The Shooting Star Saddlery is only 2 miles from the highway, but seems much farther.
After passing a single house on the country road west of Flathead Lake in Niarada, the landscape becomes rugged and timeless. Harsh winter snow covers the barren hills before reaching Jeff Morrow’s saddlery at the base of Browns Meadow pass. Morrow and his work match perfectly with the enduring countryside.
After taking a bale of hay from the aged, wooden barn and feeding his horses, the 58-year-old heads to his workshop for an afternoon of work with his faithful dog Bonnie following closely.
The distinct, musky smell of leather overpowers the small workshop heated by a wood stove. But after making saddles and working with leather for more than 30 years, Morrow doesn’t even notice the aroma thickening the air. Templates, leatherwork and vintage tools line the walls and cover the workbenches in the room.
Before Morrow can get to work, an alarm on his watch goes off. Morrow turns it off. He doesn’t need it. With the inadequate lighting in the room, he will work until dusk.
Bonnie curls up on the wood floor below the workbench as Morrow begins to work on the 3-B Visalia slick fork saddle propped on a saddletree in the corner of the shop. Morrow has spent more than six weeks working on this saddle — a study in contrast between usefulness and artistry. While Morrow enjoys the intricate craftsmanship that goes into his work, his art must serve a purpose.
“I ride a lot and I know how much I enjoy a good saddle. I like the fact that I’m making something that somebody is going to use and that they’ll get to enjoy it for a very long time,” Morrow said.
It was the idea that something should serve a purpose that brought Morrow to Montana and eventually led him to becoming a saddlemaker. Morrow was growing tired of working with show horses in Mooresville, North Carolina when he decided it was time for a change.
“I wanted to see how they do things differently out West. I wanted to work with horses that actually do a job,” Morrow said.
After a stint in Colorado working on a dude ranch, Morrow made his way north to Montana in the early 1980s. Working on dude ranches and guiding trips in Browning, Big Sky and Three Forks, Morrow would shoe horses and repair the saddles and tack before deciding to make a saddle himself.
“One day, I just decided to get out the saddletree and build a new saddle,” Morrow said.
Morrow continued to hone his skills making saddles and working with leather, but it wasn’t until he moved to St. Ignatius in 1993 that Morrow decided to quit shoeing horses so he could solely concentrate on working with leather.
Soon after, Morrow met Don Carter of Dixon Saddlery, who had been making saddles for decades.
“We hit it off right away and he really helped me out a lot,” Morrow said.
At first Morrow depended on word of mouth and traveling to horse conventions and expos for orders. Eventually, Morrow stumbled on the internet and saw the potential in it. After his son designed a website for him, Morrow said business took off. Still, Morrow made sure to never get too busy. He wanted to devote enough time to be proud of each piece he makes.
Whether it’s a saddle, chaps, gun holster, wallet, belt or saddlebags, everything Morrow makes is unique and custom made.
“I love everything about it,” Morrow said of his work, “I love the artistry that goes into it, I love carving the lines and working with the material.”
That’s probably why Morrow doesn’t see himself retiring too soon.
“I plan on doing it until I can’t do it anymore,” Morrow said.
Photographer Aaric Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4449.