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MEEKER I Bob Klenda still has the first saddle he ever made.
That was nearly 50 years ago.
“I made it for myself, and I’ve still got it,” said the longtime saddle maker.
Since then, Klenda, 74, figures he’s made “somewhere close to 500 saddles.”
Not only has Klenda been making saddles for going on half a century, but during that time he’s developed a reputation as a top saddle maker. In May, Klenda received the Al Stohlman Achievement Award, an international honor given annually at the Rocky Mountain Leatherworkers Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyo.
“I guess it’s the highest award awarded in leather craft,” Klenda said modestly. “I never did meet him, but anybody that’s gotten into leather work knows of Al and (his wife) Ann Stohlman.”
The Stohlmans, who were ranchers in Canada, wrote numerous instructional books on leather crafting. Al Stohlman died in 1998, and his wife died in 2004.
Friend and fellow saddle maker Mike Brennan of Meeker said Klenda receiving the Stohlman award was a well-deserved honor.
“Bob’s expertise at creating beautiful saddles and carved leather articles is amazing and his work is a joy to behold,” Brennan said. “He has developed an eye for lines and symmetry that surpasses most of the ‘famous,’ nationally known saddle makers. Bob is finally getting the recognition so richly deserved. The Stohlman Award in the world of leather workers equates to something on the order of the Pulitzer Prize. Those who receive this award are the most accomplished leather workers in the world, but along with that must have an extensive background of passing along their knowledge and skills to those interested in working with leather.”
Since making his first saddle in 1961, Klenda has made an average of 10 saddles a year.
“There was a year I made 22 or so. That was probably the most I’ve made in a year,” he said.
Klenda, who has called Meeker home since 2005, grew up on a farm in Kansas, “Where the only leather I saw was a harness,” he said.
Klenda took advantage of a stint in the U.S. Army to spend time doing leather work in a craft shop.
“I figured I couldn’t afford one (to buy a saddle), so I was just going to make it,” Klenda said. “It was quite a struggle doing that without anybody to coach me.”
After being discharged from the Army, Klenda moved to Utah in 1961, where he found a mentor for his leather work in Duane Soderquist of Newton Brothers Saddlery.
“I twisted his arm until he hired me,” Klenda said. “I got hired for $5 a day. I found a room for $2 a night and I figured I could eat for $3 a day.”
From there, Klenda went out on his own. He set up shop on a small farm outside of Fruita.
“I set up a saddle shop and went to making saddles,” he said.
Not that there was a lot of business in the beginning.
“It isn’t something you just put a sign out and say you’re in the saddle business,” Klenda said. “I had absorbed a lot from (Soderquist), but I still had to perfect it.”
At the same time Klenda was building his saddle-making business, he was ranching on the side.
“I’ve always had ranching or cowboying in my heart, so I’ve mixed it (with the saddle making),” he said.
But his passion has always been saddle making. Klenda is president of the Colorado Saddle Makers Association.
“It’s one of those jobs you get and you never get rid of,” he said, laughing.
“He has been largely responsible for building the Colorado Saddle Makers Association into the viable organization it is today, with its main emphasis of passing on knowledge of saddle making and beautiful leather work to anyone interested,” Brennan said.
Klenda, having benefited from mentors who taught him the leather trade when he started out, enjoys teaching others about the craft.
“He has a long history of working with 4-H teaching leather craft, and I don’t believe he has ever turned away anyone coming to his shop with a question, no matter how busy he is,” Brennan said. “Several people from the local area have built their own saddles with Bob’s help. … Bob has been my mentor since he moved to Meeker and is always ready to help bail me out of a mess I have made. I am proud and honored to call Bob a very dear friend.”
Typically, Klenda said he spends about 100 hours making a saddle, though some custom orders, which can involve considerably more design time, can take twice as long to make. He’s currently working on a saddle for a man who will be inducted into the reining horse hall of fame.
“I’ll probably have 250 hours in that one,” Klenda said.
Klenda has made saddles for people all over the world. Whether he’s making a saddle for a working cowboy or making one that will sit in a showcase, Klenda takes the same amount of painstaking care.
“That’s what it amounts to, developing it into an art,” he said. “I’ve become more aware of that in recent years. It’s one thing to make a good saddle. It’s another whole thing to make a piece of art. You can put the best workmanship into a saddle and not give it an artistic touch. Sure, it would wear great. But unless it has a good flow of lines to it, in other words, balance, it’s not going to look very good.”
Klenda was one of four saddle makers — and the only one from Colorado — commissioned to make a saddle for the 100th anniversary of the National Western Stock Show in 2006 in Denver. Klenda’s saddle was auctioned off for $19,500.
“That was a great honor to do that one,” he said.
Even though Klenda has been making custom saddles for nearly 50 years, he continues to work to improve his craft.
“Every one has been one of a kind,” Klenda said of his custom saddles. “There’s a sense of satisfaction with it. You complete one and you realize as you’re making it, there’s another way, there’s a better way. So the next one you try to improve on. I’m still trying to make that perfect saddle.”