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Bill Gomer - Kansas Folk Art

Saddle Maker

Arnie Miller, Apprentice

Bill Gomer is well known for his work in saddle making. He is particularly skilled in the area of leather carving. Bill is recognized not only as a master artist but also as an outstanding teacher.

Born in 1940 in Stockton, California, Bill moved with his family to Tampa, Florida, shortly after his birth. Bill literally grew up around the smell of leather. His grandfather was a harness maker and a shoe cobbler. His father was a saddle maker.

I've been in love with leather ever since I was a kid. We had horse trainers that worked around Dad all the time, around our horses. It was something to go out and smell the leather and feel it, and take the old straps as a kid, five or six years old, and make a gun belt out of it.—Bill Gomer

Bill's father, however, discouraged him from going into the business. As Bill remembers, "He was the kind of a guy who didn't want to share the knowledge. He felt the horse and buggy day was over and he didn't want me in it."

Bill admits his father was a good teacher. However, Bill soon became tired of the jobs his father would give him around the shop—such as waxing 300 saddle strings for stitching. At the age of 15 Bill decided to leave home to pursue his interest in leatherwork. He went to work at Hamley Brothers in Pendleton, Oregon. Bill thought of it as the "Cadillac" of the custom saddle companies. When he began work he said that he was a saddle maker. His supervisor threw him a saddle tree and two sides of leather and told him to build a saddle. Although Bill had watched his father build many saddles he did not know how to put one together himself. The old-timers at the company gave him hints and soon the first saddle was finished. After building several saddles Bill began to gain confidence.

In Pendleton, Bill apprenticed with a master carver by the name of Rattan. Like other old-timers in the leather business, Rattan was guarded about his knowledge. As Bill recalls, "If you walked up to him, he would turn his work over and take a break. So I would watch him on a balcony with a set of binoculars. Now that is where I had fun, watching the old man's hands come alive." It is a tribute to Bill that the man he considered his master teacher requested that his tools go to Bill after his death.

During his days as an apprentice Bill was often frustrated by the fact that older saddle makers did not share their knowledge openly. He points out that saddle makers will talk to you for hours but they will not do any work in front of you. It is Bill's opinion that they do not really want to share their skills.

I swore after that, that I'd share my knowledge with anybody. I didn't care. I thought that if you've got secrets, and you are going to take it to the grave with you, it isn't worth it. There shouldn't be any secrets.—Bill Gomer

In 1963 Bill joined the military and was stationed in Alaska. While there he taught leatherwork. When he was released from the service he returned to Florida to work with his father. He also started the Arts and Crafts Center at the University of South Florida where he taught leatherwork. A few years later he left Florida for Tennessee where he worked for the Simco Saddle Company. When he once again returned to Florida he found his father had sold the family shop, including all the tools and equipment. Since he was in the position of starting over, Bill decided to reenlist in the military and ended up at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. "'I fell in love with it," remembers Bill. "I worked in the United States disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth and I taught saddle making, everything I had dreamed about." Between 1976 and 1984 Bill moved back and forth between Alaska and Kansas, teaching leatherwork, before decided to make his home in Leavenworth County.

Bill completed more than 300 saddles in his day. Although he continues to build saddles his real love is teaching others to make them. He has had more than 45 students to date. He tries to instill in each a respect for custom saddle making.

I think it takes an artist to build a saddle. . . . You need to know horse training, the anatomy of the body, whether it's the human body or the horse's body. . . . You need to know what kind of riding is to be done, how heavy the rider is, what kind of horse he is riding, is he using it to cut cattle, is he using it in the arena where he's only going to be on it just a short time, or is he going to be in it all day long. . . .I think a lot of people don't know that. I think we need to educate them. . . . It is nothing to spend $1,500 for a good horse and then throw a cheap saddle on him.
That will ruin a horse.
—Bill Gomer

When asked what makes a good saddle, Bill replies without hesitation that it is the saddle tree. "A good tree is one that is finished throughout," he explains. "Bull or rawhide covered, no wood showing through it." Although Bill has made his own trees in the past he no longer finds the time. Instead he takes advantage of three or four good saddle tree companies in the country. "I demand a top quality tree," cautions Bill, "or they get it back."

A saddle is only as good as the craftsman. The way the leather is put on the tree is also extremely important. Bill does not use a lot of rivet in his work. He explains, "If you are going to shoot it full of staples, then you're just making it just like a postage stamp, perforated so it tears." Bill spends a good deal of time researching what makes a good saddle. Not only does he custom make saddles but he also does repair work.

I tear down and take research on the way they were done. The bad ways and the good ways to do it and what I want in one. I look at saddles that are way over 100 years old. Those saddles just didn't happen. They weren't an accident. They were planned for a particular type of riding, a particular type of animal.—Bill Gomer

Bill is very involved in several leather guilds. In fact, he was the founder of guilds in Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. He enjoys demonstrating at guild functions. The guilds join together as federations and sponsor leather craft competitions. Bill has been the recipient of many first place and "best of show" awards. However, he is quick to point out that a time or two he has come in second to one of his own students. According to Bill, "It is a high honor when your student beats you."

Bill has been further honored with the prestigious Stohlman Award, given annually to one or more individuals for lifetime achievement in the area of leather craft. Recipients are honored for their work in sharing their art form with others, as well as their overall achievements in the craft. Bill was so surprised by the honor that he remembers not being able to stand as his name was announced.

for the last three years Bill has participated as a master artist in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. His apprentices have included Marlyn Clotfelder, Arnie Miller, and Jimmy Harper. All three have benefited greatly from their time spent with Bill.

Arnie Miller

Arnie Miller lives on a 144-acre farm near Circleville. He has all but stopped farming and now works as an electronic technician for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Arnie first became interested in leatherwork in high school. He had no formal instruction but rather just experimented on his own. About eight or nine years ago he became serious about leatherwork when his wife bought him a set of tools. "I really love it," says Arnie. "I love to take a roll of leather, plain piece of leather and turn out something that really looks nice."

Arnie refers to saddle making as a "dying art." He points out that a lot of people make saddles but they do it with machines. According to Arnie, "A handmade saddle is the only custom saddle there is." Like Bill, Arnie feels it is important to educate the public as to the difference in saddles. He readily admits that before his work with Bill he did not really know what to look for in a saddle. "If it was pretty," he remembers, "I figured it was good." He believes there is a demand for handmade saddles.

There will always be a demand for the best. There are always going to be people around who want the best and that are willing to pay for the best—something that is handmade, that is made right, that will last a lifetime, can be passed down to your children—you don't have to go out every five years and buy a new one.—Arnie Miller

Through the apprenticeship Bill and Arnie have developed a special friendship. Although they knew each other before the apprenticeship, the experience has brought them closer together. They are, in fact, so happy with their working arrangement that they are considering going into business together making custom saddles. Arnie has so thoroughly enjoyed the experience that he wishes he could make saddles seven days a week. "I've learned a whole lot," states Arnie, "and I plan on learning even more."

Receiving the apprenticeship grant was a big boost to Arnie's career in saddle making. The money allowed him to further his studies at a time when other demands were placed upon his salary. "It hasn't paid all the expenses and I wouldn't expect it to," he comments. "I've put quite a bit into it myself and that's the way it should be." Bill is extremely pleased with the work Arnie has produced. He feels strongly that the apprenticeship program is not for everyone.

I don't think the apprentice should just be somebody casually involved with doing something. They [apprentices] really need to want to learn the fine points and mechanics of it. I think they should already have a knowledge of it and I think they should fine tune it with the apprenticeship program.—Bill Gomer

What Bill likes about Arnie as a student is that he is a perfectionist. Bill states that he would rather have an apprentice who is "nit-picky." Bill also does not mind if the student questions his advice. "We can sit down and discuss it," comments Bill. "That's how you do it, that's how you learn." Bill goes on to say,

I don't have any qualms about making a mistake as long as I can admit I've made a mistake. But I've learned a lot. I learn everyday. In the over 300 saddles I've built, I've never built a perfect saddle. I think there is always room for improvement. . . . I don't know if there's ever been a perfect saddle built, but I try to build as near as I can.—Bill Gomer

From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989

Entry: Gomer, Bill - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: May 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.