10 September 2007

Cowboy Up! The Master Saddlers of Fort Benton

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 January 2007

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

If early Montanans rode “tall in the saddle,” that in measure was due to the work of the master saddlers of Fort Benton. During the 1870s ranching began to develop in historic Choteau County, and by the early 1880s open range ranches extended in every direction from Fort Benton. Ranches meant horses, and horses meant an increasing demand for saddles, bridles, harnesses, and other equestrian equipment.

The large mercantile houses in Fort Benton like T. C. Power & Brother offered saddles and other supplies to ranch customers in Montana and southern Canada, but it was only a question of time, before saddle makers would open for business in Fort Benton.

We may never be certain when the first saddle and harness maker opened shop in Fort Benton to fill the rising need, but we do know that L. H. Rosencrans moved from Helena to Fort Benton to become the first known saddle maker in 1876. L. H. Rosencrans, saddler, was open for business by February 2, 1877. His wood frame shop, built by Gus Senieur, was located next to the Benton Record office on the corner of Front and Bond (today’s 14th) streets. Rosencrans’ first ad carried in the February 16th Benton Record stated he was prepared to take orders for any style of harness, saddle, bridle, halter, collar, belt, or whip and that he was prepared to make old harness or saddles “good as new.” His shop over time became known as the Pioneer Harness Shop.

The 1860 Wisconsin census gives insight into Rosencrans’ origins. In that year John and Mary Rosencrans lived in Beloit, Rock County, Wisconsin with a large family including twin boys, Lucius and Lucian, born in April 1847, and a son Milo, born in 1851. Lucian H. Rosencrans arrived in Helena in 1866, one of the first saddlers in Montana Territory, and he remained in Helena for the next decade before moving on to Fort Benton. In June 1880, Lucius, sometimes Lucas, or most often simply “L. H.” Rosencrans lived in Fort Benton and was employed in the saddle and hardware business. In the census of 1880, his twin brother Lucian lived in Helena, and their younger brother Milo was a stock raiser operating out of Fort Benton.

L. H. Rosencrans worked in Fort Benton until June 1883 when he sold his business to William Glassman. He married Marcella that same year 1883, and they remained in Montana until about 1890. The Rosencrans then moved on to Freeborn County, Minnesota with L. H. still working as a harness maker.

William Glassman sold his Cheyenne Saddle Shop in Helena in early 1883, moved to Fort Benton, and on the 13th of June of that year bought the Rosencrans saddlery. William Glassman was born in Davenport, Scott County, Iowa in November 1858 of parents born in Germany. He came west by way of the cattle country of Colorado and Wyoming, and in 1878 was in Miles City. In Fort Benton, Glassman operated his saddle and harness shop at Front and Bond streets. In October 1885, he departed Fort Benton, eventually moving on to Utah. There he went into the real estate business and became active in Republican Party politics. In 1900 Glassman worked as a journalist and lived in Ogden, Utah with his wife Evelyn and two children. William and Evelyn Glassman were married about 1883, and their oldest child, Ethel, was born July 1884 in Fort Benton. Their son, Roscoe, was born in Utah in May 1891. Glassman became a leader of his party in Utah, was elected speaker of the lower house of the Utah legislature, and served as mayor of Ogden.

August Beckman, Fort Benton’s second saddle and harness maker, arrived May 17, 1878 from St. Louis with his family as deck passengers on the steamboat Red Cloud. Beckman had graduated from one of the largest saddle and harness firms in St. Louis. By late May of 1878 his stock of goods had arrived, and Beckman opened the New Harness Shop on Front Street. In June 1880 Beckman, born about 1840 in Germany, worked as a harness maker and lived in Fort Benton with his wife Louisa, also German born, and their four children, all born in Missouri.

In late 1880 Beckman built a two-story 35x40 brick building for his saddlery on Franklin Street between Baker (16th) and Power (17th) streets. His wife Louisa ran a boarding house, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and restaurant on the upper floor. August Beckman sold his business to S. J. Kline on May 30, 1888, and went into ranching on the Teton River in the 1890s. Both August and Louisa passed away in the 1890s.

The Davidson & Moffitt harness store operated in Fort Benton from 1881 to 1883. This Fort Benton store, managed by John Moffitt, was a branch of the Helena business of A. J. Davidson. The January 1881 Holiday Edition of the River Press, reported that Davidson & Moffitt had recently completed a one-story brick building during 1881 and would add a twenty feet addition in the spring of 1882. Their store was located next to Murphy, Neel & Company, at Front and Arnoux (12th) streets. Davidson & Moffitt were agents at Fort Benton for the celebrated Concord harness and kept in stock “everything required by a horseman.” Besides their saddle and harness business, they dealt in wool, hides, and robes. The store closed in September 1883, and the River Press later purchased the building.

The longest in business and best known of Fort Benton saddlers was Joseph Sullivan. Sullivan with partner V. K. Goss moved to Fort Benton from Deer Lodge at the urging of Johnny Healy. The 1881 Holiday Edition of the River Press reported that this new firm had just commenced business in September in a building formerly occupied by J. J. Kennedy meat market. By July 1882 Goss ended the partnership and returned to Deer Lodge. The well-known sign, “Jos. Sullivan, Saddler’, hung for years over the door of the 1865 building that had housed the Blackfeet Agency and treaty of that year, located on Front Street next door to the Benton State Bank on St. John (15th). The front face of this historic building was log; an addition of adobe was added, and later a third frame structure was added to the rear.

Joseph Sullivan made friends with the cattlemen of the open range, and Charles M. Russell was a special friend. Sullivan died in Fort Benton in April 1940 after 59 years in the business, operating his renowned shop a bit until just before his death. The old building he occupied the entire time was saved and moved to Great Falls by Charles Bovey as an important part of Frontier Town at the Fair Grounds. Jos. Sullivan’s Saddlery was later moved on to Nevada City where it stands today.
Vanderlyn K. or V. K. Goss was born about 1854 in Michigan. In June 1880 he lived in Helena, working as a harness maker, before he moved on to Deer Lodge to form a partnership with Joe Sullivan. After his short time in Fort Benton, Goss married Miss Lou Watson of Mason City, Iowa in early July 1882 in Fort Benton and returned to Deer Lodge to resume business.

Joseph Sullivan was born in Ireland in December 1857 and came to the United States in 1860 as a child. Some sources claim that Sullivan was born at Port Chester, New York about 1860. Young Sullivan visited a brother in St. Paul in 1880 and kept going west to Montana Territory, arriving late that year. For a time he worked in a harness shop in Bozeman, before joining with V. K. Goss to operate a saddlery in Deer Lodge. Joe Sullivan married Rosa V. McQuillan, an early Fort Benton teacher, in 1885 in Dubuque, Iowa, and they had two daughters, Marie B. and Mary G.

Shortly after coming to Fort Benton, Sullivan received an order for 500 lightweight saddles for the North West Mounted Police, so he hired five or six more workers to help meet that order. At that time he had about a dozen employees. Sullivan made saddles for the big T. C. Power concern. Sullivan once said that two cinch saddles were most popular when he first came to Montana, but the mode changed to the three-quarter rig, one cinch. In the words of Joel Overholser, “Sullivan saddles went as far north as Edmonton and south to the Colorado line, and every puncher on the northern ranges knew or knew of Joe Sullivan . . . Joe Sullivan was a crusty old timer; a friend recalled that cowboys would hock their outfits to him to prolong a spree, get a tongue lashing later and be sent back to work with saddle and gear—they usually paid up next time.”

In a tribute to Sullivan in 1940, Overholser wrote, “The death of Joseph Sullivan, pioneer Fort Benton saddler and harness maker, marks the severing of another of Montana’s links to her colorful and picturesque past . . . The men who built the saddles which were cinched onto the hurricane decks of Montana broncs never received any part of the credit going to the cowpuncher who had made a good ride, but they deserved some of it, for when they built their saddles, they built them to last. Joe Sullivan was one of the last of these old-time saddlers.”

A one-time employee of Sullivan’s, Arnold Westfall, operated his own shop on Front Street between St. John (15th) and Baker (16th) streets for a quarter century, from about 1904 to 1931. He made some of the saddles sold by T. C. Power. Westfall was born in August 1862 in Iowa, came to Fort Benton in 1891, and married Hannah E. Johnson in 1893. Hannah was born in Norway and immigrated to the United States in 1881. Arnold and Hannah Westfall had a daughter, Ethel L., born October 1893 and a son, Arnold J., born in February 1898. In 1931 Westfall suffered a stroke and had to close his business. He passed away April 23, 1933.

Little is known of Sam J. Kline (or Cline) who came to Fort Benton in June 1882 to work for Sullivan & Goss. At some point in the 1880s, Kline opened his own harness business on Franklin Street. In May 1888 Kline moved his shop from Franklin to Front Street. Other saddle and harness makers also may have opened their own businesses in Fort Benton over the years after working for Sullivan or other saddlers.

Through the decades, the saddles of Fort Benton’s talented artisans have retained their interest and prestige with ranchers and collectors. Modern day master saddle maker, Dr. Richard Sherer of Denver, triggered this article after he restored a saddle by William Glassman and saddlebags by Joe Sullivan and asked for biographic information. Closer to home, you can see seven Sullivan saddles, some dating from the 1890s, and three Westfall saddles in our remarkable display of historic saddles at the Museum of the Upper Missouri. They are a fitting tribute to the great saddle makers of an important era in Fort Benton’s history.

[Sources: Benton Record (BR) 5 Jan 1877; BR 2 Feb 1877; BR 16 Feb 1877; BR 2 Jun 1878; River Press (FBRP) Holiday Edition 28 Dec 1881; FBRP 16 Jun 1883; FBRP 1 Jan 1884; FBRP 12 Aug 1885; FBRP 21 Oct 1885; FBRP 23 Jan 1901; FBRP 21 Jan 1942; FBRP 5 Aug 1970; FBRP 14 Aug 1974; Sun River Sun 14 Feb 1884; various U.S. Census; Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port by Joel Overholser]


(1) Fort Benton’s first saddler, L. H. Rosencrans, advertised in the Benton Record

(2) Testimony for William Glassman saddles by cowmen in the Judith Basin in the Sun River Sun

(3) August Beckman’s “New Harness Shop” Ad in the Benton Record

(4) An Ad for Davidson & Moffitt from an 1881 River Press

(5) An Ad for Sullivan & Goss from an 1881 River Press

(6) Joe Sullivan standing on the left in front of his famed “Jos. Sullivan Saddler” store on Front Street in Fort Benton with friends artist Ed Borein, rancher Julius Bechard, and an unidentified man

(7) Arnold Westfall, Fort Benton saddler


Anonymous said...

I just want to let you know that Arnold Westfall's son Arnold is my grandfather. He married Mary Catherine Ward, of the Fort Benton Ward family, who had my mother, Mary Ann Westfall-Elliott and her sister, Barbara Westfall-West. They were raised in Portland OR and raised their families in the Portland area. There are four children by Mary Ann Westfall-Elliott: Mary Katherine, Jeannette, Serene, and Colin--all names from the Ward family. I (Serene) live in Spokane, WA and have visited Fort Benton in the past. In my huntings for antiques, I have looked for any saddles that might be a Westfall--it would be so incredible to have one. My email address is douganserene@yahoo.com if there is any interest in contacting me. I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother--however, my grandfather passed when I was very young. I do have some photo albums with unidentified people--not sure if it is the Ward family or the Westfall family, as well as Arnold's military pictures. I would love to figure these out if at all possible! Thanks for the blog, Serene Elliott-Dougan

Anonymous said...

This good info for me I recently came across a saddle made in 1908 with swastika emblems all over it an it was made by T.C.Powers LTD in Fort Benton Montana I would really like to find out more about it if any body has some ideas on how I can get some info let me know. email me at jetta625@earthlink.net if you have any info thanks

Steve Rodrigues said...

I inherited from an uncle that was an avid antique saddle/leather collector a leather sweep/broom holder that is decoratively engraved. Looks like it's something meant to hang up decoratively. It is marked with "Made by AWestfall, Ft Benton Mont, 1904" Also, on the back, there are initials "AW". I came across this site during my research.

Anonymous said...

Hi I came across this site during my research I have a saddle made by Arnold westfall the saddle is dated.1914 if you would like I can try to send you some photos of it