Paul Shelton and James Womack have worked together for 37 years. (Staff photo by Trish Bunton)
CHATHAM — The friendship between Paul Shelton and James Womack is tied with a piece of handsomely crafted leather.
For nearly 40 years, the men have worked together at Shelton Saddlery, a long, narrow shop tucked away on Whittle Street in Chatham.
Shelton, 80, owns the shop attached to his white frame house; Womack, 52, is his long-time assistant.
Beyond making and repairing "anything that goes on the horse," the men are friends. They trust each other and think alike, so much so that they know what to do without saying it.
"He's part of me," Shelton said.
Added Womack, "We've never had any argument or falling out."
Womack has worked at the leather shop 37 years. The shop itself has been there only two more.
Standing in the back, surrounded by rolls and pieces of leather, thread and hand tools, Womack recalled how he came to work at the shop. He said he was doing some yard work for Shelton's sister one day. Shelton asked him if he wanted to try some leather work.
"I came up here the next day and haven't been out since."
For Shelton, working with saddles and harness was a hobby that grew into a livelihood.
For many years, Shelton was a sales manager for a hosiery and lingerie company. He traveled to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, West Virginia and throughout Virginia. Along the way, he'd pick up leather work to do at home on the weekends.
He'd always had horses and enjoyed making and repairing tack. His uncle also made harnesses.
Every July, he'd take a month off for vacation. In July 1957, he came home with a month's worh of orders to fill. When July ended, he'd finished those orders, but had accumulated enough new work to last three more months.
That ended his career on the road.
"Things just kept getting busier and busier, and I kept getting happier and happier," Shelton said Wednesday morning.
James Womack takes some stitches. (Staff photo by Trish Bunton)
Busy has been the word for Shelton and Womack. Shelton doesn't know how many customers he's had over the years, but agrees it's into the thousands. They've come from each of the 50 states and foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Poland. In his shop Wednesday morning was a saddle from Bermuda.
All of the business comes from referrals. One of his customers is Virginia Senator John Warner. Shelton said he fixes the senator's saddles and tack. He's been doing it for 20 years.
"He'll be down here in the next few days."
Sitting on top of a glass case was an autographed picture from Warner. The inscription refers to Shelton and Womack as "the last of the master saddlemen."
This morning, Shelton and Womack are waiting on two customers from Martinsville. Actually, Womack is seeing what kind of repairs they need; Shelton is talking and making jokes. The women are laughing.
"He does all the work; I do all the talking," Shelton admits.
"How much do I owe you for five gallons of oil?" one of the women asks Shelton.
"Have you got it?" he responds.
When she says no, Shelton tells her, "Then you don't owe me anything."
Womack goes to get the oil.
As much as he enjoys working with leather, Shelton probably enjoys the people who walk into the shop as much or more.
I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't get up, come back here, sew some and talk to some people," said Shelton, who was born in the Whittles community of Pittsylvania County and has lived on Whittle Street in Chatham for 60 years.
Signs hanging in the cluttered, busy shop give customers something to think about. (Staff photo by Trish Bunton)
Shelton does his leather work on machines, while Womack does his by hand.
You'd think I'd never use all of them, but sooner or later I do," Womack said of his small-handled tools. "As long as no one tinkers with them, I know where they're at."
Womack's work area is just like the rest of the shop — packed up. Harness, snaps, brushes and blankets line the aisle at the shop's front, while in the back, pieces of leather wait to be crafted. A pleasant aroma of leather fills the air. Womack said he has plenty of work to do by hand, like putting seats in saddles. He said it requires patience. "I love making stuff from scratch. If you think it can't be made, bring it to me," the Pittsylvania County native and resident said. "I haven't seen a saddle yet that can't be fixed.".
Demonstrating, Womack threaded two needles with waxed string. After punching small holes in a piece of leather, he quickly pushed one needle in one side and another in the other side. He continued until the stitching was done, doubling back to make sure the sewing was secure.
"Did James tell you we've had lawyers, doctors and others say, 'We want to come in and apprentice?'" Shelton asked. "I say, 'We'd step on you.'"
Shelton Saddlery seems just right for these two friends. And there is no plan to change.
"I'm going to be here for another 20 years. I want to catch George Burns," Shelton said. "Then I'll just help James a little bit. I won't do all the work like I do now."
Womack just laughed.
Note: Paul Shelton died April 30, 1998.
This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House B&B.