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Alberta saddle maker closing shop after 61 years

Chuck Stormes formed Stormes Saddle Company in the 1960s

An accomplished Alberta craftsman is hanging up his tools as a top saddle maker after 61 years in the business. 

Custom saddle builder Chuck Stormes is retiring after a long career crafting saddles for working ranchers, pleasure riders and collectors, with some of his collector saddles fetching prices near six figures. 

After closing his order book six years ago, Stormes expects to finish his last saddle, and wind down Stormes Saddle Company, this winter. 

“I’ve had a backlog of five to six years, for probably the last 20 years,” Stormes said from his workshop north of Millarville. 

After six decades, the industry is a different place today than it was when Stormes got his start. 

“I've worked in succession of shops,” he said. “Kind of all the ones that were available in southern Alberta, I had a stint in.” 

One of the shops he apprenticed in had 10 staff, one of whom would become a mentor of sorts. 

“I was there because there was a great old saddle maker still working there. It wasn't like it was his job to train me, but we were in the same shop,” Stormes said. “I could learn by observing, and I could ask him questions.” 

He developed his tooling skills on things like saddlebags, rifle scabbards and “dozens of belts at a time.” 

In 1968, Stormes struck out on his own, when the last shop he worked at stopped building custom saddles. 

“By that time, I considered myself a custom saddle maker. I thought, well, the only thing left is to start my own shop.” 

Saddle construction is similar for a working cowboy or a serious collector, but there are major differences when it comes to decoration, embellishment or price. 

“The saddle making itself really hasn't changed in 100 years,” he said. 

When a rancher or cowboy orders a saddle, decoration or embellishment is the last thing they talk about, but for serious collectors, the sky’s the limit as far as detail goes, but it comes with a cost. 

A handful of collector saddles for five figures are the most expensive Stormes has produced. 

“They can get pricey, and it's really all about time,” he said. 

Collector saddles, that will never sit on the back of a horse, can be decorated with gold or silver, intricate tooling and exotic leathers. 

“(Collectors) may not specify very much of the saddle, they might leave a lot of it just up to me,” he said. 

With about 30 hours' worth of tooling on a typical cowboy saddle, a collector saddle can have more than 300 hours put into it. 

It typically takes five to 10 years to become a journeyman in the business, and when Stormes started, there were opportunities to apprentice in a shop. The best shops to apprentice in would have plenty of staff and a range of products, from simple to more complex, he said. 

That kind of on-the-job training is hard to come by today. 

“The shops these days are one-man, maybe two-man shops, and they can’t afford to have an apprentice.” 

It’s a dilemma that a group Stormes helped form is trying to address. 

The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) created a fellowship to provide funding for people who want to learn western arts like saddle making. 

“A recipient of one of those fellowships would have a year, with their travel and tuition basically paid for, to go and study with any of the members, who are considered to be masters in their trade.” 

As a founding member of the TCAA, Stormes joined forces with about a dozen other craftsmen, including saddle makers, silversmiths, braiders and bit and spur makers, to form the association in the late 1990s. 

The group not only saw the danger of traditional skills being lost, but it also holds an annual exhibition to educate the public and show fine craftsmanship, he said. 

In between saddles, Stormes wrote a biography, with Don Reeves, about a famed rawhide braider named Luis Ortega that was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. He has also published numerous magazine articles. 

In retirement, Stormes said he wants to complete the various writing projects he hasn’t had time to tackle.

He is past president and an emeritus member of the TCAA. 

Robert Korotyszyn

About the Author: Robert Korotyszyn

Robert Korotyszyn covers Okotoks and Foothills County news for and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact [email protected]
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