Remember how gross it was to peel yourself off a plastic chair on a hot summer day? Can you imagine peeling yourself off a plastic saddle?
If you’ve seen the craftsmanship that goes into a leather saddle, you may appreciate that some of them are not only functional, but really pieces of art. After World War II however, leather was scarce. So Bill Vandegrift, a cowboy from the western slope of Colorado, started the All Western Saddle Company and made saddles out of plastic from 1946 to 1949 in Lusk, Wyoming and Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
Plastic had become more popular than ever for all kinds of products and new chemical formulations made it less brittle and cheaper to manufacture. What I didn’t expect was that there was a whole line of horse tack made from plastic that Vandegrift thought was going to be the saddle of the future.
I get a kick out of watching old cowboy movies and TV shows like Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Annie Oakley. The late ‘40s and early ‘50s were a weird mix of crazy inventions, cowboy heroes and A-bomb tests in the desert.
It might be hard to imagine today, but these movies and their stars were so popular that they had a major effect on pop culture. Everything from clothing, cowboy boots, pearl snap shirts as well as branded merchandise that we think of today like toys, alarm clocks, dish sets, and even plastic guitars with your favorite cowboy hero on them.
Vandegrift thought his fortune was made when Roy Rogers endorsed his saddle line. Rogers actually used the saddles in parades. The company moved to a larger facility in Nebraska in 1949 but the building was destroyed in a storm and the saddle company went out of business. Only 65 plastic saddles were made during the company’s existence.
If not for the traveling exhibit at the Wyoming State Fair, I wouldn’t have known about this fun detour in western saddle making history.