A lost art

Published 11:50 am Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rosie was a sweet old horse.

At least that’s how Mike Fowler, her owner, described her.

The strawberry roan had a peculiar quality — she had a pinkish beige hue, complete with pink ears and eyelashes.

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Hence, her name was Rosie.

Rosie was Fowler’s first horse, and from this horse would spring a new career, a new passion and an unleashed talent in one of the country’s oldest art forms.

When Fowler brought Rosie to Suffolk in the early ’80s, he had not yet told his family his big decision. More specifically, he had not told his mother, Jeannette Fowler.

“I thought she would split the roof when I told her,” Mike said. Instead of breaking the news at first, Mike boarded the horse with a friend just up the road from his house.

After about a month, he decided the time was right.

Bracing himself for his mother’s anger, he told her about ol’ Rosie.

“He said, ‘Don’t be mad, Mama,’” Jeannette recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, I am mad. I’m mad you didn’t tell me so I could get one, too.’”

Soon, Jeannette had her own horse, as well. Then, they got another — and another.

Before long, the Fowler family had earned a name for its horses — and especially for having available the necessary equipment and gear for horses.

“People kept borrowing stuff from us,” Mike said. “There was nothing out here for people.”

So the Fowlers helped change things.

They converted an extra 10-foot by 10-foot stall into a little tack shop.

“If you had more than two people in there, you had to wait outside,” Mike said.

It was the humble beginning of South Point Saddlery.

Today, the farm and saddle shop in Whaleyville is a leading provider of boots, saddles, bridles and accessories to the commonwealth’s equestrian set.

Even more impressive, the store is not just a supplier of these goods, but a manufacturer of them, as well.

Once the tack shop was open, Mike Fowler began learning the art of leatherwork.

Project by project, study by study, he has become an expert in the field.

By 1991, he was making whole saddles by hand.

By 1995, the demand for his work in the shop had grown to the point that he left behind his career as a small engine mechanic.

Today, his work has extended past the equestrian field. Fowler has done leatherwork for scuba divers and weightlifters, and he has been called in to do all the leather detail in World War II-era planes that are housed at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach.

“There is nothing that he can’t make,” Jeannette said. “People come in here, and they talk to him about what they want, and he can make it.”

For his part, Mike credits two people for his skill with leather.

The first influence was a high school teacher. At John F. Kennedy High School, Mike took an industrial arts class that introduced him to the world of leather.

“We were making wristbands and things like that,” he said. “Little stuff, but it stuck with me. (My teacher) had no idea what his little industrial arts class did for me.”

Years later, Mike was working in the store when he would meet another, more unlikely teacher, a friend he refers to only as George. George was new to town, having moved down from New York, and was experienced in leatherwork. It was not long before Mike began picking George’s brain for tips.

“I didn’t understand back then what I was doing with my future,” Mike said. “I was just tearing things apart, repairing them, and learning from him. I had a great apprenticeship under him.”

Throughout the years, Mike continued to hone his skill, taking different correspondence courses and keeping in touch with other saddle makers in the South.

“The thing is, this is a dying art,” Mike said. “There are not a whole lot of people who are doing this. So I have my acquaintances I regularly call, and we exchange information and try each other’s ways of doing things.”

While people have come to Mike with new projects — including custom gun holsters, knife cases or belts — saddles are still Mike’s favorite projects.

Because of the time involved for each saddle, Mike develops an almost intimate connection with it. The same investment of time, however, means there is very little profit margin in the typical saddle. South Point Saddlery relies on repair jobs for most of its profit.

For Mike, though, the saddles represent far more than a source of revenue.

“When a man sits down, plans and creates a saddle, it’s a lifetime,” Mike said. “I know it’s crazy, but every one I’ve built, when it leaves out of the stores, it’s like a piece of my heart goes with it.”

Each saddle is custom-made, from the planning stage to the leather tanning to the specific tooling, or engraved work, on the leather.

And it all starts with nothing but a tree.

A wooden tree is the blank canvas that begins the masterpiece of a saddle.

The wooden base is ordered from a wood product manufacturer, and then the planning begins. Mike takes specific measurements of the horse owner to create the right pattern for the perfect fitting saddle.

“When I build one saddle, I throw the pattern away, so it’s a one-of-a-kind for the customer,” Mike said. “It’s kind of like going to the Ford plant and watching trucks being built piece by piece, but it’s more personal, because there’s only one.”

Once the pattern is made, the raw leather — which sits in giant rolls like carpet in Mike’s workspace — is ready to be dyed, cut and sewn right on site. Leather is ordered in “half-cow” units. A saddle usually takes an entire cow of leather.

One saddle usually takes about 80 hours of uninterrupted work, Mike said, but he does not mind the time. The work makes him feel connected to the saddle makers of the late 19th century, who would have used the same methods and tools in the 1880s that Mike does today. As a sort of homage to that connection, he has built several exact replicas of 19th-century saddles.

“It’s pretty cool for me,” Mike said. “I think it’s like this connection with American history and the old West. I always loved those movies growing up, and to me, to connect to that makes it interesting.”

Even the occasional saddle repair can prove rich in connections to the past. When someone brings an old family saddle for repair, Mike sometimes finds archives of the past under the layers of leather.

“You’ll find initials and things people carved into them years and years ago,” Jeannette said. “It’s fascinating what you can find.”

Today, Mike, Jeannette and Mike’s wife, Pat, work in the saddlery and have about every type of saddle possible.

“We try to have a wide selection of everything,” Jeannette said. “But, there are some that just mean a little more to us.”

And, while Rosie is no longer here, there are 23 other horses at the family barn thanks to her.

“It did all start with her, I suppose,” Mike said. “Now, here we are.” ←