Michigan Heritage Awards
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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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