Come gather round me boys and I'll tell you a tale

All about my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail

Come a ti yi yippy yippy yay, yippy yay

Come a ti yi yippy yippy yay

I started up the trail on October 23rd

I started up the trail with the 2-U herd

Had a ten-dollar horse and a forty-dollar saddle

And I started up the trail just punchin' Texas cattle

- From "Old Chisholm Trail," written and recorded by Jules Verne Allen in 1929

 

NIARADA - Up the Big Draw, in his own little one, Jeff Morrow makes his 30-yard commute to work six days a week, trying to keep up with the orders.

The recession has "helped" in that regard, paring the waiting time for his larger handcrafted leatherworks down from a year and a half to about eight months.

You can see why his work remains in demand even when money is tight. The detail is exquisite, an art form destined not for a gallery, but for the back of a horse, or a cowboy's - or cowgirl's - legs or waists.

Morrow makes saddles, and chaps, and tack, and holsters; belts, and briefcases, and backpacks and billfolds.

He does so in a wood stove-heated shop that may not be in the middle of nowhere, but feels like you can see it from there.

Shooting Star Saddlery, he calls his homespun business, named for the wildflowers that blossom in these parts each spring - and become a part of many of his intricate designs as well.

"When you see the shooting stars come up," Morrow explains, "you know the really good grass is right behind it."

The old shop, once the main ranch house, somehow seems both cluttered and perfectly organized at the same time, with hundreds of creasers, edgers, stamps, round knives, swivel knives, skivers, awls, mauls, deer horns and more - the tools of Morrow's trade - within easy reach of his workbench.

How does a 53-year-old guy from Mooresville, N.C. - home base for some 60 NASCAR teams - who has a degree in English from Davidson College, wind up making saddles in a remote corner of northwest Montana for a living?

Blame it on a girl.

***

Not his wife, Joanne, who's from South Carolina - Morrow met her while both were students at Davidson.

No, it was before that, when he was still a kid.

"A girl moved in next door," Morrow says, pausing a moment before adding, "and she had horses.

"That kinda started it."

He says he was drawn to both Tana Moust - yes, he still remembers her name - and her animals.

"I got addicted" to the horses, Morrow goes on. "I even came out to Colorado to work at a dude ranch one summer to get it out of my system."

Didn't work.

He returned, this time to Montana, and this time to the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch near Big Sky, where he spent a summer breaking horses.

He's never left Montana since.

Joanne got a teaching job in Browning in 1982, and for the next four years Jeff ran cattle, broke and shoed horses, and did some guiding there.

They moved to Three Forks in 1986, and to St. Ignatius in 1993. Morrow had to repair a lot of tack and saddles during his time as a ranch hand, which got him into leatherwork, and he shoed a lot of horses too.

"When we moved to Mission," he says, "I didn't tell anybody I shooed horses. That let me move into leather full-time. I've done so much repair work at the dude ranches I worked for, it gave me a pretty good basis for what worked, and didn't work, with leather."

***

The saddles, tack, scabbards, chaps and holsters he produces are things of beauty, but meant to be used.

"The first saddle I made was for a kid," Morrow says. "Tommy Kirwin in Bozeman. I had some gear I was selling at a farmers market there, and they must have asked if I could make a saddle. I ran into Tommy in Bozeman last winter, and he said his kids were using the saddle now."

He traded a horseshoeing job for his first saddle tree, the rawhide-covered and laminated hardwood that is essentially the frame of any saddle.

To watch the self-taught Morrow work is to come away with conflicting impressions, just like his cluttered/organized shop gives.

He seems both fast, a craftsman who has done this a thousand times before, and yet incredibly careful and precise.

"I'm overly optimistic on how much work I can get done," says Morrow, who spends 10 to 11 hours a day working in the shop. "I'm just about ready not to tell anybody when I'll get something done."

Morrow works on several projects at a time, and usually gets smaller items made and shipped in two to four months. Virtually all of it - 95 percent - is custom-made specifically for someone who has ordered it.

One month, he says, the majority of his business will be local, and come largely via word-of-mouth.

The next, he says, the majority will come from around the world, from customers who have found, or stumbled on, his website.

"I knew the web could be a good thing for me the first time I saw it," Morrow says.

Jeff and Joanne's son Zak, now a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Colorado, set up the website and showed his father how to maintain and update it - not that Morrow does much of either.

"I'd rather work on leather than on a computer," he says with a shrug. "I like the fact that leather lasts. It's sort of like working with something that's not the same all the time. You've got to have a feel for the hide."

***

At www.shootingstar.montana.com, Morrow tells potential customers they can contact him by email if they want, but warns, "Please note that we are slow to respond to email due to living in a remote location without a phone line. We usually answer email once a week when we go for groceries."

One of his best customers is a man from Wisconsin who has ordered one of just about everything Morrow makes, including the biggest-ticket item, a saddle.

"All he needs now is a horse," Morrow says. "He's a really nice guy, I've talked to him several times - he says he'll buy a horse when he retires."

The saddles start at $3,400, and the most intricate take up to 160 hours to make and can cost more than twice that. Morrow says he uses leather tanned in the United States, and buys his custom-made saddle trees from Billings saddle-maker Ben Swanke.

They cost twice as much as a common tree, Morrow says, and are worth every penny.

He makes Wade saddles, slick forks, ranch saddles, "mountain" saddles (swell fork saddles with a good cantle), historical reproductions, lightweight saddles and trail saddles.

And he can turn around and make a purse, or hair-on belt or backpack.

You can order smaller leather items - hat headbands, leather-covered flasks, plain belts - starting at $50 or below.

"I've always been a hillbilly do-it-yourselfer," Morrow says. "I always wanted to know how things work. When I was 8 or 9, I took apart the hub on my Mom's three-speed bike - I got in a lot of trouble for that one, although I eventually got it back together."

In his "spare" time Morrow grows his own hops, brews his own beer, makes his own sausage and salsa. He turned one of his outbuildings into a "man cave," or, as Joanne named it, the "testoster-room."

And, he hunts. When he does so, it's often on horseback, on a saddle he's made, wearing chaps he produced, his rifle housed in one of his handcrafted scabbards.

"The gun leather I own is worth more than my guns," Morrow says. "It reminds me of the old song, ‘I've got a $40 saddle and a $10 horse.' "

At least he has a horse. Some of the saddle-maker's customers haven't gotten that far yet.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at 523-5244 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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