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The smells of coffee and leather fill the air when visitors stop by the Wildflower Saddles and Tack shop at 122 Main St. in Elizabeth, where they are greeted by owner Tom Knowles plus a possible purr from General Sterling Price the cat.
“I come here every day to open the shop, make coffee and feed General Sterling Price,” Knowles said with a smile. “After that I might get a little work done making new tack and possibly repairing or restoring a saddle or two.”
Knowles has a lifetime of experience with saddles and tack. He said he learned to ride horses almost as soon as he could walk and worked cattle a good portion of his life.
“I worked cattle on the hoof for a lot of years. I have been working with their hides since we opened the shop in 1986,” he said. “I like to work with leather and make tack items like reins, bridles, cinches and other items. I also love saddles. I repair them for customers and I also have a large collection of saddles, some dating back to the late 1800s as well as some that are fairly new. I guess the shop has become sort of a saddle museum.”
As he talked he used a straight edge and knife to cut a blank for reins from the tanned leather he had stretched out on the counter.
He said there are still a lot of people living in the area around Elizabeth who have horses, and they need a tack shop like Wildflower to repair saddles and gear and as a place to buy new tack items.
“I think this is the only shop like this around the area that does repairs on saddles and tack,” he said. “I know big stores have new items for sale, but I don't know of another shop close to here that does repairs like we do.”
The 71-year-old was born on a ranch between Kiowa and Elizabeth and became a cowboy at a young age.
“When I was a boy the family moved to ranch in the Montrose area,” he said. “I learned to ride and work cattle very young. I was about 12 when mom and dad broke up. I decided to go out on my own so I packed a few clothes, saddled my horse, took my dog and left home. I hired out to work cattle then and grew up that way.”
He said he and his dad later reunited and worked together raising horses in the mountains. He graduated from Steamboat Springs High School and went to college for a year.
“During that time I worked cattle and horses at area ranches and I also competed in area rodeos in bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding,” he said. “Things changes for me in 1967 when I got that wonderful letter from Uncle Sam telling me I had been drafted into the Army.”
He was trained in artillery target acquisition and was in Vietnam in 1986 and 1969.
“My Army training prepared me to attend School of Mines so I could work as a surveyor,” he said. “I did that but I also helped out ranchers I knew when they needed an extra hand for a short time.”
He was married in 1970 and in the 1980s he and his wife worked on a ranch near Kiowa.
“We decided to needed to do something to make a living when we left ranching so we opened this shop in '86,” Knowles said. “My son Tad worked here with me for a while.”
Tad Knowles said he learned about saddles and working leather from his dad.
“I helped dad in the shop because I was too lazy to work and too scared to steal,” he said with a smile in his voice. “I learned how to repair tack and saddles from Dad. I also found I had a knack for creating custom saddles and it became my passion.”
He said he eventually moved to Kiowa because there wasn't enough room in Elizabeth for his work.
“I do custom work. I talk with the customer and I try to tool the leather to create the designs and appearance they want on the saddle,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on a project and it takes me about 200 hours to do an all the work on a special custom saddle.”
His dad said he is proud of his son.
“Tad is an artist,” Tom said. “His work is amazing.”
The 71-year-old said he plans to continue to operate the shop as long as he can.
“I enjoy working with leather and I like it that I can repair a favorite saddle for a customer,” he said. “But I don't spend all my time in the shop. Working with saddles and tack you meet people who work cattle and, if they need a hand with roundup or branding, I pitch in and lend a hand because I am still pretty good at working cattle.”
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