The hum of machines surrounds George Blackwood as he stands over his band bender, making a cowboy’s spur. All around him – on the walls of the welding shop, above his desk – are pictures of his father.
He places a smooth rectangle of metal on his jig, then compresses it into a crescent shape fit for the heel of a boot. “I lucked out, most people don’t have something like this,” George says as he works. The machine is old, probably older than George, a relic bought back in the ’70s by his father Bob Blackwood, the rodeo champion and master craftsman. George picked up the family tradition of bit and spur making, too. He still works in his father’s old workshop, building the famous Blackwood spur, a thing of beauty sought by cowboys and collectors alike. The craftsmanship is important to him. “A lot of it I got from my father, a lot of it I got from other spur makers and a lot I just stumbled upon,” George says with obvious fondness for each teacher before setting back to work on the spur. He’s been working on the spur in his jig for two weeks, he figures, and he’s not near done.
Stephen Plyler, on the other hand, didn’t grow up on the rodeo circuit. He never thought he’d be selling bits and spurs to real cowboys, much less handmade silver collectibles, such as George Blackwood’s. But then, he and his business partner, Jeff Trammel, had no plans at first to convert one of their six antique stores into The Western Heritage Gallery, an oasis of Western memorabilia and a last bastion against an invasion of assembly-line Chinese goods. Denton County is known as “Horse Country USA” because there are more horses per square mile than anywhere else in the United States, but Denton already had dozens of shops supplying the working cowboy, or so Stephen thought. In his mind, why would anyone come to an antique store, one located in a strip mall north of Denton, for Western gear? He hadn’t counted on cowboys – guys actually working on ranches – buying quality handmade saddles, bits and spurs.
Walk into the store today and marvel at the life-sized buffalo, the worn-out cowboy hats for sale, and real Native American trade silver. Stephen and Jeff’s collection ranges from Western antiques to contemporary Western items – jewelry, trophy mounts, horn art, original movie posters and books about the West. Check out the glass case full of ornamental silver next to the cash register. The silver pieces, which fetch from $1,000 to $10,000 a piece, were taken from Indian graves in the 1920s (when it was legal), but most people walk by, oblivious to their history and meaning. “Every single thing that we have has a history to it,” says Jeff. “The Old West is the history of America. That’s what America was and, in some places, still is. And that’s what we are about – an antique store about history.”
Stephen and Jeff are, in essence, keeping the history of the West alive, not just by collecting and selling tokens of that age, but also by offering functional tools and art for the modern day. The National Bit, Spur and Saddle Collectors Association jumped at the chance to have a central location to display and sell items their members have either built or collected. Members come to evaluate pieces and offer suggestions to Stephen and Jeff, whose own Western heritage extends only to their grandparents’ gardens and a pet horse named Misty.
When the two owners walk through the store, their eyes light up. Standing in a booth of hats used in old Ralph Lauren commercials, Stephen inspects each one like a kid in a candy store. “They are not new hats, cleaned-up hats, they are hats with the sweat of the cowboys on them,” he says. Jeff, walking through the store, runs his hand over the seat of an old saddle. Sometimes he will stop and gaze at a piece as if lost in another time. “I wouldn’t call us historians,” says Stephen, “but we like how things are invented and used and they are still used today.”
Collectors and the curious come from across the country to see – and buy – the handmade works of master craftsmen, but there are working cowboys at the cash register, too. It’s not that unusual for a “daywork cowboy,” a cowboy paid by the day, to spend a month’s pay on a pair of spurs, or six months’ pay on a saddle at The Western Heritage Gallery. Perched 6 feet off the ground in one glass display case is a hand-engraved sterling silver Greg Darnall bit, with a price tag of $18,000 (firm) and a “handle with gloves” note next to it. Displayed beside it is another bit and set of spurs handmade by Bill Adamson with the same asking price. “A lot of folks that buy those spurs will never put them on,” says Jeff. “They’ll tell you they are collecting them for the maker’s name or artwork.”
For George, the option to build quality gear gives new life to an old trade. A Chinese manufacturer of spurs bought out George’s father and George sees a similar fate awaiting him. “The spurs will end up being made in China, and I’ll put the silver on them,” he says. As a result, he’s increasingly inclined to just do quality work and leave the mass-produced stuff to others. “There was a time when we were probably running up to 50 pair a week. It gets to be an assembly line. The more I do silver work, the more I want to get into the collector end of it,” he says.
Working in his 40-by-50 shop in Farmersville east of Denton, George combines the original methods passed down in his family with more contemporary techniques for creating bits and spurs. Some of his show and gallery pieces can take him months to build. From just a sketch on a piece of paper, engraving along the band and shank, to the final welds and polishing, George does each step of his collectible pieces by hand. “If it wasn’t for people like George Blackwood and a few more of them, it’d be a lost art, that’s what it’d be,” says Jeff. George learned to hand engrave and he constantly invents new jigs and machines to perfect his product. “He’s one of the most respected young spur makers out there,” says Stephen. “He’s becoming highly desired at a very young age, and I don’t know if he realizes it yet, because he is so humble and so nice.”
To promote public awareness and set the standard for quality, specialty bit and spur makers formed The International Guild of Bit and Spur Makers. A majority of the guild’s members offer works for sale at the Gallery. “They’ve done good with that deal,” says George, a board member. “I’ve been very impressed.” So impressed, that a few days later, he decided the store needed a few more of his spurs to sell.