Book chronicles Montana saddleries—and much more

Thirty-some years ago, Jay C. Lyndes received an unusual package in the mail.

The package, with a return address from the Lame Deer Trading Post, was literally oozing with black, oily gunk. Lyndes wondered whether he should even open it. But he’d done some business with the trading post before, and curiosity prevailed.

Inside was a pair of leather chaps, coal-black and dripping with used motor oil. Then Lyndes noticed that the chaps bore the stamp of “Al. Furstnow,” of Miles City, one of the most famous saddle makers in the history of Montana.

By “pure luck,” he said, he next decided to look at the inside of the belt attached to the chaps. After cleaning away oil and grime he saw, roughly carved into the leather, the name “Curley” and the year “1915.”

He called the Lame Deer Trading Post and was informed that “one of the Curley boys” had sold the chaps for gas money to get to a rodeo. The “Curley boys” were grandchildren of the Crow Indian scout Curley, who had served with Lt. Col. George A. Custer, survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and died in 1923.

The chaps are rather plain, compared with some of magnificent specimens in Lyndes’ collection, but that pair remains one of the more interesting pieces in his possession.

addboardThe story of Curley’s chaps also helps explain why Lyndes’ new book, “Saddleries of Montana: Montana Makers from Territorial Times to 1940,” will be of interest not just to collectors or specialists, but to anyone who cares about the history of Montana.

The book is full of anecdotes and observations, snippets of Montana history and word portraits of Montana characters. Most of those stories are told in the captions that accompany more than 500 color photos—photos so vivid and detailed that you can almost smell the leather.

A caption on a photo of another pair of Furstnow chaps, these covered with white wool, reads in part: “Wooly chaps did not survive well because about everything in the barn either ate them, made nests in them, and/or chewed on them (their worst enemy was probably the grandma who disliked the odor and burnt them up in the stove).”

You can feel Lyndes’ excitement in his description of a holster created by a saddlemaker name C. Racek, whose shop was in Billings. Leather collectibles rarely survive in good shape, but this one, made before 1889, was still in mint condition.

“How it survived is a miracle,” the caption says, “but it is what collectors dream of finding.”

Lyndes, a native of Hysham who has lived in Billings for many years, said a major motivation for publishing the book was to educate people on how to tell genuine saddlery artifacts from modern fakes. It’s easier in the case of items created, say, by some of the widely known saddlemakers in Miles City because so much of their handiwork survives and their maker’s marks—like Furstnow’s stamp on Curley’s chaps—are so recognizable.

But many of the nearly 200 saddleries mentioned in the book produced limited numbers of goods, and little to nothing remains of their work, making it easier to pass off fake items stamped with a fraudulent maker’s mark.

Most of the artifacts, photographs and documents featured in the book are owned by Lyndes, who for many years had made himself available to other collectors who wanted him to authenticate a saddle or some other item. Starting maybe 10 years ago, he said, friends of his began telling him that it might be easier to put all his experience in a book, to make his encyclopedic knowledge more accessible.

He began working on the book about three years ago, enlisting the aid of his longtime associate, Bobby Reynolds, who took all the photographs and who did a considerable amount of internet research, and E. Helene Sage, a horse enthusiast, collector of Western antiques and the author of more than 350 scientific articles, reviews, Western-related commentaries, auction catalogs and books.

Sage did most of the research and wrote most of the text, while Lyndes wrote almost all the captions, based on his knowledge of his own collection. Lyndes said he didn’t see the book as a way to enlarge either his ego or his pocketbook.

“As for a money-making venture, you can forget it,” he said. “It’s a niche market, definitely, but it would shock you how many collectors there are.”

Mary

Bobby R. Reynolds

Saddlemakers, like this one from Billings, always stamped their work with their maker’s mark.

Lyndes, 66, said he’s been collecting since he was 6 years old, when he started amassing baseball cards. Years later, he traded his entire card collection for another kid’s stamp collection.

“I still have the stamp collection,” he said. “I wish I had the baseball cards.”

Lyndes’ grandparents owned a soda fountain in Hysham and his father ran the Rural Electric Association co-op there. Whenever the family went anywhere, Lyndes said, his father made a point of stopping at local museums, fostering a sense of history in his son.

Lyndes worked as a chemical engineer for many years, then on the permitting of gold and coal mines. He also owned an oxygen business for 20 years and got into real estate and ranching.

“I kind of collected through all of it,” he said, and now he spends most of his time adding to his collection, together with the organizational tasks and research involved in maintaining it.

He has office space on the West End of Billings, where he houses a breathtaking collection of what he calls “cowboy antiques”—silver spurs, saddles and saddlery items, chaps, holsters and cartridge belts, horsehair bridles, silver bits, photographs, books, documents, advertising materials and art.

“Saddleries of Montana,” issued recently by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania, is a large, elegantly bound volume with glossy, heavy-stock pages. It examines the saddleries of Montana region by region, each grouped around a city—Miles City, Billings, Lewistown, Great Falls, Helena, Butte/Deer Lodge, Bozeman and Missoula.

It was as comprehensive as they could make it, Lyndes said, but he knows there are saddlemakers they haven’t found yet, and artifacts and documents that will still come to light.

He said most of the best collectibles come from out of state, mostly because the pieces that stayed in Montana were used until they fell apart. One of Lyndes’ favorite saddles, the one pictured on the front of the book, sat untouched in a house in New York for 100 years.

Holster

Bobby R. Reynolds

Another Miles City Saddlery piece, a single-action holster.

It was made by the Moran Bros. in Miles City in 1886 and features a silver concho, or decorative disc, black angora serapes—ornate trappings behind the saddle—and tapaderos, which covered the stirrups and protected the rider’s feet from brush and, in Texas, mesquite.

“It has,” the caption reads, “the finest tooling money could buy at the time and it is a true work of art.”

But that’s not all. Charles M. Russell made a drawing in Miles City in 1886 of a cowboy standing beside a horse wearing a saddle remarkably similar to the one on the book cover. Lyndes can’t prove it is the actual saddle Russell drew, but the same man who sold Lyndes the saddle sold him a bit, bridle and spurs whose conchos match the concho on the saddle, and they match the bit, bridle and spurs in the Russell drawing.

Lyndes, who also owns the Russell sketch, which he has hanging over the saddle, said it must surely be the saddle Russell drew.

“I don’t think there were two of those saddles in 1886 in Montana,” he said. “It was just too good and too expensive.”

In addition to dozens of photographs of saddles and chaps, the book is illustrated with photos of hundreds of rare documents, including sales receipts, newspaper advertisements, envelopes, business cards, letters and saddlemakers’ catalogs.

And because saddleries also made all sorts of things needed by cowboys, miners, ranchers and loggers, the book features a good many other leather artifacts, including leather cuffs, collars, saddle bags, holsters, satchels, belts, scabbards, spur straps, binocular cases, dice cups and even a leather cribbage board bearing the name of a Miles City tavern—Bullard Block Bar.

Lyndes doesn’t have any long-term plans for his collection, though both his sons have caught the collecting bug themselves and seem destined to carry on his legacy. For Lyndes, it’s not the trophy mount that matters, it’s the hunt.

“I can’t slow down,” he said. “I’ve got 40 more years of stuff I need to do.”

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