By Marie Hughes, Chambers County Museum
Early on a spring morn, long before dawn kisses darkness goodbye, you may hear the faint lowing of cattle carried on a soft southern breeze from the Texas salt grass marsh. This cattle call signals a ritual as old as Texas for both cowboy and cattle alike — the spring round-up.
Those lucky enough to be in the vicinity of the old White Ranch may catch a misty vision of a tall lanky cowboy, from times gone by, awakened by the old familiar call. As he makes his way to the barn, the rhythmic sound of his spurs causes his faithful gelding to approach with a nicker. As his old pal drops his nose into the bridle, he softly nuzzles his master, eager to work once more. The old cowboy softly tosses a blanket on his trusty steed and swings his old saddle into place.
Quickly and expertly, he tightens the cinch, slips his foot in the stirrup and in one fluid motion settles into the well-worn seat, nudging his friend into a gentle lope. His cowboy throne, with leather formed to perfection by many long hours on the trail, fits him like a glove — and so it should, for it is a Harmon.
During the 1800s, cattle grazed on the vast open ranges in Texas unconfined by restrictive fences, wandering miles from the ranchers who owned them. The weathered cowboys who managed them usually worked from sun up ’til sun down, on horseback, tending to the herd and driving them to market. The one thing that made the grueling work tolerable was a saddle built for comfort and durability. A responsible cowboy would spend one or two months’ wages, or more, on a quality saddle to provide not only his comfort, but comfort for his horse. Ever since the Whites settled here, the saddle of choice for most, not only in Texas but surrounding areas, was a Harmon, and it has remained so for generations. Even today many take pride in proclaiming they own a “Harmon.”
A River, A Raft and Roots
The Harmon family can trace their earliest link with the Texas frontier to John Harmon, who had settled on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River in 1826, planning to farm and graze cattle. However, the land was poor and ravaging bears presented a problem for the livestock, so John built a large raft out of cypress timbers with a cabin onboard and set off down the Sabine River. Water travel was not an uncommon mode of transportation in those days as it proved easier than the rough cattle or wagon trails.
John’s maternal grandfather, John White had made a similar voyage when he and his wife Sarah “Sally” Gambill White, moved their family from North Carolina to Mississippi in 1782. John Harmon’s father, David, had married Nancy Ann White, daughter of John White and older sister of James Taylor White I, the “Cattle King of Texas.”
John Harmon and his family gathered all their worldly goods and set out from Whitman’s Landing on December 18, 1827. Their journey down the Sabine River was a 145-mile-long trip, the current moving them 15 miles per day, tying up at nightfall to let his stock graze on the banks of the Sabine. They tied up for the final time on January 1, 1828, at Willow Point, thus becoming the first settlers in what is now Orange County, where he was granted a land grant by Lorenzo de Zavala in 1835.
Not only was John Harmon a farmer, but he was also a saddle maker, a fact documented on the historical marker in Orange, Texas, erected in his honor. In a 2000 Beaumont Enterprise article, W. T Block wrote that one son in the family was apprenticed to his father to learn his craft, and it was Joshua Harmon whom John taught the skills of his trade.
“Joshua inherited a love of saddle-making from his father,” said Willie Harmon, wife of Jesse’s son, Elmer Harmon of Orange, “and he made the first saddle in Orange, Texas in 1856.”
Joshua – Jack of All Trades
Joshua lived with his parents until the age of 25 and was a surveyor in present day Orange, Texas, where he had a reputation as a mechanical genius and could make anything out of wood. He took a knife and fashioned Orange County’s first seal out of a block of wood. The seal lasted 38 years. His grandson, Alva, said, “He was a jack of all trades.” It was in Orange that he began making saddles.
In 1866, after the Civil War, Joshua moved his family to Liberty County. He purchased land at Rachel’s Station situated directly on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad in present day Ames. He was a saddle maker there, but ranchers and cattlemen in Liberty County had bought saddles from Harmon long before he moved into their midst, and his reputation was most likely already considerable.
Joshua and Cleonize sold their land and moved to Double Bayou by 1872, where he became the owner of a sloop, “Morning Light,” hauling goods such as charcoal, cotton, and lumber to Galveston. He also purchased a cotton gin from William Icet of Cove. When Joshua moved again in 1887, purchasing land out of the Vincent Barrow League, he immediately found himself back in the saddle-making business. He joined a partnership with saddle maker, Christian Bingle, who had been making saddles in the Hankamer area for quite some time. Bingle had emigrated from Germany to Texas with his father and the Hankamers in 1845, when he was only a lad of 5. He was handy with leather but had a difficult time building a comfortable tree. He recognized the superiority of Joshua’s saddle tree and had Joshua form the trees and he rigged them. The saddles were sold as Bingle-Harmon saddles.
Betsy Greak, granddaughter of Alva, said, “It was Joshua who developed the prototype Harmon saddle tree that so distinguished the earliest saddles bearing that name. The crafting of the original, hand hewn trees was a laborious process. Joshua tried any number of trees that were native to the Orange area before finally settling upon the sycamore as his favorite material. Joshua would cut his own trees and then carefully choose the sections of the trunk that had the right shape and girth. He would carve and whittle the hollowed-out trunk in the proper shape for a saddle tree, which is the wooden framework upon which the leather is sewn and tacked. Joshua ordered his leather and buckles from a Dallas company. After the saddle was completed, Joshua would stamp a red star into the leather of the back skirt. It would be his standard trademark, as important as a signature on an artist’s painting.”
Two of Joshua’s sons, Jesse and Charles, became saddle makers. Jesse first opened a saddle shop in Lake Charles, La. However, due to the high demand in Orange and Vidor, Texas, for saddles, he relocated at the corner of Main and 4th Street in Orange, partnering with his son, Elmer.
“They always said that there was never a horse with a sore back that used a Harmon saddle,” said Mrs. Elmer Harmon.
The Harmon Saddle Shop
Charles Saxon Harmon married Florence Brown in 1892 and in 1895 moved to the open prairie six miles north of Hankamer on land deeded to his wife from her father’s estate. He had dreams of farming and raising cattle.
“His idea didn’t pan out too well,” said son Alva in later years. “Not that he wasn’t good at his chosen profession, it was just that he had a knowledge of saddle making and was talented in handling all kinds of riding equipment repair. When friends and neighbors learned this, they began to bring him saddles, bridles, etc., for repair, occasionally ordering a custom made saddle. Dad tried to take care of their equipment repairs in his spare time, but since Houston and Beaumont were the nearest places, they could have work of this nature done, he soon became swamped with work, much more than he could ever do in his spare time. So, he did the most logical thing, he quit farming and opened a saddle shop. And he kept right on working at producing saddles until his death in 1952.”
Charley officially opened his shop in 1896, one year after his move to the prairie.
It was easy to locate the Harmon Saddle Shop situated on the bald prairie. Just follow the well-worn path traced by multitudes of satisfied customers who made their way there usually by horse or horse-drawn wagons, the preferred modes of travel at that time. Soon enough Model-Ts began joining the horses near the hitching post.
The shop was an unassuming frame building located near Charley and Florence’s modest home, the first residence to be built on the open prairie. As one pushed open the front door of the old country shop, they were embraced by the pleasant essence that permeates the room; warm tanned leather, well-conditioned with musky neatsfoot oil, tart smelling glue used for bonding, and even a whiff of horse sweat soaked into the aged equipment awaiting repair. Charley Harmon would probably be seated at his work bench meticulously gliding his drawknife over the lindenwood skillfully crafting a saddle tree. The small mound of wood chips he creates emits a hint of sweetness adding another dimension to the “saddle shop’s aromatic bouquet.”
The shop was a favorite local gathering spot for the men who lived nearby, much like Wilcox Drugs in Anahuac is today. A place where folks would gather regularly to swap tales and enjoy some old-fashioned male camaraderie. Mildred Harmon, Alva’s wife said, “Most of them usually made a point to get there around noon, because Grandma (Florence) Harmon was a good cook, and when it got 12 o’clock Mr. Charley was ready to eat. She’d ring the dinner bell, and they’d invite everybody to come in and eat . . . she’d cook for a crowd.”
The weatherworn shop never had a lock on the door.
“The front door was held closed with a leather strap which was buttoned over a nail,” said Charley’s son Johnny. “Scraps of leather and other debris, which were swept out the front door, remained there forever. Within this pile were thousands of tacks which found their way into the tires of the Model Ts that ventured too close. There never was a sign on the shop and my father kept no business books. Orders were usually written on the wall.”
The shop stood in the shade of a large live-oak tree which Charley had planted soon after his arrival on the prairie. One would find many thick pieces of lumber seasoning against the trunk of this old tree, which Charley would turn into Harmon saddle trees.
“For six years, after Charley first arrived in the area, he drove an ox team into the forest, sawing down the lindenwood for his saddle trees and hauling it to his home,” reported Mary Clarke in a 1946 interview with Charley.
“This wood is used because it is light and tough and when dry will not split or warp,” Charley told her.
He later progressed from oxen to mules, and then began buying his lindenwood from the miller, ordering the timber specially cut. He kept enough on hand for about 100 saddles.
“It takes the wood from four to six months to season,” Charley proclaimed.
When Charley’s father made saddles, his distinctive mark was a red star, but in 1903, Charley Harmon purchased from Christian Bingle, for 50 cents each, the stamps that would come to be the trademark of a Harmon saddle. Although it cannot be proven, many believe the stamps may have been brought from Germany by Christian’s father, Christian Bingle, Sr. These stamps continued to be used until the saddles ceased to be made, even surviving the 1977 fire that destroyed the saddle shop housed in the old Harmon schoolhouse since 1947.
“All men love a good saddle, it’s their most prized possession,” Charley told Mary Clarke as he lovingly ran his hand over a finished saddle. “Our specialty built trees fit the horse’s back very comfortably, conforming to nature. They are not so high and sit closer to the animal’s back. Our foretree is four inches wider than the usual foretree and the bar fits deeper.”
He then talked about the hind tree which he thought was one of the saddle’s best features.
“It is an inch wider than most saddles,” he said, “and not only gives a better seat to the horseman but protects his leg from breaking in a fall. Cowpokes like them and they’ll come for great distances to place orders and discuss the types of saddles they want.”
J. L. Bradley of Hankamer added, “I’ve seen cowhands ride a horse hard all day long and never a hair of the horse’s body is rubbed off when they use one of these saddles.”
“It takes one man about five days to make a good hand-made saddle, including the border stamping,” he told Mary. “To carve and hand-make a saddle tree is the biggest job, and when you get this done you’ve really accomplished something.”
Then he added with pride, “I’m the only living man in Texas who still makes hand-made saddle trees.”
Charley bought his leather from a tannery and his rawhide from local butchers. He bought bronze pommels for durability and also bought the stirrups. The rest of the saddle he made in the shop.
“I guarantee my saddles for five years and if one breaks, the buyer can get his money back,” he proudly proclaimed to Mary Clarke. “I have made 3,000 hand-made saddles in my day and have had just three returned. The first saddle I ever made when I was 21 was for Addison Whitehead of Smith Point. I received $25 for it.”
Charley said his saddles had to be strong and durable to stand the pressure of the Gulf Coast climate and brushy terrain.
The James Taylor White family of Chambers County and the Havard family of Liberty County had been riding Harmon saddles for several generations at the time Charley was building them and have continued since.
W. T. Block wrote in 2000, “The Whites were tall, broad-shouldered men who needed large sturdy saddles, as they rode over a 100,000 acre range scattered between Stowell and Double Bayou.”
The Student Becomes the Master
Alva Joshua Harmon began making saddles with his father at the age of 15. When Charley recognized the creative ability of his son and protégé, he eventually passed the rigging of the saddles to him and continued to do the job he truly loved, creating the saddle trees.
Around 1917, the Harmon saddle began a slight, but some argue, a profound change — a swell in the forks. Saddles formerly were built up from a Y-frame, called the fork, with the pommel at the end of the inverted fork and the two prongs flaring out into the skirts of the saddle, wrote Chester Rogers in one of his editorials.
“The major saddle style change has been the addition of a swell or riser on each side of the fork, the flare fundamentally serving much like a bumper on a car in offering greater protection to the rider,” Rodgers said.
The subtle change came about as a result of the need for greater protection for rodeo riders.
In 1947, after returning from his WW II service, Alva’s son, A.J. Jr., purchased, for the sum of $2,500, the old Harmon schoolhouse which had been moved to near Charley’s home in 1926-27. He had it moved on logs to where the current building stands on Hankamer Loop. Charley, never comfortable at the new shop, continued to craft the saddle trees at his home and deliver them to his son at the new location. Charley worked up to the day he died on the Dec. 12, 1953. With him died the handcrafted saddle trees so coveted in Texas and surrounding areas.
After the death of his father, Alva began purchasing the trees elsewhere, ordering them to specification. He stipulated the pommel bolt on the trees he purchased must go all the way through the tree to prevent separation. All saddles were made specifically for the rider placing the order as well as his horse. Otho Turner remembers folks bringing their horses to his Grandpa Alvie’s shop and his grandpa going out to take measurements to make sure the saddle was a comfortable fit for the horse as well as his rider.
Alva was well-known for his keen eye for leatherwork, never needing to measure before cutting a piece of leather. He measured with his eye and every piece came out to the exact measurement he needed.
He said, “I learned early in life that there will always be a demand for a good quality product.”
Alva said they do not get much repeat business.
“When a saddle you make lasts 30-60 years, you can’t count on replacement business being very strong. Fortunately, my customers tell their friends, though, and this keeps me from worrying what I’m going to do when I get up in the morning,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Alva concentrates on three kinds of saddles, one for cutting, one of a roping type, and one called a work type. He never had to advertise, for his saddles sold by reputation alone. Although proud of every saddle he ever made his eyes light up when he tells you of the one he made for Robert Kennedy in 1961, at the request of Claude Hooten of Houston. One of his saddles, ordered by a missionary, made it to Brazil.
Alva recalls that his grandpa Joshua covered his hand shaped trees with wet rawhide and allowed them to dry in the sun.
“The cowhides were skinned by Grandpa himself,” Alva proudly proclaimed in a 1972 interview.
He pulled out one of those old trees, deep brown in color, not the golden tan of a new tree.
“Built along about 1908,” Alva said, “to preserve the rawhide they made a red oak bark ooze for tanning and dumped the hides in it until there was a tree to cover. This one has a half-tanned hide.”
Alva lived almost his whole life on the prairie he loved and when asked why he didn’t move to a larger city he said, “I’ve always had more orders for work than I could take care of at one time, so why move?” Otho, Alva’s grandson chuckled as he told me of a man coming by the shop trying to talk Alva into placing an ad in the yellow pages. He said his grandpa looked at him and said, “Why would I want to do that, I already have more business than I can handle!”
Alva continued the legacy of the three generations of saddle makers before him with pride and distinction as a master craftsman. Although both of his sons were experienced leather workers, the shop did not bring in enough revenue to support their families, so they followed a different career path. When Alva died in 1973, the operation of the shop was passed along to his only daughter, Alma Lois Harmon Turner. Alma Lois holds the honor of being the only woman to serve as county judge in Chambers County, Texas. She hired Lloyd Adams to work in the shop, then in 1974, Huron C. Darby, one of the few saddle craftsmen in the State of Texas. Darby was joined by Lynn Marcontell.
Out of the Ashes
A short three years later in 1977, the iconic saddle shop building was completely destroyed by a tragic fire. Some of the tools that had been used for generations were destroyed, but Alma Lois was able to rescue the signature Harmon stamps from the ashes. Although, the shop continued operation in the modern metal building you see today, the shop doors were permanently closed in 2008. The closing of the doors, however, did not close the doors on the Harmon legacy, for as long as a cowboy sits astride a Harmon and coils his rope on its horn, the legacy lives!