by Ross Hecox
Ryan King stands in front of a group of tourists, pointing out the wide range of relics, rifles, cowboy memorabilia and saddles in the Don King Museum.
“We opened the museum in 1990,” he tells them. “We started out with probably about 200 saddles in here. Now we have closer to 600.”
Ryan rests his hand on the horn of a vintage saddle, its steep A-fork and high cantle typical of other saddles built in the late 1800s. The tourists gaze at the vast collection of bridles, warbonnets, rodeo posters and black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls. They ask King about his grandfather, Don King, the legendary saddlemaker.
“This is the last saddle my grandfather made,” he says, pointing to a Mother Hubbard-style seat jockey and skirt bearing an intricately balanced pattern of flowers, leaves and flowing stems. “It took him a couple of months to make this. He probably put 200 to 300 hours in this saddle.”
The museum is part of the iconic King’s Saddlery, opened by Don King in 1961. In addition to drawing tourists, the store on Main Street in Sheridan, Wyoming, sells saddles, tack, apparel, books and jewelry. An adjacent building, which houses the museum, features a showroom and factory for King Ropes, a popular brand among team ropers, calf ropers, cowboys and other horsemen.
Ryan walks the tourist group throughout the two buildings, showing them how ropes are made, how leather is tooled, how merchandise is displayed, and how ranching and rodeo culture are preserved in the museum.
Once his guests leave, Ryan descends into the main building’s basement, which 70 years ago was a two-lane bowling alley. Hammering away at his workbench, he tools leather sleeves for a set of flasks ordered by a bridegroom for his groomsmen.
“This basement is where we used to twist ropes and do leather work, so there were bodies on top of bodies down here,” he says. “In 1971 we started building the rope shop [in the adjacent building], and after that opened up, we also moved the leather manufacturing in there. We still had the toolers down here to stamp the leather. My dad, my uncle and my brother used to tool down here at one point or another.”
Leather craftsmanship and the name King have been uttered in the same breath for decades. Don King is respected for creating the Sheridan style of leather carving. It involves a meticulous and balanced design of flowers, leaves and stems that intertwine in a circular, orderly pattern. He developed the style during his long saddlemaking career, one that stemmed from an early connection to the cowboy life.
As a boy, Don traveled with his father, cowboying on ranches throughout the West. He was on his own by age 14, starting colts and working on various dude ranches by day and building leather goods at night. He began to apprentice for respected leather craftsmen and saddlemakers before serving in World War II. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to his wife, Dorothy, in Sheridan, Wyoming, and they began raising a family. They had four boys: Bill, Bruce, Bob and John. He continued working with leather and built saddles, but his skills as a horseman paid the bills initially, says Ryan.
“He mainly broke colts for a living, and leather working was something he enjoyed doing in his spare time,” Ryan says. “Then he got the contract to build championship saddles for the RCA [now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] back in the mid- to late-1950s. That helped him gain notoriety for his work.”
In 1961, he opened King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyoming. As his sons grew, they began helping operate and expand the family business. Today, Bruce manages the store and some of Don’s grandchildren work for the business in one capacity or another.
Ryan acknowledges that it’s special to work for a business founded by his late grandfather and run by multiple generations. However, he attributes the success of King’s Saddlery more to a family-oriented mindset, not just to family members.
“We’ve had a lot of family come and go over the years, which is fine,” Ryan says. “My dad would say, ‘If you find something else to do, go do it. You can always fall back on working for the store.’
“But keeping long-term employees is how we’ve stayed in business for so long. We’ve had some employees work here for 40-plus years, and several others for 25 years. The way I see it, the employees we’ve kept over the years become like family. We couldn’t have done it with just the family alone.”
For 60-plus years, King’s Saddlery has become a destination for those who admire cowboy trappings, rodeo culture and history of the American West. For all the facets of the business—a museum, rope factory, saddles, tack, apparel, etc.—the store thrives on a straightforward principle established decades ago.
“My grandfather always wanted to make good, quality equipment for working cowboys that didn’t cost them an arm and a leg,” Ryan says. “That was the whole premise, and that’s the way we’ve always tried to do business.” ★
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of the Ranch Record. Would you like to read more stories about NRHC and ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.