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The sweet smell of leather permeates Bob Marrs' Amarillo garage, an artisan's workshop packed with fond memories, great stories and the well-worn tools of a dedicated craftsman's trade.
For decades, Marrs has handcrafted saddles for cowhands, world champion steer ropers Shoat Webster and Tuffy Thompson, country-western singer Randy Travis and "Hank the Cowdog" author John Erickson. He even did bridle work for famed Western actor Ben Johnson.
Sandra Herl, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Western Artists, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Western heritage, said Marrs' legendary saddles earned him the academy's Don King Lifetime Saddlemaker Award in September. "I've been making saddles over 50 years," he said. "It was really a surprise to me because I had no idea. It was an honor for them to do that." The academy honored Marrs at its 11th annual Will Rogers Awards and handed him its trademark figurine, a white statue of Oklahoma's adored humorist. It was Marrs' second academy award. He won the academy's annual saddlemaker award in 1996. "He's real well-known. Been in the business for years, does absolutely gorgeous work and is highly respected throughout the U.S. and Canada," Herl said. "It's not like you walk in the store and buy a Bob Marrs saddle. They're handcrafted for the individual who orders them."
Marrs is no stranger to the saddles he painstakingly fashions in his shop. In his younger days, he was a working cowboy, riding, roping and wrangling on ranches in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California throughout the '40s and '50s. Places like the Mashed O near Muleshoe, the Waggoner Ranch in Vernon and the sprawling 3V in Arizona, which ran up to the Grand Canyon rim. "We'd all be laying in our bedrolls, camped around the wagon. But we'd get an early start. Be up before daylight. The wagon cook would holler at us about 4 o'clock to roll out, eat breakfast, drink coffee. Then you'd go saddle your horse and get ready to go," Marrs fondly recalled.
After a stint in the Army, Marrs resumed his cowboy career and married his sweetheart, Betty, in 1947. They moved to a cow camp at the Waggoner Ranch, settled in and had their first daughter, Lovis Kathleen. The ranch manager gave Marrs nights off to attend a G.I. leathermaking school. The school actually didn't teach saddlemaking, but Marrs learned about leather carving, belt-making and the basics. Later, the couple moved to Gunnison, Colo., Woodward, Okla., Fort Worth and Lubbock to work for different saddlemakers.
In 1951, their second daughter, Deborah Ann, was born in Lubbock, but work slowed down, and they moved back to the Waggoner Ranch. Marrs often saw his family only at night, but he went back into saddlemaking and moved back to Fort Worth. Eventually, the Marrs family landed in Amarillo.
"I worked under different shops in the country from 1950 and a few places and learned to make saddles. In 1954, we took over the old Stockman's Saddle Shop. It was out by the stockyard. I was in business 38 years," Marrs said. "In 1992, we sold the place and semiretired, but I still make saddles."
Marrs' garage is part workshop, part museum. Several old cowboy hats friends have given him over the years hang overhead, next to a pair of curvy horns protruding from a bleached white Longhorn skull. A fan keeps the place cool, and his faithful hounds, Blossom, a floppy-eared basset hound, and Buford, a basset mix, slowly amble across the floor to greet strangers. Neighbors drop in for a cup of Joe to chat and swap cowboy stories. "Every one I make I try to make better than the last one. It's just work I enjoy," he said. "Cowboyin' was my favorite thing to do, but I got into saddlemaking. They kind of go together."
A Marrs saddle starts with a saddle tree, the basic frame. Carefully selected pieces of leather from the back, neck and other sections are measured, blocked out, wetted and fitted around the tree. Each piece is crafted to fit, designed to handle wear and tear from both horse and rider. There's stitching to be done and the delicate work of stamping hand-tooled freehand designs on a leather canvas. "Back years ago, I was a lot faster than I am now. You can make a plain one in about four days. A tooled one can take you from a week to 10 days," Marrs said. "There's so many different styles of saddles you can make."
In 1954, customers paid $160 for a plain saddle and a flower-tooled one sold for $225. Over the years, word of Marrs' saddles crisscrossed the nation, into Canada, Australia and even Africa. Today, a flower-tooled Marrs saddle fetches about $3,550, and others cost $3,700 and up. But don't count on buying one. Marrs doesn't take orders anymore. He's still busy filling a backlog for cowboys who wanted to stay on his list.
Marrs has captured other prestigious awards, including the 2000 Western Heritage Award from the Big Bend Museum in Alpine; the Chester A. Reynolds Award from Oklahoma City's National Cowboy Museum and Heritage Center in 2001; and a Western Heritage Award from Amarillo Range Riders in 1999. But perhaps Marrs' highest honor came from the cowboys and ranchers themselves, who picked him to make the "Top Hand" Saddle for the Texas Ranch Roundup in Wichita Falls. Each year, the "Top Hand," the best cowboy around, wins the coveted saddle. "I make the kind of saddle cowboys like to win and use them. They're not like these they just set up and look at," he said. "After two years, the cowboys and the ranchers who were on the board of directors decided they wanted me to make their Top Hand saddle. So I made that for 18 years. In the year 2000, I made the last one. I figured I'd give some other saddlemaker the privilege because it was a privilege. ... It was a privilege to me because those kind of people made our living all these years."
Marrs credits much of his success to his wife, Betty, who worked in the shop with him over the years, especially after their two daughters went off to school. They have three granddaughters, Shelly, Angelia and Amy. She gave me time to work in the back with the other boys. Couldn't have done it without her," Marrs said.
Copyright 2005 American Saddle Makers Association, Inc.