Memorial Tribute

Remembering Don King

Lest We Forget

Donald L. King

August 19, 1923 - July 28, 2007

Click Image to Enlarge
Portrait, 2-3oz leather, by Peter Main

Sheridan Show - 2000

Various sources' links of interest:

  • King's Museum
  • Don King Saddlemaker
  • 2007-Western Horseman Magazine
  • 2007-Star-Tribune
  • 1997-Sunset Magazine
  • 1991-NEA National Heritage Fellowships: Don King, Western Saddlemaker

  • July 29, 2007 is with much sadness that I write to say that Mr Don King passed away quietly in his sleep last night in Sheridan, Wyoming.
    - Peter Main

    The Sheridan Press
    Monday, July 30, 2007
    By Pat Blair
    Special contributor to The Press
    Used with permission

    Don King, founder of King's Saddlery and creator of the Sheridan-style saddle, died Saturday in Sheridan Memorial Hospital after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 83.

    Memorial services will be 10 a.m. Friday at the Big Horn Events Center with the Rev. David Duprey officiating. Arrangements are with Kane Funeral Home.

    Memorials may be made to the Sheridan College Rodeo Team, 3059 Coffeen Ave. in Sheridan, or to the Sheridan High School Rodeo Team, 1056 Long Drive.

    Mr. King was born Aug. 19, 1923, in Douglas to Arch and Blanche Fitzhugh King. His grandfather Gordon V. Fitzhugh homesteaded in Converse County after making eight cattle drives from Texas, according to the King family.

    His parents divorced when he was 5, and he spent his youth traveling across the West with his father, a cowboy and itinerant ranch hand.

    According to the National Endowment for the Arts Web site, Mr. King began to support himself at age 14 with odd jobs on ranches and rodeos and learned to tool leather in his spare time. Within a year, he was selling and trading belts, wallets and various small gear that he made.

    He worked in saddle shops and on ranches in Wyoming, California, Montana and Arizona.

    He married Dorothy Clapp in 1944 and returned to Wyoming after his discharge from the Coast Guard in 1945 and settled in Sheridan.

    He became an apprentice to his friend and saddle-maker Rudy Mudra, doing piecework and helping build saddles for local cowboys.

    King later acquired his own 200-acre ranch, where for several years he raised cattle and horses while working part time in the leather trade.

    In 1957, King devoted himself full time to saddle making and leather tooling along with cowboy tack and ropes. A product of this was ornamental trophy saddles he built for the Rodeo Cowboys Association, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Pendleton Roundup, Bill Eaton Days, Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association, and world champion trick roper.

    He developed his own style of tooling — which became known as the Sheridan style — characterized by wild roses arranged in complex, scroll-like patterns of interlocking circles.

    King became known for his impeccable craftsmanship and incredible precision that were demonstrated in the making of what is now known as “Sheridan-style” leather tooling.

    The most distinctive element in the saddle, according to the NEA site, is the characteristic wild-rose tooling he created. In addition, King used unusually deep stamping to give greater three-dimensional depth to his tooling and relied more heavily on the swivel knife to emphasize the lines of detail more than the shading.

    King opened King's Saddlery on Main Street in 1963, and the business expanded into supplying ropes as well as saddles.

    According to his family, King was the first to develop and twist a rope for left-handed ropers. He also devised a pattern to make a special skid boot for horses.

    King apprenticed a number of top-notch saddle makers, including Billy Gardner, Chester Hape and Bob Douglas, and his sons, Bruce, Bill, Bob and John, all became accomplished leather toolers, according to the NEA.

    King's awards include the Chester A. Reynolds Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame. His work has been exhibited widely in museums and festivals, such as the Edward-Dean Museum of Decorative Arts in Cherry Valley, Calif., the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, and the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo.

    In 1989, Don King Days was organized and is an annual event at the Big Horn Events Center.

    We Remember Don King

    Probably very few people who ever picked up a rope didn't have one from King's at some point. I started out with those full 7/16 medium lay 35 footers. Kind of like swinging cable the first few times and then were pretty good. One of my buddies used to "recharge" them. When they got a little raggy, coiled them up and hung them over a post for a couple months. Lord knows how many King Ropes caps have been sold, probably more caps than ropes.

    I don't know of anybody who didn't use King skid boots either. They are just the best. The way I got into leather was taking some skid boots in to the shop to be fixed. Bob Scott sat me down and showed me how to repalce the straps and handsew them on.

    There is probably no "one-man" museum anywhere in the country on any subject to even compare with Don's. He signed a museum poster for me last year at the show, it hangs over my tooling area.

    Last year at the show we were in the museum on Thurs afternoon. Everyone was gathered around Jim Jackson tooling a checkbook. Don was standing off by himself a ways back. You know Rundi, she talks to everyone. She walks up to Don, and says,"Mr King, I know you will be busy later on, but I just want to thank you in advance for the great time I am going to have at your party tonight". It was an EF Hutton moment. Work stopped and everyone turned around. Don was laughing, and said he was glad to do it. Rundi and Don talked for about 15 minutes. Saturday night at the banquet he decided our glasses were "half-empty", he saw to it there was a backup. A gracious host.

    I spent this past weekend with Griff Durham. Griff was telling me a "Don King". One of the first times Griff met Don, he asked him if he remembered (forgot her name). Don kind of paused and said sure. Griff's mother-in-law was one of Don King's school teachers. Griff has a class picture of the class of 13 year olds. The only one wearing the cowboy hat is Don. Enough said....
    - Bruce Johnson

    I would like to offer my condolences to the King family. Don was a huge influence in the world of leather working, as well as an all around gentleman. He will be missed.
    - Vic Finkel

    This year at the King's function in Sheridan, I was saddened to see Don being wheeled around with oxygen. I was afraid that he would not make it for another party but I didn't think the end would come so soon. Even with his poor health, he seemed to enjoy the party; there was a regular line to shake his hand. He really perked up when the 7th Cavalry Drum and Bugle Corps made a second visit inside the museum and gathered around him to play a special number.

    Don King was a great man and I truly hope that he will receive the recognition that he deserves.
    - Richard Hidalgo

    I first met Don King, by telephone, sometime around late 1979 or so, after being given his name and telephone number, and being told by a good friend of mine, that Don was a toolmaker who made outstanding leather stamping tools. When I called Don, I introduced myself and told him of my friend's recommendation of his skills as a toolmaker, and I recall his reply, "I try". I asked Don what he would charge me to make a basic set of stamps, to which he said, " I do not sell stamping tools". My heart dropped. Then, I hear these words, "but, I trade, what do you have to trade?". Wow, my heart jumped. I told him that I had Gomph tools that I could trade, and an agreement was made.

    In a few months, I received a box with the first of the tools, and I looked at them, especially the thumbprints, and I wondered, what the heck have I gotten into? For these were unlike any pearshader that I had ever used in the twenty years that I had been carving leather. But, several weeks later, the remaining tools arrived, along with several snap shots of a saddle that Don told me he had recently completed. Oh, the beauty of that saddle. One picture, the full saddle, the other, just the left seat jockey. To the photo shop I went, please enlarge this picture, for I need to study it. Thus, my 'formal introduction to Sheridan Style carving', and my journey down that trail.

    Over the ensueing years, Don and I did some other trading, a splitter (from me) a set of French edgers from him. A Randall leather creaser, from me, more stamping tools from Don, never knowing what stamping tools might be coming until they arrived. Sort of like long distance Christmas.

    Then, in 1988, my daughter, granddaughter and I made a trip to Sheridan, prime goal, to vist the Gregg Ranch, just a few miles south of Sheridan, to look at the ranch from which several of our horses had come from. But, King's Saddlery was another stop, high on the list. Unfortunately, I was not to meet Don on that trip, for he and Mrs. King were in England. The face to face meeting would occur eleven years later, in 1999, on that first visit to the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade show.

    That first meeting was at the Reception, on Thursday evening. What a joy to meet the man in person. Such a humble person, one that you immediately felt that you had known all of your life. While I was talking with him, another person came up and was complimenting Don on something that he had just recently finished, and how he looked embarassed, and softly said, "I try".

    There were other meetings, at each of the Sheridan shows that I attended. And, when I would come up to Don, his greeting would always by "Hi, Ross", a typical, in my mind, cowboy greeting.

    When I published my Sheridan Designs book of patterns, I gave Don a copy for his collection, with the inscription, to Don King, the man who started it all, and I truly believe that he blushed. Such a modest, such a humble man.

    Now that he is gone, even more so, every time that I pick up one of my stamping tools that bear his maker mark, I will remember him and the inspiration that he was to me.

    My memories of Don King.
    - Ron Ross

    All our prayers and respect go out to Mr. King and his family. A very great loss to us all.
    - Little John (lj) and Wife Barb

    IILG Copyright

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