CHEYENNE - Like most every Wyoming rancher, Tom Harrower has an interest in saddles. The difference between Harrower and other ranchers is his particular interest in plastic saddles.
That's right, plastic saddles.
A native of Kemmerer, Harrower manages the family ranching operations. A 1965 graduate of Western College of Auctioneering in Billings, Mont., he has rubbed shoulders with thousands of buyers and sellers. Over the past 40 years he began developing an appreciation for unusual horse-related items. That interest evolved from his ranching background and hands-on experience with saddle horses, draft horses, buggy horses and several pairs of oxen.
Along the way Harrower became seriously interested in plastic saddles and equipment made in Lusk and in Scottsbluff, Neb. For the past four years, he has researched, documented and compiled the history of the All Western Plastic Co.
According to an article in Western Horseman in 1986, in a small shop in Lusk just after World Word II, Bernard Thon was making leather saddles in an apprentice program sponsored by the Veterans Administration. The U.S. government used beef and leather for the war effort, and leather and saddle trees were hard to come by.
The little saddle shop in Niobrara County had some 175 back orders for saddles. Thon was placed under the supervision of two top-notch saddle makers, and he was quoted in the article as having become "a pretty good saddle maker."
A short time after the war ended, the owner of the saddle shop, T.C. "Tommy" Nielson, made a business deal with William Vandergriff for the Lusk facility to make, promote and sell plastic riding equipment.
Thon and his boss set up shop in a separate room from the leather saddle department and began building, tearing up and rebuilding a saddle. After six months of hard work, they finally produced the first of 60 plastic saddles.
"The saddles suited us, and we hoped our product would be received well by John Q. Public," Thon wrote. "We had no idea how our product would be received by horsemen, but shortly thereafter, we had a stroke of fortune."
The good fortune was an order for two plastic saddles from the "King of the Cowboys," Roy Rogers. He ordered one saddle for himself, the other for Dale Evans. Both were cream colored, trimmed in blue and red.
Thon's helper constructed all the bridles, breast collars, halters and accessories. The colorful items were attractive on horses gussied up for parades or other public affairs and became quite popular with sheriff's posses, Shriners and other groups.
The saddles were built on regular rawhide-covered trees. The ground seat was made of and shaped with leather, while the seat, fenders and 3-inch stirrup straps were made of quarter-inch plastic. Also of plastic were the fork covers, jockeys and horn coverings made from eighth-inch plastic. Any other decorations were of 1/16th-inch plastic or ribbed plastic straps. Padded seats were sewn and glued in place. All straps and decorations were welded in place with a hot iron.
Unlike leather, which is soaked in water and cured for shaping, the plastic had to be heated or warmed in an oven and glued to the saddle while still hot.
Thon maintained the saddles were tough, comparable to car tires. Testing was done as to their durability by throwing them onto concrete, beating on them and leaving them in the rain for several hours.
Roy and Dale might have liked the saddles, but apparently, Trigger and Buttermilk did not. The saddles were cold and stiff in inclement weather, hot and sweaty when the temperature rose.
Thon said that with the better types of plastics in the latter part of the 20th century, those problems might have been overcome. That was not to be. The business in Lusk was growing so rapidly that the decision was made to move it to Scottsbluff. In a new building there for only a short time, the business was destroyed when a tornado struck.
The family of Roy and Dale Evans Rogers ultimately acquired two more saddles. In 1948, Thon constructed a special saddle and matching bridle for a National Plastic Exposition in New York City. It was a cream-colored saddle with reddish rose trim and black strings. That saddle, along with two more from the Rogers family collection, are in his Western museum in Victorville, Calif.
Harrower has located and collected several plastic saddles and knows the whereabouts of 34 of the 60-plus plastic saddles. He plans to write a book which will include in-depth information and many photos of the All Western Plastic Co.