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If you've ever seen a saddle, you probably realize a lot of work goes into making them. They've been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. In fact, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder said that a Thessalonian first invented saddles and bridles, though this can't be strictly taken as fact. A couple hundred years before that, Xenophon, an Athenian soldier, mentioned saddle cloths in a book he wrote on horsemanship.

Saddles have evolved over time into many different styles and selections. They may be as simple as blankets or saddle pads, or can be complex and specially designed, with tooling and patterns. Sometimes they even stand as a status symbol.

Saddle-making is a prized art, and it became an important industry during America's formative years. Men with saddle-making skills, like William Ray Collis, were sought after.

Collis once operated a harness repair shop in Bismarck. But he hit some rough times with the Great Depression. Business dried up during the thirties, and with the lag in business, he enrolled in the Works Progress Administration as a laborer.

But Collis' story took a turn for the better when Charles Foster, a Bismarck attorney, stopped at the Miles City Saddlery on business. The shop owner was trying to fill a hundred orders for saddles. When Foster told him about Collis, the proprietor grew excited, saying that "expert leather workers of the old school" were few and far between. He got in touch with Collis, and invited him out to do some work.

Collis' first job was to create a $1,000 dollar saddle for Prince Olav of Norway. He was working on it on this date in 1939, glad to be back to his old profession. His wife was pleased, as well, for as a happy ending, there was every possibility that he would be making his new job a permanent one, and saddle-makers could make up to $90 a week...quite a jump from his WPA wages of $65 per month!

It became a tale of the Old West; William Collis was able to leave his WPA job, make saddles once more, and ride off into the sunset.

Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker



The Columbus Reporter, May 25, 1939, p.3

Natural History of Pliny, Vol. 2, by Pliny the Elder

Saddles, by Russel H. Beatie