In a highly successful effort to help fill the world’s need for saddles, the firms started by Al Furstnow and Charlie Coggshall blended assembly line techniques from back East with custom care exercised by the one-man shops of the West.
Miles City saddleries employed dozens of men who came to specialize in various aspects of making this most necessary of cowboy tools. Some saddlemakers made four to six saddles per week, and some stayed in the business long enough to make 2,000 to 3,000 saddles.
Since many cowboys were in the saddle nearly 365 days of the year, they were willing to pay good money for a saddle that was built well and built to order. Order forms had specifications for the type of tree, width and length of seat, width of swell, skirts, style of rigging, horn, cinch, stirrups, initials, brand, pockets and also weight and height of the rider.
The saddleries published extensive catalogues featuring just about everything a cowboy might need. The 1925 Miles City Saddlery Catalog featured the following items and prices to mention just a few: Premium No. 1, $160; Saddle No. 95, $85; white or black Angora Chaparejos, $24; cowboy cuffs, $1.25-$3.50; spurs, $2-$24; Stetson Rider Hat, $17.50; Justin Cowboy Boots, $22; bridle headstalls, $3.25-$15; lariats, $1.50-$6.
Furstnow and Coggshall combined the need to make custom saddles with the need to make a lot of them. In fact, some of their saddlemakers learned the general trade on production lines in cities like St. Paul, and then came to Miles City to learn to make a fine saddle.
A saddle generally started with the wooden frame known as the tree. The trees were made of softwood often from Oregon. The tree was covered with rawhide to provide strength. A poster-sized list of specifications for each saddle would be placed on the wall. The foreman would cut the pieces out of cowhide, which generally came from tanneries in Illinois. The cutters didn’t just start cutting at random. Each part of the hide was suited for a particular part of the saddle. For instance, parts required to stretch more would come from the neck or stomach areas. Stirrup leathers and the riggings, requiring considerable strength, would come from the better parts of the hide.
The saddlemaker would begin assembling the pieces of the leather onto the tree. Nearly all of the pieces were applied while wet to certain degrees. He would work on several saddles at a time, so he would be able to work on one saddle while various parts on others were drying. At certain stages in the saddlemaker’s work the stamper or carver (some did both) would apply designs to certain pieces when they were nearly dry. This had to be done at the optimum time or else the design would be either mushy or ill defined.
The stamper was a skilled artisan, and many fine saddlemakers never really made fine stampers. A strap maker or "short order man" would make many of the separate, smaller parts that went on the saddles, as well as bridles and other tack. Others ran heavy sewing machines or stitched by hand.
There were "tricks to the trade," including placing a sack full of lead shot on the seat to help form it, and using rub sticks to remove wrinkles. When the saddle was fully assembled, it would be treated with neat’s-foot oil, extracted from the hooves and shinbones of cattle, to protect the leather.
The saddlemakers’ pay depended on the difficulty of the style being made. A 1913 Miles City Saddlery pay schedule shows that saddle style No. 91 paid the maker $3.75 each, while saddle style No.11 paid $9. Stamping ranged from $2.50 for style No. 90 to $14 for style No.11.
Saddle styles changed, but both the Furstnow and Miles City Saddlery shops were making pretty similar saddles over the years. This was due, in part, to the fact that saddlemakers switched back and forth between shops for one reason or another.
Pete Verbeck, a Miles City sadldlemaker, for example, started at the age of 15, in 1915, in an apprenticeship under Furstnow’s, Al Moreno. The youth spent five years learning the intricate art of carving flowers on the more ornate saddles. He worked there until 1920, when he went over to the Miles City Saddlery. He switched back and forth from time to time, thanks primarily due the Depression, which found a man taking work wherever and whenever it was available. He was the foreman at Miles City Saddlery from 1939 to 1944, at which time he opened his own shop.
There were also "tramp saddlemakers," who drifted around the West working at various places for a time and then moving on, sometimes not even owning the tools of the trade.
Some of the individual saddles were more famous and more original than others. For example, the "Cisco Kid" saddle, which includes a great amount of silver, rests in the University of Wyoming Library. Similar saddles were built for movie cowboys, Tim McCoy and Tom Mix and his daughter. The Miles City saddlery put together a $2500 package for Crown Prince Olaf and Princess Martha of Norway for their 1938 sojourn to the states.
A lot of fancy saddles were made for famous people, but thousands of unknown cowboys had life a lot easier, thanks to the saddlemakers of Furstnow, Miles City Saddlery and their followers, who made some of the finest saddles in the world.