In Praise of the Beauty of Simple Pleasures

The Utah State Fair

Don M. Hansen made his first saddle in 1939, and on a recent Saturday, at a table inside a pavilion at the Utah State Fair, he was making another one, hammer blow by hammer blow. A saddle takes about 60 hours to make, he said, 10 of those hours going to the simple cutting of leather. He sells them for about $2,000, he said. His business card, on the front, reads: Don M. Hansen, Leather Neck Saddlery, Make and Repair All Leather Goods; on the back it reads, somewhat less succinctly: Used Cars, Land, Whiskey, Manure, Fly Swatters ... Don M. Hansen, Dilettante ... Wars Fought, Computers Verified, Revolutions Started, Tigers Tamed, Assassinations Plotted, Bars Emptied ...

We don't discuss the business cards. I just take one and nod. Don Hansen goes on with his saddle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the market for custom saddles at Hansen's shop in Tremonton roughly follows that of the economy. For a number of reasons, he suggests, the business is getting difficult.

'This day in age there is no such thing as a cowboy,' he says, 'and people are not that in to custom made saddles. It goes with the economy - it is more of a luxury.'

For the horse rider, to call one of Hansen's saddles a luxury would be a bit of an understatement. Hand stitched and hand detailed, the saddles are fit to the specs of the individual cowboy or cowgirl, and like many well-built saddles can last a century; Hansen said he recently made minor repairs to one at least that old. The saddles he produces are a plush concoction of leather and stitching, with his name discreetly etched into the seat. They are, he says unabashedly, a much better deal than any $1,000 Mexican saddle.

Interestingly, Hansen has had some help making saddles this year: 30-year-old Marshelle Anderson was at his table on Saturday, and can often be found in his shop. A fellow resident of Tremonton, Marshelle is an apprentice working in a Utah Folk Arts Foundation program that teaches unusual or withering arts to a younger generation. 'But she's much better looking than me,' says Nelson when I ask if I can take his picture.

The pair, actually, was in a display hall at the fair filled of artisans and their apprentices: there was a Navajo basket weaver, a Japanese calligrapher, a lariat maker, and a Mexican paper-flower maker. Speaking about his own profession, Hansen said there might only be a dozen saddle-makers left in Utah.

Hansen got started in '39 by working for his uncle after school. Born in Mink Creek, Idaho, Hansen had a good instructor: his uncle, Jim Keller, was well-known and respected for making a harness that, by use of a swivel, used only one-sixth of the amount of leather that a regular harness required. It was a big money-saving invention.

'He was a master,' said Hansen, who returned to saddle-making more or less full-time in the 1980s.

Anderson, meanwhile, was raised on a local farm but now works for a nearby space shuttle rocket research and development firm; she went into Hansen's shop one day and asked him to fix her saddle. Hansen told her he didn't have the tools to make the repair and told her she should do it herself.

'I went out and bought all this crap,' she says. 'He lied.'

'I said, A-ha! Now there's an apprentice,' said Hansen.

'That was three years ago,' she continued. He broke her off. 'It's been that long? I should have fired you a long time ago.' A moment later, not joking this time, he said: 'Now all she got to do is make a saddle and then she'll be in business.'

Hansen is just one of dozens, hundreds, really, of special artisans - artisans, I guess, in the broad sense of the word - who are part of the Utah State Fair. Too often, I think, state fairs get pigeonholed into a sort of lowbrow hick gathering of the masses. While that may be true to a certain extent, consider this: money does not buy a whole lot at the state fair. I mean, everything you see there, generally, is a product of hard work, determination, and skill. That's the real beauty of the event, I suppose: its genuineness, its surprising subtlety, and its down-home practicality, precision and splendor.

One can see this sort of finery in everything from rooster-raising to goat-grooming to wedding dress-making to the afternoon demonstrations by Jerry Muir, Master of the Chain Saw. Seen in this way, then, the state fair is truly an arts fest for the masses, sans the micro-brewed beer and cubist paintings. It's that good, it's that cheap, and I'll definitely be back next year.

For more information head to the fair's website.

The Okra State Fair

Fall is here, and the okra is in. Actually, so far as I know, this is the first okra, a serious southern delicacy, ever grown in Utah. Evidence of global warming? I'd like to think it's evidence of my gardening prowess, and the secret garden fertilizer I employ here at 5,000 feet: coffee grounds. Okra is best eaten battered and fried, but to pick this gem I had to put on a jacket. That's right: just as the harvest comes in, it's time to start thinking snow. The tops of mountains have already been dusted with white, so the start of the ski season can't be too far off. So enjoy your own okra, and start thinking snow.

I take quite a few pictures with every story, but because we like for this page to load quickly only a handful go up, and those that go are on the small side. To see a variety of photos that did not make it on to the new page, visit the photo gallery.

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