Saddle Sore: Handled with care
You’ve undoubtedly heard it said, “He held history in his hands.” Maybe it was about Churchill or Roosevelt, or maybe a long-forgotten pole vaulter in some past Olympics. On a more personal note, I do, at this very moment, have history in my hands in the form of a horse bridle, including matching reins, made many years ago.
The bridle itself is probably approaching 100 years old and is in perfect condition, as if it was just made last week. But that is not what makes this bridle remarkable — it is the intricate, even fastidious detail, built not by a craftsman, but a true artist with leather. The entire bridle, with reins, is constructed of braided hide, not flat braided, but round and impossibly tight, and there is not a single piece of metal in its entirety, save for the bit and where the reins attach to it. And in no way was any utilitarian shortcut taken. It is incredibly elaborate, with extra braiding here and there, to emphasize the quality and as further revelation of the artist’s skill. The crowning details are five horsehair fly swatters, braided into the bridle at strategic locations.
Whoever made this exceptional piece is unknown to history, at least as far as this writer can determine, but the story goes that an inmate in the Canon City prison labored diligently for more than two years, creating this beauty that any horse would be proud to wear. And he made it especially for one certain person, a man whose initials are emblazoned in the heart-shaped bit shanks, W.F.C.
W. Floyd Callahan, the proprietor of Tomkins Hardware at the corner of Cooper Avenue and Galena Street — now the home of Kemo Sabe, famous cowboy store — was the recipient of this extraordinary piece of western horse tack. Floyd was the husband of Liz Callahan, who owned the property where the city of Aspen is seriously considering building a new city hall. Liz also owned the Mesa Store for many years and Floyd, a serious Mason, attended his Masonic meetings in the upper floors of the Armory Hall. It should be mentioned that Floyd arrived in Aspen in 1884 at the tender age of 16 months. History, as exemplified by the bridle, is coming together here, at least in my mind. And by the way, we know that Floyd’s first name, impossible to find in the usual historical archives and never used by him, was William, thanks to information provided by Carolyn Cerise Barabe, a relative of Liz Callahan’s.
Upon W. Floyd’s death, the bridle ended up in the hands of Stan Bealmear, Aspen contractor, whose wife Ellie kept a stable of fine horses at their place on the corner of Main and Seventh streets. Ellie was a well-known local horsewoman, but from the looks of the bridle, she never put it on a horse.
Once again, the bridle was in the hands of an old-timer as native Aspenite Glen Smith was given the bridle by Bealmear. If you want history, the Smith family goes back at least to 1927, when they ranched on Capital Creek, owned the Lenny Thomas brick house on Pitkin Green long before Lenny hit town, and built the corrals and barns that once occupied the land where the Brown Ice Palace now stands. Glen is one of 12 children born in Aspen to Curly Nelson Smith, and one of 17 kids total. He can tell you all their names, too. If you don’t know someone from the Smith family, you haven’t been around town very long.
I’ve known Glen for most of my life, it seems, for we covered much of the same turf over the years, especially at the old Eagles Club. Glen was the bass player for the Rainbow Playboys, a popular local western dance band, and I can attest that not even songwriter Freddie Hart could sing “Easy Loving” as well or as sensuously as Glen Smith.
A couple of weeks ago, Glen called out of the blue, describing the bridle and asking if I’d like to have it. A guy can’t get a bigger honor than that, I mean, what a sincere compliment. Of course I said “yes,” and hightailed it over to his spread in Paonia to check it out.
The history of the bridle is quite interesting, but the depth of the story lies in the character of the people who held the bridle in their hands with the same awe that I have. They cherished it, kept it for the ages and now the responsibility falls to me. I promise the legendary bridle will live on, but also I will write about the good, strong people who were its guardian throughout the years.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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In her column “The ‘L’ word” (Aspen Times, Jan. 16), Elizabeth Milias raises the existential question to which so many have claimed to either know or be the answer: What is a local?