GREAT FALLS — A waft of leather greets you at the door of Grizzly Saddlery on 9th Street North in Great Falls. So do Rhonda and Jeff Gollehon.
Jeff Gollehon is an elite tradesman, one of the last of a kind. If his tools could talk, they’d tell stories to last a lifetime.
“We’re doing exactly the same thing they did over 150 years ago, right here in Great Falls,” he said.
Who is they? Victor Ario Saddlery, established in 1897. They were the elite saddle company at the turn of the 20th Century. In 1957, its saddle makers merged into H bar 0 Saddlery, which was around until 1978 before selling to Grizzly Saddlery. The rest is history.
Its equipment is the same that was used by original saddle makers along the Missouri River. Over 150 years of tradition live within the walls of Jeff Gollehon’s shop.
Grizzly Saddlery is different than big box saddle companies and takes pride in the custom saddle.
“Because everybody's doing something different with their saddle, we're not making all the same saddles every day. This saddle that I'm building right here is a little artistic. She drew her own pattern. So she brought me a floral pattern that she wants me to tool onto her saddle. And so that's cool. So I'm taking her artistic ability that she drew out on a piece of paper and incorporating it onto her saddle. That’s pretty cool.”
His inspiration doesn’t only come from his customers but from his father.
“When I was about ten years old, I got to watch a saddle being built for my dad at a custom shop kind of like this. And it blew me away that you could take a saddle tree and turn that into a finished product that someone can ride for a hundred years.”
A father-son bond that keeps the two close to this day. Each time a new roll of leather is shipped in, “…it takes me back to where it all started.” He told.
Saddle makers are few and far between, especially in the Great Falls area. Grizzly Saddlery prides themselves on those who want to pick up the horsemanship hobby.
“More and more people are moving to Montana. And almost all the people that move to Montana, part of the reason that they're moving to Montana is because of hunting and fishing, riding, wilderness, hiking, all that stuff. And if they're going to do that stuff in the backcountry, they need a horse.”
He added: “Everybody sort of wants a horse and they want ten acres or five acres or a hundred acres or whatever they want. They want to buy a horse and they want to learn how to ride. And so that’s why we’re here. We get to help them do that every day.”