A Star-Herald publication Extract
Farm & Ranch
Nebraska Panhandle & Eastern Wyoming Week of June 25, 2006
Plastic saddles, memorabilia fascinate Wyoming Collector
By Sandra Hansen
CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Tom Harrower’s interest in plastic saddles didn’t start when, as a child, he saw Roy Rogers riding on one. In fact, he didn’t know such a thing existed until about 15 years ago. Now he owns the King of Cowboys’ colorful saddle that was made in Lusk, Wyo.
William B. Vandegrift was the promoter who created the All Western Plastic Company at Lusk, Wyo., to sell hand-crafted plastic saddles after World War II.
I got interested in the plastic saddles, I guess, because I have a lot of unusual horse gear,” Harrower explains, “And I was intrigued by a Wyoming company that produced this equipment. I thought the saddles and information should be preserved and stay here in the state.”
Harrower is really interested in collecting more information on Bill Vandegrift, the man who tried to put more life into the fledgling plastic industry.
Bill Vandegrift, a fellow who tinkered in a lot of occupations and lived in a lot of places, had the original idea to make plastic saddles, according to Harrower. He lived in Alliance at the time, but his first plastic saddle was made by a craftsman in Crawford, Colo., a small community east of Delta on the western slope of Colorado. Vandegrift’s family ranched near Montrose, Colo.
“It was a good opportunity for him,” Harrower said. “Leather was still in short supply because of World War II, and plastic was becoming popular material.”
In addition to saddles, other tack items, including bridles and martingales, were made of the new synthetic.
“Bill Vandegrift is the key to the whole thing,” Harrower said, standing among his collection of plastic saddles. “He believed that anything made out of leather could be made out of plastic.”
The plastic came in huge rolls from B. F. Goodrich. The product was called Geon, and is basically the same material as today’s PVC pipe. The sheets of plastic were about one-quarter inch thick, and came in a variety of colors.
It was possible to place a seamless cover on the saddle seat by heating the sheet and wrapping it while still warm around the form. The few seams that were necessary, such as around the horn or the stirups, were covered by decoration.
“The All Western Plastics Company was ahead of its time,” Harrower said, explaining the innovative company’s eventual failure.
In addition to saddles and bridles, Vandegrift and his partners experimented with a solid plastic rope, but because the ropes tended to stretch or snap, the company eventually put a plastic cover on synthetic material ropes, such as Dacron.
It appears the rope was strung through a plastic “tube” to get the desired combination.
Vandegrift enlisted Tommy Nielsen, a saddle maker at Lusk, Wyo., and Bernard Thon, an excellent craftsman, to produce the saddles. One of the amazing features of the business is that each saddle was hand crafted.
Harrower describes Thon as a master with a knife. The praise is appropriate as can be seen on close inspection of the saddles. The basic decoration of the Lusk business was the bucking bronc that is found on Wyoming license plates. That image was used quite often on the saddle, and viewers can easily see that each piece is different in some detail even from others on the same saddle.
The popular Roy Rogers yoyo was an offshoot of the All Western Plastic Company’s plastic saddle business.
The All Western Plastic Company began operating in Lusk, Wyo., in 1946, just after the end of World War II. The business seems to have flourished there, and in 1949, Vandegrift moved the operation to Scottsbluff. Harrower speculates the move was necessary because of transportation and employee requirements. The business was also branching out into other items.
Denver Dry Goods carried plastic fur coat and pant holders, but most were marketed to hotels. They also produced buggy whips and cup holders that clipped on car doors. Samonsite used their plastic luggage inserts.
However, the focus was on the saddles, even though they were not as popular with real cowboys as Vandegrift had hoped. They were showy, but didn’t have the feel of leather. On hot days, the seats became warm and sticky and brittle and slick when cold.
As the years went by, the saddles increased in price from $795 in 1948 to $1,550 in 1951 for the basic model. Harrower believes this was probably more to cover production costs than because they were a popular item.
The business finally closed in 1951. The building housed a restaurant and another business before it was swept away by a tornado in 1956.
Although Harrower first became interested in plastic saddles in 1982, it’s just been in the last few years that he began collecting them. In fact, he now owns the first one he saw.
Of the 65 or so that were made, about 37 have been located, and he owns eight of them. One of the most popular has a red, blue and white theme, and was owned by Roy Rogers. The King of Cowboys was a dealer for the company, and promoted them all across the country.
Harrower has built a traveling display case that includes a saddle and other plastic items from the company, as well as a few of the original Roy Rogers plastic yoyos made by the All Western Plastic Company.
Tom Harrower takes this display case to a variety of horse related conferences. It contains plastic covered ropes, plastic tack items and even some Roy Rogers yoyos.
“Locating these saddles is quite a fascinating thing,” Harrower said. “I’ve become acquainted with a lot of interesting people, among them Jim and Betty Quintard at Scottsbluff.”
A plastic saddle once owned by Roy Rogers is among Tom Harrower’s collection of unusual horse gear. He has spent more time on his collection since the family ranch was sold near Kemmerer, Wyo.
Harrower said he is still looking for information on the company and Vandegrift. He can be contacted at (307) 432-0404.