Kenneth Cooper, Bill Obele, Norval Cooper 'Midst The Saddles

He’s a casualty of Pierre’s long love affair with polo and the Midwest’s nasty weather.

He’s one of a party of four traveling from Pierre to Des Moines to take part in a series of polo games and they are three and a half miles from Sioux Falls, driving slowly because of a storm, when the wind snaps a tree and topples it across the car.

It’s shortly after midnight; and the Capital Journal reports later that same day, Sept. 1, 1933, that Emmett C. Lee of Pierre, saddle maker, has been killed along with John McKay. The tree crushed Lee’s torso and wounded McKay in the head.

Also injured in the crash was Archie McKay, who suffered cuts to his face and hands but managed to crawl out of the car to summon help; and Mrs. Will G. Robinson. She had been pinned in the back seat and was later taken to Sioux Valley Hospital to be treated for two broken legs, a broken arm and lacerations to the arms, legs and face.

“Mrs. Robinson is reported to have noticed a flash which was followed by a giant cottonwood tree crashing into the front of the car, crushing Lee and McKay to death instantly. The flash was caused by the severing of electrical wires which run parallel to the road,” the Capital Journal reported. “A number of cattle, which were pastured in the field abutting the road, were electrocuted when the electrical wires which caused the flash, were broken.”

End of an era?

But it’s more than a personal tragedy to Lee’s wife and two adopted children – it’s also a setback for the working cattlemen of South Dakota and other states throughout the West. For Emmett C. Lee is already famous in cattle country as the maker of E.C. Lee saddles – not the finest ever made, but a very good saddle for the working cattleman, with as much ornamental stamping and carving as the buyer wanted.

His saddles were not just examples of craftsmanship, but of the working art of the cattleman, says Gary Heintz of Pierre. That’s why Heintz, one of the organizers of the Pierre area’s Dakota Western Heritage Festival, said this year’s festival will feature a display of E.C. Lee saddles from throughout the region.

The display will be part of both days of the festival, set for Sept. 13-14 at the Fort Pierre Expo Center.

E.C. Lee issued his first catalog in 1907, apparently while still working in Miles City, Mont. He moved his business to Pierre in 1913 to the location of the present-day Hogans Hardware store on Pierre Street.  After E.C. Lee’s death in l933, his widow continued to operate the business. Ken Stewart of the South Dakota State Historical Society said at some point in the late 1930s, the business moved to the building on the corner of Pleasant Avenue and Pierre, long known as the Van Camp Building.

“The E.C. Saddlery remained in business until about l940 or 41.  haven’t been able to further pinpoint this,” Stewart said.  

But the saddles stayed in use long after that.

“Back in the ‘70s when I was doing a lot of team roping, there were a lot of cowboys who were still riding E.C. Lee saddles,” Heintz said.

Riding for the brand

The reason E.C. Lee saddles are famous is not hard to guess, judging by the testimonials included in the E.C. Lee Saddlery catalogs of the era, some of which the South Dakota State Historical Society has in its archives. The catalog includes several letters from horsemen under the heading: “My Rider Friends Can Tell You More About the Lee Saddles Than I Can.”

There is a letter from Monticello, N.M., dated May 28, 1929, that reads like this:

Dear Mr. Lee:

In October 1924 I bought a saddle (at Grant, N.M.) from you, and it is still good. Lots of the cow-boys in this part of New Mexico had never seen a Lee Saddle. Send me a copy of your latest saddle catalog, may be able to sell some of your saddles.

Respectfully yours,

Carl Welch

Another letter from Vernal, Utah, dated Aug. 2, 1929, sounds a similar note:

            Dear Mr. Lee:

I am a proud owner of one of your saddles and it is making a big hit around here. Send me a new catalogue, may have another order for you real soon. I remain, your customer,

Harold Ashby

From Tuscarora, Nev., Jack Wilson writes on Jan. 4, 1930, to say he is more than pleased with his E.C. Lee saddle and wouldn’t take $100 cash for it. And from Brookshire, Texas, Byron McCauley writes on July 10, 1929:

            E.C. Lee Saddlery,

            Pierre, So. Dak.

            Dear Sir:

            Enclosed find check for $97.50 for which please send me one No. 215 Saddle.      This one is for my brother. I like my saddle very well, it surely is a good one.

And from Ord, Neb., Dr. Clinton Miller, M.D., writes:

            Dear Sir:

I bought a saddle of you in 1925 to use on hunting trips, and have just returned from a trip down in Old Mexico where the guide admired my saddle so much, I gave it to him. Consequently, want to buy another saddle. Please send me a catalog of saddles.


Art in step with the times

Those E.C. Lee catalogs may have made quite a stir in their time, and may be a sign of how important marketing his wares was to E.C. Lee.

Dr. Paul Blackburn, a Phoenix physician with ties to Redfield and Yankton, bought an E.C. Lee saddle for his father, a Yankton attorney, from a Nebraska dealer in western goods. Blackburn said later, in researching E.C. Lee to learn more about the saddle maker, he was stunned by one of the catalog covers he found through the Autry National Center, a museum in Los Angeles dedicated to exploring an inclusive history of the American West.

Blackburn associates E.C. Lee’s catalog art with the ferment of ideas that gave rise to the Art Deco movement after World War I that flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s.

“It’s kind of a bland brown color but the Art Deco design is just magnificent. I was really impressed,” Blackburn said. “It’s pure Roy Rogers – a rearing horse and him holding his hat to the side.”

But Blackburn doesn’t know whether that had to do with E.C. Lee or whether it was more the whim of the designer who did his catalogs.

Another catalog from the archive of the South Dakota State Historical Society shows a different image of a cowboy on a rearing horse; and a small logo of a cowboy on a rearing horse is used in company materials beside the address of E.C. Lee Saddlery.


Stamp of an era

According to James Aplan, who grew up in Fort Pierre and now operates James O. Aplan Antiques and Art in Piedmont, E.C. Lee made a high-quality saddle for the working cowboy – the equivalent of a Cadillac, if not a Ferrari. And though a collector of western gear in another state wouldn’t necessarily spring for an E.C. Lee saddle as the next item for the collection, people in the Pierre area and elsewhere in South Dakota often do. Aplan said the E.C. Lee Saddlery company had the majority of business in central South Dakota in its heyday.

“I grew up on a ranch up on Bad River and I rode an E.C. Lee saddle for years,” Aplan told the Capital Journal. “Everybody called them ‘hell for stout.’ That means it wouldn’t fall apart. If you roped something with a cheap saddle you’d probably pull the horn out of it or something. But Lee’s you didn’t. Lee’s could take all the abuse.”

Lee made a saddle for the bucking contests, too, as did most of the saddle companies, Aplan said, but that wasn’t his main line.

“Lee made stock saddles mostly for ranchers. He made them plain and he made them fancy. If you bought a fancy saddle, the neighbors would talk about you: ‘Why does he need a fancy saddle?’ They’d almost count you as a drugstore cowboy if you showed up with a fancy saddle, but Lee made them. He made any kind of saddle you wanted,” Aplan said. “He made a high-quality saddle. He was known for making a quality saddle at a reasonable price. I think that says it all, really. That was Lee.”

Aplan said E.C. Lee also put his stamp on the polo saddles he sold through his shop, a common practice at saddlery shops.

“My father played polo with him. He played polo with the Tyler team,” Aplan said. Aplan explained Lee’s unique contributions to one of Pierre’s favorite pursuits in an email to the South Dakota State Historical Society in 2009 in response to a request for information about E.C. Lee:

“The Pierre Polo Team was a very active group and one of the better teams in the country. They played all over the country and, in addition to playing, Lee provided much of the equipment. He did not make polo saddles but he imported them and would affix his stamp to them. Lee-marked polo saddles are quite rare.”

In front of Ike Young’s Livery Stable …

Aplan said a photo taken in Fort Pierre some decades ago testifies to the importance of E.C. Lee saddles in the local economy.

“There’s a wonderful photograph of Ike Young’s Livery Stable, I think it’s a postcard. It shows a huge pile of Lee saddles in front of the livery stable. The livery stable used to be kind of across from the Hopscotch there, a little behind it. The cowboys came in and they put all their saddles in a pile and just about every one of them’s a Lee.”

According to an item about E.C. Lee in the Capital Journal on the day he was killed, Lee had been born in October 1886 in St. Paul, where he attended grade school and high school. He then went into the saddlery business.

The Capital Journal item notes: “Becoming proficient in that trade, he moved to Miles City, Montana, where he engaged in business, which he conducted until 1913, when hearing of the prospects of Pierre, and knowing it was the then center of saddle trade of the great northwest, he came to Pierre and opened the business which he has been conducting ever since, and which has become renowned not only in the northwest but in the southwest, wherever saddles of high quality are used.”

Aplan said though larger cattle towns such as Cheyenne and Miles City always had some good saddle makers, Miles City was the center of saddle making in the northern Great Plains region – an ideal place for E.C. Lee to perfect his craft.

Royal Runge, who once ranched near Blunt and who now lives in Marion, S.D., remembers that his father had E.C. Lee custom make a saddle for him in 1912 – about the time Lee must have been planning his move to South Dakota.

“It was a good, solid western cowboy saddle – double-cinch,” Runge said, adding that E.C. Lee had most of the business for saddles at that time in central South Dakota.

“Pretty much everything around that part of the country was a Lee saddle,” Runge said.

The abundance of customers in central South Dakota might have been one of the factors Lee had in mind when he moved to Pierre. Runge used that same saddle for decades after his father; he sold it to Dan Elwood of Fort Pierre at the same time Elwood bought his ranch. Eldwood still has it and says it is in good condition for a piece of century-old cowboy gear.


Aplan, who grew up in the 1930s, remembered the mystique of E.C. Lee saddles, even though E.C. had already died by the time he began to admire what the store had to offer.

“As a boy, I spent many happy hours in his shop, wishing for a saddle and looking at all the interesting items they had for sale, things that any cowboy needed,” Aplan wrote to the South Dakota State Historical Society in 2009.

“He published a catalog of his wares and sold them nationwide, employing 3-4 saddlers and repairmen at the peak of his operation. His famous and popular Cooper Tree was named for Kenneth Cooper, who made quite a name for himself as a rodeo rider and double for motion picture stars, including Gene Autry,” Aplan wrote.

World champion cowboy Casey Tibbs of Fort Pierre started out breaking horses with an E.C. Lee saddle and also had his first contest saddle made by Lee, Aplan noted.

“Unfortunately, Lee really did not know how to make a real good contest saddle and when Casey really got on the road, he switched to a Turtle Association saddle, made by the Denver Dry Goods Co. of Denver, Colorado … The Turtle saddle got its name from the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, the first attempt to unionize the cowboys and standardize their rules and equipment.”

Casey Tibbs’ first contest saddle, made by E.C. Lee, is on display at the 1880s Town, near Murdo, Aplan said, while Casey’s beat-up Turtle Association saddle is on display at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre.

E.C. Lee also made what was called a “bear trap” saddle.

“The Bear Trap saddle had front swells, swept back and was a real man killer as it was nearly impossible to get out of if a horse might fall,” Aplan wrote. “However, a real bucker would throw a man out of one if he tried hard and would often injure the rider in the process.”

One of Lee’s saddle makers, Charley Zumwalt, tried to revive the business after World War II, Aplan wrote, in a small building in Fort Pierre, but there wasn’t enough demand for saddles anymore and the business closed. That was a big change from the peak years of the shop, when E.C. Lee catalogs promised to get any saddle in the mail to the customer in 10 to 20 days.

Retired South Dakota rancher and author M. Arthur Anderson, in a letter to the Capital Journal in December 2010, noted there were some distinctive features about E.C. Lee saddles.

“Nearly all the early E.C. Lee saddles were made with a single rigging,” Anderson wrote. “The exception being customers from southern states who had been accustomed to a back cinch, known as double-rig saddles.

“It is worth mentioning that the rawhide-covered trees were of superior quality. Even today one will seldom, if ever, find a broken tree in an old E.C. Lee saddle. Most saddle makers of that period made their own trees. However, the information I find states that all E.C. Lee saddle trees were ordered from a maker that specialized in that trade.

“Another unique characteristic was the maker’s stamp. Traditionally saddle makers proudly displayed their stamp on the front of the seat. E.C. Lee stamped his mark on the back of the cantle and the front of the seat. If he was particularly proud of the finished product, he would also stamp his initials on the skirts.

“The E.C. Lees that have been well taken care of, are a very valuable and sought-after collectible in the antique market. They often bring 10 times more than the original owner paid.”

E.C. Lee didn’t only sell saddles.

John Burkholder, who lives in California but had family ranching in the Bad River area during settlement days, has photographs of his grandfather, Charley Mathieson, branding cattle on the family ranch on Bad River near Wendte. He's wearing his E.C. Lee batwing chaps with nickel conchos. He left South Dakota about 1930 but he took his Lee chaps with him when he settled in Georgia.

The images were taken between 1914 and 1917 on the George Mathieson Sr. ranch on Bad River and Tomahawk Creek near Wendte.

Not quite the end of an era

But those who deal in western gear, such as Jim Aplan, say there’s no need to lament E.C. Lee as the end of an era of great saddle making in the Pierre area.

“Fort Pierre right now has a real master saddle maker,” said Aplan. “All the professional bucking horse riders have to have his saddles, like maybe nine or 10 of the top 15 at the finals all ride his saddles, and that’s David Dahl. He makes this one type of saddle for the bucking contest. David Dahl was himself a rider. He was a national champion himself so he knows what he’s doing for that.”

And someday collectors will remember that he made them in Fort Pierre.

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