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Archive for Tuesday, April 20, 1999

GOMER KEEPS TRADITION OF SADDLEMAKING ALIVE IN KANSAS

April 20, 1999

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An acclaimed carver keeps the art of saddlemaking alive in an unassuming, cluttered backyard shop in Leavenworth County.

Bill Gomer's tight slacks and shirt, embellished with wide belt, pointed boots and enormous hat, wrapped the lean frame of a man who carves out a living supplying cowboys with Western saddles built to work all day without destroying man or beast.

His daily domain -- an unassuming low-slung, 12-foot-wide shop in the unincorporated Leavenworth County town of Jarbalo -- is permeated with raw fragrance of leather.

Little about the place betrays the century in which Gomer evolved into a master.

The only explicit sign of modern living is Gomer's white-tipped carving tool made of the same composite material that forms exterior tiles on NASA shuttles. The blade can slice a gut wide, but never needs sharpening.

"This guy is as good with a swivel knife as most people are with a pen," said Mike Bray, a saddlemaking apprentice from Monticello, Minn., who has been working with Gomer more than a month.

Butchering a hide

Gomer built his first saddle in Tampa, Fla., half a century ago at stepfather Thomas Strickland's harness shop. The 9-year-old boy needed a hand from Strickland, because he wasn't strong enough to handle physical demands of the job.

"I say I butchered my first saddle at 9."

Gomer worked six years with Strickland. The old guy actively discouraged Gomer from following in his footsteps. He reasoned the Model T had done much to undermine the place of horses in the country's economic engine. Folks would no longer turn to professional saddlemakers in an era dominated by increasingly sophisticated transportation options.

Gomer ignored that advice and hitchhiked to Pendleton, Ore., to apprentice with a master saddlemaker.

It was an unpleasant experience that changed his life for the better.

The master, known as Mr. Rattan, turned his leather pieces over when Gomer tried to watch his work in progress. Mr. Rattan wouldn't share his 350 hand tools and let few secrets of the trade slip from his lips.

Gomer returned to Florida and took up with another master, but he didn't forget the main lesson Mr. Rattan taught.

"It was inappropriate for a guy to hide skills," the 58-year-old carver said. "I've always shared what I know with others."

Mr. Rattan must have recognized Gomer's potential. Oddly, the rascal willed his prized tool collection to Gomer. If Gomer had refused to accept, Mr. Rattan was to be buried with the beloved instruments.

In a half century of carving, Gomer has watched other pros hold tight to skills useful to up-and-coming craftsmen. He doubts they feel good about crawling into bed with that truth.

"Some must feel guilty when they snuff the lights out at night."

Why drive a bus?

Gomer married and raised two kids while working an assortment of jobs outside carving. He was engaged in one of those endeavors when he realized doing anything but teaching "was a waste of my talent."

Behind the wheel of a Lawrence Bus Co. vehicle, Gomer mentioned to a passenger that he was the guy who made "the Kansas saddle."

The saddle was built in 1986 as part of the Kansas State Historical Society's observance of the state's 125th birthday. Gomer worked on the saddle while demonstrating leatherworking in all 105 Kansas counties. The saddle -- recently appraised at $125,000 -- includes the names of all the state's counties and is decorated with elements that define the life and times of Kansas. It also bears former President Ronald Reagan's signature.

"Well," Gomer continued, "on the bus, the passenger said, 'Sure you did.'

"I later showed him a news article, and he asked, 'Why are you driving a bus?'

"I asked myself that same question. I quit and started teaching -- really teaching."

Initially, Gomer wasn't convinced operating a one-student-at-a-time custom carving school would pay for itself. Maybe his stepfather was right about leatherwork being a dying business.

"I didn't think anybody would want to learn."

But Gomer and his stepfather have been proven wrong. Gomer has had dozens of apprentice students emerge from his 12-foot by 24-foot shop after learning to build historically authentic Western saddles.

Gomer developed a five-hour videotape on saddlemaking in an attempt to spread the gospel.

His commitment to training others in the art of leather carving has taken him all over the world. At festivals and shows, he's been known to coordinate all-night sessions where folks sit around the stove to talk and carve.

Before embarking this fall on a teaching tour of Japan, Taiwan and Australia, Gomer will participate in the "Gathering of the Masters" at Sheridan, Wyo. The event next month showcases 16 of the world's best carvers.

"I'm honored to be a part of that," Gomer said. "Sometimes I wonder: Am I that good yet?"

He accepts adulation from peers around the world with a stitch of irony, given that he's more or less anonymous in northeast Kansas.

"Local people don't know who I am, ... but my name is all over the world."

Quit squeezing lemons

Bray, who lives 50 miles north of the Minneapolis on a ranch populated mostly by longhorn cattle, did what most folks don't. Instead of simply complaining about his job as a used car salesman, he did something about it.

"I quit," said Bray of an occupation that drove his blood pressure too high. "Two weeks later, I was here."

Motioning to Gomer leaning against the shop's deep workbench, Bray declared, "He's going to make me a saddlemaker."

After researching schools across the nation, Bray and his wife, Wren, selected Gomer. They invested $4,000 in the seven-week apprenticeship.

Bray, 43, had never carved a hunk of leather in his life before sitting down with Gomer.

"When you see Bill do carving, it's amazing," Bray said. "With details, he's excellent. That's what I want."

Bray is more than half finished with an ornate saddle of his own design -- sort of a throwback to the 1800s -- and now appreciates the degree of hand labor required of specialists in the trade. Gomer's shop isn't equipped with the standard sewing machine. All saddles from the shop have the mark of a human touch.

"I like to see the guy with no knowledge come to me," Gomer said. "They work harder. They're not afraid to challenge me. But I'm very demanding. If it's wrong, it comes off and is redone."

Gomer still considers himself something of a student.

"Every day is an educational day. If you get up and don't learn, the day is a waste."

Learning is about doing: "Most of my knowledge is the school of hard knocks."

On most days, the duo head to the shop about 7:30 a.m., squeeze in a short lunch break and work until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.

"It's fun," Bray said. "I can't wait to get there in the morning."

Gomer said no one looks at the old clock on the shop's wall. Wouldn't do any good if they did, since the hands are stuck at 11o'clock.

"We sometimes forget what day of the week it is."

Not to be a millionaire

One day a fella stopped by the shop to ask whether Gomer would carve a modified handbag. While there, the customer noticed the cut of Gomer's belt.

"Could you make me one?"

Gomer, whose work had revolved around building or repairing saddles and creating three-dimensional leather portraits of the Old West, quoted a price.

"I said it will be $10 an inch. I was thinking it would be too high to do it."

"He said, 'I'll take two.'

"Well, he needed a 46-inch belt. That's $460 each. Now I do belts."

Not that Gomer expects to become a wealthy man from slicing, stamping, stretching and stitching leather.

That's the reality for many artists but is also a reflection of Gomer's personality.

He's made an estimated 410 saddles in his career. The base price these days is $2,000 and increases with the degree of difficulty. But to help defray family medical expenses, Gomer sold the Kansas saddle a few years back to a Philadelphia physician for $5,000.

"He asked if I wasn't sure I wanted more," Gomer said. "I said no. All I need is $5,000."

He has been urged to leave Leavenworth County for the big time. He's been recruited by saddle companies and courted by the rich and famous.

"I was once offered a job by Burt Reynolds. About $55,000 a year. He wanted me to live in L.A. No way."

He's content to stay in Jarbalo -- home for nearly 20 years -- and pass along a tradition of excellence to willing youngsters. His two children didn't fall in love with the profession, he said, but there's a 5-year-old granddaughter who "eats it alive."

"I'm not interested in being a millionaire. The house doesn't leak. I get three meals a day. I don't owe nobody. I don't want to be rich. I do it for the love of it."

(For more information, contact Gomer at 23626 212th Street, Leavenworth, Kan., 66048 or call 913-727-1606.)

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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