Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Back in the saddle
John Carney gives new life to old saddles

by Jeff Joiner

John Carney's leather shop is not too different from any saddle and tack shop. Bridles and bits, stirrup straps and polished saddles line the outer room where customers enter the business along Highway 63 in Vichy. Nothing suggests that just 10 years ago Carney operated a sawmill and had never worked with leather.

Saddlemaker John Carney works to repair a child's saddle in his shop in Vichy. A self-taught leather craftsman, Carney has built a strong reputation for his restoration work.

"I'm completely self taught. I've never been in anyone else's shop," he says.

In that brief 10-year period Carney has built a national reputation for repairing and restoring saddles.

For 13 years Carney operated a sawmill in Devils Elbow near Rolla. He loved the work but it was dangerous. After two life-threatening injuries and a number of lesser mishaps, Carney began to think about his future.

As a kid he grew up riding horses. As an adult he bought a horse to begin riding again but was surprised at the cost.

"I went to buy a saddle and, my God, they were expensive. I was broke at the time so I went to the sale barn and bought five saddles, all junk, for 20 bucks," says Carney. "I didn't know how to sew. I didn't know how to do anything so I laced them all together. I enjoyed it so much and I figured I could make a little extra money at it."

At first he cleaned saddles and did simple repairs for people, learning as he went along. He studied books on historic saddles and learned by taking saddles apart to see how they were built.

Carney gives a potential customer an estimate for repairing a saddle.

Word spread and soon he became so busy that he was forced to make a choice. "I got to the point that I had so many saddles piled up to work on that I was going to have to start telling people no" — or quit his job at the sawmill and turn his new skill into a full-time job.

Carney did just that. He bought an old school building in the small town of Vichy, north of Rolla, and set up shop.

Carney has an eye for detail. He studies photos of historic saddles and tack and is an excellent judge of leather quality. Because he's self taught, he has developed many new techniques for working leather. As an example he created a new way to mold leather to the seat of a saddle that turned a complicated three- or four-hour process into a relatively simple one-hour job.

Carney's big break came when he was reading a copy of Leathercraft Journal which featured a restored C.S. Garcia saddle on the cover belonging to collector George Pittman of Los Angeles. In an article Pittman suggested readers call him with historic saddles for sale. Carney called not with something for sale but with some friendly criticism of the Garcia saddle restoration.

"He could have told me to fly a kite, but he didn't," Carney says. "I told him, 'You just had that saddle restored and there are several things they did wrong.'"

Carney tools leather

Based on the photos, Carney pointed out historic inaccuracies in the restoration including the color of the fleece and stitching and the wrong style of strings.

"He was floored," Carney recalls. "He said, 'I thought the same thing, but you're the first person that's noticed that. I'll tell you what, kid, I'll give you a try.'"

Pittman had Carney make him a set of spur straps and a holster and liked the work so much he began recommending him to friends in the saddle collecting world, including wealthy Arizona businessman Morton Fletcher. Fletcher owns one of the most valuable saddle and tack collections in the country and often loans saddles to the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.

He tried out Carney on a complete saddle restoration. After two weeks of work, Carney shipped the saddle back and Fletcher was "tickled" with the work, says Carney. The two agreed on $1,500 for the job.

"He FedExed me the money and they set it on the porch and my dog ate it," Carney says, laughing at the recollection.

"So I had to call Fletcher and he talked to me on an intercom and you ought to have heard the chuckles in the room when I told him that my dog ate his check. He said, 'My God, where in the blankety blank in Missouri do you live.' He sent me another check right out."

Since the first project for Fletcher he's done a number of pieces for the collector and the Autry Museum. He recently restored a bridle made by Edward H. Bolin, the "Ferrari of saddlemakers," Carney says.

Apprentice Scott Mertens, a Highway Patrol officer who works at the shop on his days off, gets saddle repair tips. Carney gives his apprentice advice he learned himself. "Learn by doing."

The bridle, complete with intricate silver decoration, was in tatters and Carney remade the leather parts based on photographs. The bridle is now on display in the Autry Museum.

Along with saddles Carney does all kinds of restorations. One of the more unusual was a miniature barber's chair made just after the Civil War and valued at more than $10,000. Carney replaced the leather seat and back on the 14-inch chair once carried by a traveling salesman.

Carney, a member of Intercounty Electric Cooperative, also makes purses and handbags, and in the months leading up to Christmas it's all he can do to keep up with orders and he already works seven days a week.

There are really only two things in Carney's life, his leather work and his pair of German shepherd dogs. He long ago gave up horseback riding because he didn't have time and now his only hobby is doing charcoal drawings of Western scenes which he says is relaxing after 10-hour days.

Carney's schoolhouse is half leather shop and half residence and he rarely leaves Vichy. In fact he put only 2,400 miles on his pickup last year.

Though Carney misses working outdoors he enjoys crafting leather into objects of beauty and value, especially for those who love the history of West.

For information about Carney's leather work call him at (573) 299-4747, or stop by his shop on the south side of Vichy on Highway 63. Carney has a Web site at www.carneyleather.com.

Carney cuts a large sheet, or side, of leather into strips while one of his two German shepherd dogs watches from a bathtub Carney uses to wash saddles. The dogs are the saddlemaker's constant companions even though one ate a check Carney received as payment for some work.

 

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