A Day with the Harwoods
Dale Harwood’s first experiences with leather date back to 1947. He was 12. In 1961, he opened his first shop in Idaho Falls. Forty-seven years later he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest lifetime honor presented to master traditional artists. As of August 2018, Dale Harwood is about to start building the last two saddles of his career.
You don’t need much of a reason to stop and say hello to Dale and Karron Harwood and I didn’t really have one. I try to stop whenever I’m in the eastern side of the state for no real reason other than to reconnect, catch up on saddlemaker gossip, and talk about fishing. There are no grant opportunities I can offer, no apprentices to try to convince him to take, no gear shows he might be interested in, no microphones I want him to speak into. As a folklorist and arts administrator, I have nothing to offer Dale and, in turn, I try to ask for only a little of his time.
If a reason exists, then, it’s entirely selfish: I enjoy spending time in the company of greatness—a national treasure whose deep knowledge and connection to the heyday of Western saddlemaking is unrivaled. Dale has either worked for or with all the grand names (Hamley, Holes, Severe, etc.) that have elevated saddles and the craft of making them from a utilitarian object to a piece of art. He has mentored many and continues to maintain an open-door policy when it comes to advice, instruction, and skill building. Dale remembers the time when saddlemakers would cover their work anytime another suspected saddlemaker entered a shop and he has vowed never to duplicate what he had to endure.
It is also not a complete and true story to say that you go to Shelley only to visit the man behind the Trail’s End Saddle Shop. That man freely and openly admits that without Karron Harwood there is no Trail’s End, there is no Dale. She is the CEO and boss of that outfit; she is the Customer Service Manager, Finance Manager, Public Relations Director, and company spokesperson all rolled into one, all day, every day. They are a partnership, a team, who have not only built a business together but a family history and a lifetime or two of experiences, stories, and relationships. Without Karron, Dale might very well have piddled most of his days away fishing or hunting with his dogs, which, by the way, is what they both intend to do very soon.
We spent an afternoon together hanging out in the shop simultaneously laughing and shaking our heads at the current state of this American life. We spoke about families, their son, and mine. We talked about dogs. There were discussions about weather and the haying season to date. We sipped a beer under the shade of a tree before running downtown for finger steaks and shakes at Mick’s. That was about it and that was enough. I don’t know Dale and Karron quite as well as many other people do. My experience with them is limited to a short five years and knowledge of reputation preceding that. I don’t know them well but I consider them friends. They make friends feel invited and comfortable and at home, and that is about the only reason you ever need to stop by for a visit.
‒ Steven Hatcher, Folk & Traditional Arts Director