For more than 50 years, Paul Shelton and James Womack have been practicing the lost art of saddle making. They also repair leather goods. (Staff photo by Leon Townsend)
CHATHAM — Stuck on the wall among clippings and snapshots is a photo of a handsome horseman in hunting pinks. A bold scrawl across the bottom reads, "To the last of the master saddlemen." It is signed, "John Warner."
Senator Warner spoke for hundreds of riders who send their saddles to a jammed-up little workroom, fragrant with the smell of leather, down on Whittle Street. For more than 50 years, Paul Shelton and James Womack have been practicing an art almost as lost as writing on the head of a pin. They repair and remake saddles as well as boots, bridles, harnesses, and halters — "anything to do with a horse," says Shelton. "Some saddles that people send in look like possums run over in the middle of the road, but James fixes them like new. He's the best."
Like Emerson's man who made a better mousetrap and the world found its way to his door, the world has found Shelton and Womack in their little shop on Whittle Street. Their repaired saddles have been shipped to Saudi Arabia, Italy, Poland, and "that onion country" — Bermuda.
Although they claim to repair only horse gear, "We are weak," says Shelton, and brings out an emotional letter from a combat pilot in World War II. James had repaired and relined his flight jacket until it looked like new.
Shelton's eyes are too bad now for him to work much any more, but he taught James from the time James was 12 years old — more than 40 years ago. When they were featured on CNN last March, their story touched off an avalanche of calls and letters — and work. They will make a personal appearance on December 6, in Central Fidelity Bank with other craftsmen for Christmas in Colonial Chatham. They will bring a supply of their witty belts which use a hoof pick as a fastener. Shelton made them for special friends until a merchandiser discovered them. Now they are marketed in a mail order catalogue for $79.
Shelton has always been in love with horses. When he was a little boy, his daddy had a team of mules and a nice riding horse. He longed for a pony, but that was out of the question. A pony would cost $25. But a man did give him a billy goat. Scrounging for scraps of leather, he made a harness and pieced together a cart, then he took off. His other treasure was a metal tricycle bought for $2.75. It was burned in their house fire. He scraped it out of the ashes, hammered it straight enough to ride, and was doubly mobile.
Little did he know that his life would take on a new dimension when he bought a farm for his sister back in 1932. James Womack and his family lived there. James had never seen a saddle, much less worked on one, but he accepted when Shelton offered him a job. He caught on to the work right away and is now, as Shelton says, the best. "James is the man," Shelton says. "James can do things nobody else can do." He keeps the big stitching machine going he says, thanks to "God and WD 40," and his leather supple with Leather Life Oil. Shelton now owns the Leather Life Oil Co., selling conditioner prepared by a chemist using the same formula as the late U. S. Cavalry.
This is Shelton's second career. As a young man, he sold hosiery and lingerie for Nettie Rosenstine Hosiery and was so good at it that he got his picture on the cover of Life when he racked up more than a million dollars in sales. His job kept him on the road, but at home he began to do leather work — at first, a harness for his twin daughters' ponies. When he developed a boot for walking horses, business took off. He retired in 1958 so he could devote himself to saddlery. "I'm the happiest man alive," he says, "because I make my living doing what I love."
He has received many honors, most recently a nomination to Virginia's Hall of Fame by the American Saddlebred Horse Association. He will be listed on the Hall of Fame board at the Lexington Horse Center.
He thinks often of what his mother told him. "I'm going to dedicate you to the Lord," she said, and quoted Isaiah 5:12: "You shall be called the repairer of the breach and restorer of streets to live in."
"And here I am, repairing and restoring."
After he retired, his boss wanted him to come back to work for Butterick Patterns, but that meant moving to Atlanta. He dictated a letter to his beloved wife, Judy, now dead, replying to the offer. The letter was elaborate with appreciation, but it concluded, "I'd rather be in jail in Chatham than the mayor of Atlanta."
Note: Paul Shelton died April 30, 1998.
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