he was told, “You’ve got to know how to build a saddle to fix one.”

He found that he was more attracted to repairs than to building saddles from scratch, a preference he attributed to Attention Deficit Disorder. That sounds like an odd affliction for someone doing careful leather work, but Jore doesn’t begrudge the time his work takes.

A carefully tooled scrapbook cover.

David Crisp/Last Best News

A carefully tooled scrapbook cover.

“You get lost in it,” he said. “Pretty soon, you’re looking up, and hours have gone by.”

He keeps a couple of scrapbooks full of his work, from chaps and chinks to before-and-after photos of saddles he has repaired and refurbished. One positive side of the oil boom, he said, was that ranchers could afford to repair saddles that had fallen into disuse years ago.

He described a few of his favorite projects, including a saddle that dates back to the 1880s in Texas. He worked on another saddle whose owner had ridden on it from northeastern Wyoming to Miles City in 1933. The saddle came to Jore in pieces stored in a box, and he warned that it would be expensive to repair.

“Don’t worry about it,” the owner said. It turned out that he owned a half-dozen oil wells of his own, and Jore wound up repairing eight or nine saddles for him.

Many saddles, he said, haven’t been oiled anywhere but on the seat since they were made, but he gives them a thorough oiling. He wouldn’t even estimate how long it takes to complete repairs of the hundreds of saddles he has repaired.

“I don’t keep track,” he said. “I’d be scared to. If you figured out your dollar rate, you’d get disgusted with yourself.”

Now in Yellowstone County, he has placed a few items on consignment in local leather shops, and he said that skilled local leather workers have forced him to up his game.

Ron Jore shows some of his work.

David Crisp/Last Best News

Jore shows some of his work.

“I probably can’t tool as well as they can,” he said, “but I can tool a hell of a lot better than most.”

He keeps a small but neat shop in his house, and a wall is lined with the tools of his trade.

“You look at a man’s workbench,” he said, “and you can kind of tell what kind of man he is.”

The interview ended there, but Jore wasn’t quite done. He called a bit later to urge Montana to be sure to require adequate setbacks so that what happened to his Watford City house doesn’t happen to others.

“I don’t think we should have to make it easy for the oil companies,” he said.

Jore’s North Fork Saddlery can be reached at (701) 770-5616.

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