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Two top saddle makers call DeWitt County home

By Sonny Long
Aug. 24, 2013 at 3:24 a.m.

Custom tooling on a competition saddle from Tod Slone Saddles in Cuero.

STILL THE LAND OF LEATHER

Yoakum and the leather industry have been synonymous for decades. TexTan began making saddles in 1919. Circle Y Saddles has been in operation for more than 50 years, relocating in 2010 to a single-building facility on the Lavaca County side of town where high-quality saddles continue to be manufactured. About a half-dozen other businesses related to the leather industry also call Yoakum home.

Like any cowboy, Tod Slone knows the importance of a good saddle.

A champion calf roper, Slone took his knowledge and experience and turned it into a saddle manufacturing company - now in its 18th year.

The business began in New Braunfels when Slone

began endorsing a line of saddles for Comal Saddlers. Then, Tod Slone Saddles moved to Cuero at 1146 U.S. Highway 183 North in 1997.

"The large majority of our business is for the rodeo athlete," said Kaylie Leske, Slone's daughter and the company's operations manager. "We do build some saddles for pleasure riding but mainly serve the rodeo industry."

And with good reason.

Slone, a champion calf roper, is a seven-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo and was champion in 1994 and won the $50,000 first place shoot out prize at the Calgary Stampede in 1989 and 1990. He is the only roper to win the event two years in a row.

Slone's interest in saddle making came when his own horse, Sale Barn, proved hard to fit.

"He has a rounded back and no saddle ever fit him correctly," Leske said. "Dad designed a tree that would fit Sale Barn, and that's really how he got started."

Sale Barn, at age 36, is still alive and well on the Slone ranch.

At the Cuero factory, run by Slone and his wife Lonna, who were sixth grade sweethearts in Bay City, the efforts are concentrated on the Slone custom series saddles.

"We have two different lines of saddles," explained Leske. "The high end, very nice custom stuff we build in Cuero."

Tod Slone Saddles also has factories in Del Rio and in Point. Slone sells about 1,500 saddles in a year.

"We also make a felt saddle pad and some tack, but our main focus is on saddles," Leske said.

Skilled crafters, some with decades of experience, hand tool the detail work on the final product, all made with the finest leather from Hermann Oak.

A Diamond S saddle might take eight weeks to make, while custom saddles about six months, Leske said.

Shawn Wilke, who was busy resetting nails on a saddle tree, has been with Slone Saddles for 16 years and helped convince Slone to open the business in Cuero.

"I was in business for myself. That's how I met Tod. I bought a saddle from him," Wilke said.

The saddle seat prints can also feature exotic hides from stingray to elephant.

Leske pointed out one saddle in progress with "Hammerhead" stitched on it.

"Apparently that's her nickname," she said. "It just goes to show how one-of-a-kind and unique our saddles are. They really are works of art."

Double J Saddlery

A few miles down the road from Tod Slone Saddles, another saddle maker continues a successful family tradition.

In business since 1991, Double J Saddlery's saddle making history actually goes back much further.

The late Leland Tucker, the founder of Circle Y Saddles, is the father-in-law of John DeBord, owner of Double J.

DeBord married Tucker's daughter, Nancy.

DeBord worked with Tucker a couple of years before Tucker died.

The couple's four children - Jesse, Josh, Chaedrea and Kristyn - are all involved in the company.

In 2008, Double J Saddlery moved to a new, larger location at 2243 alternate U.S. Highway 77 South on the outskirts of Yoakum. The 25,000 square-foot facility includes a 5,000 square-foot showroom.

"When we moved to the new location, we started making our own saddle trees. That's the best thing we ever did for our business," DeBord said. "A saddle tree is the skeleton of the saddle. If you don't have a good saddle tree, you don't have a good saddle."

Double J buys Ponderosa pine by the truckload from South Dakota to build its saddle trees, along with fiberglass, and uses leather from Hermann Oaks Tannery for its saddles, DeBord said.

"It's the finest leather you can get your hands on," DeBord said.

Most of the company's saddles - it builds about 2,000 each year - are performance oriented, said DeBord.

"They are for use in rodeo events, tying, roping, barrel, cutting. We also do some pleasure saddles and saddles for working cowboys," he said.

"They like to look good, and it means a lot to them. The saddles are very ornate. A lot of hand tooling, hand painting. It's a time-honored art."

The saddle makers are skilled craftsmen, said DeBord. Double J has about 50 employees.

"They've got to have somewhat of a creative flair," DeBord. "It's not just mechanics."

In addition to saddles and tack, Double J has expanded its product line in recent years to include purses, belts, cellphone carriers and other leather accessories.

DeBord is proud of his company's history and its products.

"It's nice to be able to say our products are handmade in Yoakum, Texas," he said.

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