Saddlemakers of the Old West
The History of Two Saddle Makers of Early California
Wild West stories portray cowboys and ranchers, sitting their horses on cattle drives. Little attention has ever been given to how and where these cowboys came upon their saddles. Saddles were a vital part of their every day life and a good amount of thought went into their selection and care. This is a story about two such men who shared the responsibility for providing these riders of the early west with their most cherished possession “Their saddle.”
Cornielio Ledesma (1856-1925) was born in Mexico in 1856 and it is believed he crossed over the border into California from Mexico in the 1860’s. Little is known about his early life in Mexico but is assumed that he learned the leather mechanic trade at an early age. Ledesma would influence saddle making in the west and California for over four decades. This is apparent as his first job noted in California was making saddles and not as an apprentice. Tony Ladesma began plying his trade as a saddle maker in Visalia, California in the early1870’s working in a saddle shop owned and operated by Jesus Salazar (1830-1903).
It is believed that Salazar came from the Sonora area of Mexico. At an early age he moved, with his family to Hornitos, in the mother lode country of California. It was there he met Arsalio Herrera who had a leather shop and made bits and bridles. Herrera introduced young Salazar to the saddle repair business. As he worked with Herrera, Salazar made suggestions for improving saddles primarily for the comfort of the horse. Salazar used no patterns. He personally went out and, as trees were cut, gathered old "crotches" from which he fashioned saddletrees. Herrera recognized his talent and encouraged him to move to an area with more cowboys or vaqueros (Mexican cowboys of the west) so he could utilize his talents as an accomplished saddle maker. Records show that Salazar’s shops in Visalia were located in several places but it was at one time on the northwest corner of Bridge and Main Streets. It is here that Salazar and Ledesma joined forces and combined their saddle making talents to produce some of the finest saddles on the market. Historical documents in Visalia indicate:
These statements were highly complimentary of Ledesma. By the mid 1880’s Ledesma became well known for his saddle making. Saddles produced by this duo were transported to Sacramento California for sale by a shop owned by R Stone &Co. Often Salazar would accompany the saddles to Sacramento and it was on one these trips he met a woman who became his first wife. Her name was Trinidad Senena and they were married in Stockton in 1868. In November 1871 a baby girl was born and in 1876 his wife died. His daughter was turned over and cared for by a Mrs. Delores Madrid.
Albert Alexander Van Voorhies (1834-1906) the owner of Van Voorhies harness shop located in Sacramento California. He was born near Patterson, New Jersey in 1834. At an early age he was taken by his family to Michigan where he obtained his education and became an apprentice in the harness making trade. He was working in that trade when he sailed for California at the age of twenty-one during the Gold Rush in 1853. He purchased a harness business in the gold country, Hangtown, later to become Placerville, California and successfully operated that business until 1869. He moved to Sacramento and joined R Stone &Co. as a partner. Van Voorhies bought out his partners in 1882 and began a rigorous search for a first class saddle maker to expand his harness and saddle making business. He became aware of Ledesma’s excellent work in Visalia and offered him a job in Sacramento.
The number of employees in the saddle shop over the years appeared to be around twelve to fifteen as indicated on weekly pay ledgers. Ledesma made custom saddles for California ranchers and for customers as far east as Colorado. Buyers provided boxes of precious metal accompanied by leather patterns of their choice and Ledesma would inlay the saddles accordingly. Legend has it that some of his custom saddles are still working saddles and may still be on display during special events such as the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California on New Years Day. Ledesma created what was called the Ledesma tree. This was a saddle horn that allowed Vaqueros to more easily loop their lariats over the saddle horn. This saddle tree was considered the most popular for the day and Saddles of that era were priced anywhere from $30 to $180. Well-preserved catalogs contain several pages of stock saddles for sale.
Early catalogs show leather and hardware goods indicating that the shop was hardware type store as well as a saddle shop. The shop later introduced a line of men and women shoes and boots. The business was one of the most important in the early days and the Van Voorhies & Phiney Company became known throughout the entire west for the excellent quality of workmanship in saddles, harnesses and leather goods. Van Voorhies supported the community and was very civic minded but never pursued a political career. Those who worked for him held A. A. Van Voorhies in high esteem. The Ledesma family of that era had indicated that as children growing up in downtown Sacramento their father always made their shoes.
The production of an early custom saddle was a magnificent work of art. Ledesma first fashioned the tree, seat and horn from oak that had been cut from the Sierra foothills. He placed the carefully fitted components together in such a way that they formed the seat and saddle horn. He carefully sewed with strips of leather the stomach lining of a cow over the entire saddletree. He soaked the tree in a barrel filled with rainwater for one day. The tree was hung outside at the rear of the shop to dry. The hide shrunk tightly on the tree and made one solid foundation. He carefully draped and sewed patterned tanned hides over the tree putting the finishing touches on the saddle. He cut and sewed the wooden stirrups on the long leather overlays on each side of the saddle. As saddles are usually sold as working saddles he fixed fenders that covered the front of the rider’s legs against the prickly brush of the region. The Mexican’s called these “Chapaderas”. Ledesma did not use one nail or metal staple in the process.
Ledesma married Piead Castro around 1890. They had four children Ernest, Margaret, Florence and Raymond. Mr. Ledesma worked his trade well into the 20th Century. After the advent of the automobile the rancher still needed to tend his cattle on horseback so there remained a need for working saddles. Later in the century riders became sophisticated and were called equestrians. But all in all whatever you call them they still call their seats, saddles. Ledesma died on 3 March 1925 in San Jose, California and is buried in a simple grave in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Sacramento.
Sacramento has preserved the old west by recreating the river front portion of the city as it was in the Gold Rush days, calling that part of the sprawling city, “Old Sacramento.” Unfortunately the original Van Voorhies & Phiney shop was outside the recreated area and the shop building eventually went the way of many old buildings being destroyed by the dreaded wrecking ball.
The city of Sacramento has established The Sacramento Archives & Museum Collection Center where they collect, store and preserve artifacts, photos and other items of interest from Sacramento’s rich and colorful past. These items are made available to the public and are loaned out to other agencies for display.