Kingsville, Texas- The Lone Star State is home to some of the most storied ranches in all the world, and the King Ranch is no acceptation. A South Texas staple that’s been a part of the Lone Star State since 1853, King Ranch is larger than the state of Rhode Island and is home to over 35,000 cattle. The ranch is so popular that is even has its’ own saddle shop.
King Ranch churns out saddles that keep the Texan spirit alive and the costumers happy.
“The King Ranch is Texas,” Lance Hancock said. “It’s legendary. It’s iconic. It’s about as Texas as Texas can get. “
Lance used to push around people as big as some of the cattle on the ranch during his football playing days at Sam Houston State University where he got a degree in accounting. Today he runs the King Ranch Saddle Shop in downtown Kingsville, located near the main gate to the ranch. Situated in the John P. Ragland Mercantile Building built in 1909, the site was once the largest department store south of San Antonio but today it’s home to anything and everything associated with the King Ranch.
“We still eat, sleep, and breathe cowboys, and ranching, and outdoor life,” Lance said. “That’s who we are, and that’s who we’ve always been. If it’s going to have our name on it, it’s going to be the best. We make sure of that.”
Some of the most sought-after textiles, tumblers and tacked goods can be found here. The rich smell of lush leather runs through your nostrils like cattle churning up the Chisholm Trail.
“Our number one seller in the store is leather conditioner, believe it or not,” Lance said.
The retail side of the store surprisingly got its’ start when a member of the King family needed a suitcase, and they knew that not just any satchel would do.
“This is our Armstrong Collection,” Lance said. “This is made out of Cordura canvas. The canvas is actually the same kind of canvas they use on convertible cars. It’s extremely durable. This collection has been around for 40+ years, and is always a top seller. So this is the one that started all the-This the one that started us off into the luggage business, yeah.”
The real roots of this boutique bestowed with bovine go back to a time when supplies were in short demand. If you needed something, you had to make it. When it came to cattle ranching in the 1800’s, saddles were sought after.
“The original saddle shop was on the ranch,” Lance said. “It was born out of necessity and Captain King couldn’t find wares for people that worked on the ranch.”
That tradition of making saddles continues to this day in the saddle shop. For over 40 years, Roberto Salas has been the man who makes leather into masterpieces.
“This is a family tradition,” Roberto said. “We are not working with an assembly line. We are not working with a production line. Saddles for the King Ranch are unique.”
Roberto takes his craft to the next level.
“Sometimes the people say, you make saddles?” Roberto said. “Sir, I work on the saddles. I working on pieces, piece by piece.”
Roberto has cut down on his time at the saddle shop.
“Roberto’s actually retired, but I begged and pleaded with him, so he still works three or four days a week,” Lance said.
Considering how long each saddle takes to create, it’s safe to say the saddle shop is a bit short handed.
“155 working hours, something plain. 185 hours if it is with the fancy flower designs,” Roberto said. “Four weeks.”
When Roberto started working in the saddle shop back in 1973, he learned the trade from his father-in-law, Guillermo Rodriguez, who served as a saddle maker before him.
“I used to see my father-in-law working with me and now when I work on something that is special, I feel like my father in law still is next to me,” Roberto said.
That might be because he still is, in a sense. Not only does Roberto build saddles, he also repairs them. Some of the worn out, broken-in saddles that have seen better days were built by the man who taught him everything he knows.
“This is one of the simple ones,” Roberto said. “Saddles made by the person, they have identification on the saddle. Like this one over here, I work on this one, customer from this community. Rodriguez, my father in law. Name. The year when he made the saddle. The month that date when finish. And you see.”
Despite his knowledge and expertise, the family tradition of saddle making ends with Roberto. As the world changes around him, the future of leather artisans learning how to work with their hands is dwindling.
“I think it goes back to the heritage of the ranch,” Lance said. “It’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of who we’ve been. I think it’s vitally important that we have people like him. But, I will say it’s a dying art. “
Watching Roberto work is mesmerizing. His hand are building, shaping, and creating. He is keeping the roots of Texas firmly planted and continuing the cattle traditions and cowboy way of the King Ranch through the medium of his hands. King’s Ranch in Kingsville, Texas is definitely a must-see stop on The Texas Bucket List.
“It’s very hard to find people with the passion and the skills that Roberto has. It will be one of our greatest challenges as we go forward,” Lance said.