ROCK FALLS — In a building vaguely reminiscent of the Old West, Melissa Hester of Hester Saddlery custom crafts, cleans and repairs a variety of leather goods that are bound to stand the test of time.
It’s a craft Hester is passionate about, just as she was passionate about training horses, something she did for 35 years. While horse training was a large part of her life, leather crafting wasn’t always in the picture for Hester.
Hester’s second husband, who was a saddlemaker, bootmaker and disabled veteran, passed away due to an accident in 2014, just before their one-year wedding anniversary. After his passing, Hester wasn’t sure what she was going to do moving forward.
But when she was looking through his belongings, she found her husband’s saddlemaking and leather work and ultimately made the decision to combine her lifelong love of artistry with her knowledge of and passion for horses.
“I thought it would be a good focus for me after losing him,” Hester said.
Hester attended saddlery school in March 2015, training under renowned saddlemaker Jesse W. Smith before he stopped accepting students. In 2017, Hester set up shop in the unincorporated community of Rock Falls, located in the southeast corner of Dunn County.
The business consists of custom chinks, armitas, chaps, belts, tack and more in addition to saddle and tack repair and cleaning.
Hester is two to three months out on a lot of her work, she said. The leather work is very time intensive, and Hester has another full-time job. Hester does hope to transition to being at the shop on a more regular basis sooner rather than later, but until then, she has to fit her leather work in around her schedule.
Saddle repairs tend to be done sooner because people need them to work in, Hester said, and she always asks her customers when they need them by.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much time it takes to do this,” Hester said.
A custom leather chap yoke can take five hours to tool and complete. A saddle without much tooling and detailing can take 60 hours to complete over the course of weeks.
Often, custom work also requires Hester to be in the right creative mood for the work to succeed.
“If I try to rush it, ... then it doesn’t feel right to me,” Hester said. “I’m my own worst critic. But I love doing it. It’s a passion.”
The time-intensive process and quality leather and tools Hester uses to create her products pays off in the long run in products that will last for years and years to come.
“If something is made from good leather, it will last a lifetime,” Hester said.
Hester does have help from shop assistants, who are also learning along the way.
Katie Zimmerman has known Hester for about 10 years and has been working with her for about one. She helps with saddle cleaning, takes apart saddles, puts them together and braids products, among other tasks.
Zimmerman, who also does some farrier work, said she enjoys working with the equipment and getting to know about different parts of the leather work.
Molly Bowe, another one of the assistants, listed gluing, cutting, stamping and sewing among the various tasks she’s been taught.
“I like learning,” Bowe said.
Hester has other students visit on and off, too, she said, including one from Green Bay, who has made several trips to learn from Hester.
“I love teaching, and I love having the girls around ... because maybe they’re never going to do leather work with their life, but it teaches them how to use their hands, how to be creative,” Hester said.
In the area of the building not dedicated to Hester Saddlery is L.O.F Tack & Apparel, which sells a variety of Western goods. The Rock Falls location is a secondary shop for L.O.F, which also has a location in Winona, Minnesota.
Hester met Leesa Berhow of L.O.F. at a tack swap. As Berhow was looking for another location and Hester had extra space that she had been using to display local artists’ works and other items, the combination of L.O.F. and Hester Saddlery in the building together ended up being a good fit.
Information on pricing and drop offs can be obtained by contacting Hester Saddlery. Hester Saddlery can be reached by phone at 715-559-5767 or email at email@example.com. Hester Saddlery also has a Facebook page.
A Western Christmas Sale is planned for Dec. 7 and 8.