Frontier Diary: Rifle saddle maker filled order for Teddy Roosevelt
February 3, 2016
A horse of good breed is not dishonored by his saddle.
— Arabian Proverb
William R. Thompson was a master saddle maker. From his shop in Rifle, Thompson built saddles in the truest standards of his craft. Through his saddles he attempted to create a harmonious working relationship between man and horse, taking into account the dimensions of horse and rider, the breed of the horse, and the work to be accomplished. These saddles were for work and were, as well, objects of art.
Thompson's birth was in August sometime between the years of 1847 and 1853, with his place of birth noted as "near Niagara Falls, New York." By 1886 he lived in Leadville. It is there that he took up the profession of saddle making with the firm of Becker and Leonard. By the time Thompson began working for the firm, Peter Becker had already been building saddles in Colorado for nearly 15 years. Becker and his partner, Samuel Leonard, had saddle- and harness-making shops in Aspen and Glenwood Springs in addition to the Leadville shop. Becker and Leonard proudly proclaimed their saddles to be "the best on earth."
After Becker's death in 1890, Thompson moved to Rifle. By 1896 he had opened his own shop, the W.R. Thompson Harness Shop. In addition to harness and saddle making, Billy Thompson, as he was known in the community, repaired boots and shoes. Unlike his former employers, he did not declare his saddles the best on earth. He did, however, advertise himself as the "boss carpenter on saddles," and carried a full line of harness, saddles, bits, spurs, whips, ropes, horse millinery and the best gloves on earth. For those on a budget, he offered second hand saddles at reasonable prices.
By 1898, the W.R. Thompson Saddle Co. was making its reputation known nationally, and part of that reputation was through innovation. The saddletree is the foundation of all saddles. Made of wood and covered with rawhide or canvas, the rigidity of the saddletree improved the riding experience. Thompson devised his own saddletree, named the White River, for use in his saddles.
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The demand for W.R. Thompson saddles required Thompson to hire Denver saddle maker Charles Hunter to help with production. By 1902 he hired Aspen saddle maker John Kirsher to assist with the work. From a black leather saddle made for Marshal Nuckolls, to a fine saddle with a silver horn, to saddles trimmed in rattlesnake skin, and women's side saddles, the W.R. Thompson Saddle Co. made quality custom saddles and wholesale saddles to fit any need or occasion. At times, a W.R. Thompson saddle was presented as a first prize in bronco riding contests.
Perhaps the most important order in the saddle making career of William R. Thompson came in 1905. With President Theodore Roosevelt coming to Divide Creek for a bear hunt in April that year, hunting guide Addison Hockett of Eagle requested a custom saddle made for the president. This saddle was presented to Roosevelt when he began his hunt at New Castle, and it was in use during the entire three-week hunt.
On Nov. 29, 1907, William R. Thompson passed away, with his wife of five years, Virginia, by his side. In 1908, veteran saddle maker Frank Bregenzer carried on the tradition of the W.R. Thompson Saddle Co. Bregenzer made saddles in Denver in the 1880s, then in San Francisco and in Nebraska before coming to work for William R. Thompson. In 1916, Bregenzer sold the W.R. Thompson Saddle Co. to John Dougan of Meeker, while Bregenzer went on to make saddles in his own name until his death in 1925. John Dougan sold the W.R. Thompson Saddle Co. to Edward C. Webb, who made saddles until his death in 1941.
Saddles were an integral part of western life. Through them they carry family history, lore and tradition. Today, the saddles of W.R. Thompson can still be found and are being restored by those who believe in preserving a piece of the past where men and horses working together in a harmonious relationship was commonplace. It is through that restoration and preservation that Thompson is still with us today.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. "Frontier Diary," which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.