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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo by William G. Lockwood

Photo by William G. Lockwood

Photo by William G. Lockwood

Photo by William G. Lockwood

Photo by William G. Lockwood

James Rice
2004 awardee, Hudson (Lenawee County), saddlemaker and leather worker

James Rice (b. 1928) grew up helping repair saddles and harnesses for his horse-trading uncle. "I could fix what some of the outlaw horses tore up," he boasted. By the age of 16 he had built his first saddle and eventually learned the saddle-making trade from Billy Ecker, a craftsman for the Henry Kellogg buggy and harness shop in Hudson. Decades later, he established his own shop and is still putting his "Jas. Rice" stamp on saddles prized across America for their beauty and durability. Along the way, he has also been a rodeo broncobuster, metal shop class instructor for seventh through ninth graders, singer, barber, and farmer of 76 acres.

"The prime key to being a good saddle maker," says Jim, "is fitting the horse first." (1) Jim's saddles begin with wooden frame, called a "tree" made to fit the horse's shape and the rider's weight and covered with rawhide. The various steps include cutting and stitching together skirting leather and engraving and tooling designs on the leather. The saddles are his design, heavily engraved with intricate shapes and custom designs that he does completely by hand. "I like to put quite a lot of stamping on," said Jim, "I guess my saddles are known for large skirts." (2)

Jim fills orders for his handsome saddles from around the country. Some of the more unusual orders have included saddles with a motorcycle and with nudes. One special order was for a miniature saddle for a monkey that was to ride a small horse. Another one for the Lenawee County sheriff featured white pine branches and cones, white tail deer, robins and apple blossoms. He is especially proud of saddles made for a club in Alaska depicting bears and moose. He also made a saddle for President George W. Bush. Jim makes saddles for hardworking ranchers and for pleasure riders, who tend to prefer silver-studded show saddles. He also repairs and restores old saddles and makes belts and gun holsters.

During his 50 plus years of saddle making, Jim has taught several others, and in 2003 he was the recipient of a Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award. His apprentice, Danielle Cole, has been working with Jim for several years. Enthusiastic about her work, Jim is grooming Danielle to take over the business.

(1) Bi-County Herald, December 5, 2001.

(2) The Daily Telegram, February 17, 2002.

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