By Jamers H Nottage
Not all of the objects we associate with the American West are products of the region in whole or in part. Even Western stock saddles have been made elsewhere in the world in their entirety and with components from elsewhere. Today, there are a small number of specialists who manufacture saddletrees to serve the needs of saddle makers working in the age-old creation of rigs for cowboys. A few of the best of custom saddle makers in the West continue to create their own finely crafted saddletrees of the highest grade, designed to accommodate the demanding needs of both horse and rider. In the 1800s, saddle makers scattered throughout the American West followed the same pattern. Some created their own trees, the frameworks essential to shape and function of the saddle. Some purchased trees from specialist shops and many turned to major factories, including a significant number of them located in Madison, Indiana.
By 1880, there were a dozen saddletree factories operating in this southern Indiana community, producing tens of thousands of trees per year, employing 120 men and women and competing with other centers of tree manufacturing in Leavenworth, Kansas, St. Louis, Missouri, Newark, New Jersey, and New Braunfels, Texas. One source estimates that the combined production of these factories in 1879 was over 150,000 trees. One firm was founded by Ben Schroeder who was born in Prussia, immigrated to the U.S. in 1864 and opened his factory in Madison, Indiana, in 1878. The peak of his shop's production saw it shipping 6,000 to 12,000 saddletrees per year throughout the United States and to Canada and South America. According to interpretive materials available at the original site of the factory, the company produced 250 styles of saddletrees, and in the course of its history "made between 300,000 and 500,000 saddletrees, nearly two million clothespins, and countless stirrups, hames and work gloves." The shop closed permanently as a manufacturer in 1972 with the death of the last family member.
Imagine a favorite cowboy saddle in your collection or at a prominent Western museum. Often the assumption is made that the entire product was created by a maker from Wyoming, California, Colorado, Texas, or elsewhere. Sometimes there is even a quaint story about the tree being "hand carved," when in fact is was likely machine made. Further, the truth is that underneath the classically tooled decoration and carefully designed and executed leather covering, that there is a saddletree that easily could have come from one of the Madison, Indiana, shops.
Fortunately, for students of the Western stock saddle, the Schroeder factory was simply closed with machinery, partial and complete products, historical records, and buildings left as they were. Thanks to the dedicated work of Historic Madison, Inc/Historic Madison Foundation, Inc., the factory has been completely preserved and beautifully documented. You owe it to yourself to visit the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum if you are a serious student of the cowboy or Western saddle. Belt driven lathes, shapers, band saws, gluing stations, and other machinery along with hand tools are intact in the factory, patterns and pieces for the trees are still in place just about everywhere in the facility. The organized placement of tools defines the different manufacturing processes for trees from cutting and shaping wood forms to covering with rawhide. While hand processes were first used, steam boilers and belt driven machinery were quickly adopted and are still in place. You can see how the trees were made and this is your only real opportunity to fully appreciate the process of tree manufacturing. The buildings, products, and tools transport you back in time in a way that cannot happen anywhere else in the world because this is, in fact, the only restored 1800s saddletree factory in the United States.
The Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum is part of a National Historic Landmark District that also includes immaculately restored and maintained historical homes, a doctor's office, a church, and an 1835 auditorium, all set in a community with many other important examples of historic architecture along the Ohio River. The entire area is worth a brief or an extended visit. Accommodations and restaurant facilities are excellent; an educational weekend is well spent here and you can learn more by going to the web site at: www.historicmadisoninc.com.
While Madison, Indiana might seem out of the way to you it is not and it is well worth the visit. Besides, maybe you can stop and chat me at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis on your way there. See you then!
Photos (from top):
• Cover of catalog number 4, 1931, Ben Schroeder Saddle Tree Co. Courtesy of the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum, Madison, Indiana.
• Workers at the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, in about 1885, courtesy of the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum, Madison, Indiana.
• Interior of the Schroeder factory as found in 1974. Library of Congress.
• Saddletrees stored in the house at the factory grounds, 1974. Library of Congress.
• Heritage Day visitors to the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum, courtesy of the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum, Madison, Indiana.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage