The Dying Art of Saddlery
Don Warren, proprietor of Cabin Branch Tack Shop in Southern Pines refers to James Alford as the "Master Leather Doctor." Alford has been repairing leather tack for area horsemen for 27 years in different locations in Moore County.
According to Warren, in addition to doing work for Cabin Branch, Alford does most of the leather repair work for tack shops in North and South Carolina and some well-known shops in the Northeast.
Alford, a resident of Southern Pines since he was three years old, began his leather-crafting career working for E.J. Schmeltzer Sr. in the late 1960s at the Pinehurst Harness Track where Schmeltzer had a tack repair shop. Alford started out working after school and weekends taking stock and cleaning out the shop.
One day Schmeltzer asked Alford if he thought he could do some stitching. He began stitching harness and moved on to doing harness repair and saddle repair.
"I worked for Mr. Schmeltzer for eight or nine years before he let me touch a saddle and then he was always looking over my shoulder to make sure I did the job correctly," says Alford.
"I eventually worked my way up to doing custom work. Mr. Schmeltzer told me, 'You're learning a trade now so you'll never be out of a job. Take time, have patience and complete the job. If you do a rush job, it will come back on you.'"
Alford followed his advice.
In 1980, he left Schmeltzer's and relocated to the basement of the tack shop on Broad Street and joined Sam Bozick in the tack repair business. In 2003, Bozick retired and now James Alford is one of only two people still doing tack repair in the Sandhills. The other is Mark Bozick, Sam's son, who has a shop in Niagara.
A visit to Alford's shop finds it filled with items in for repair; bridles, boots, saddles, and other items made out of leather. There are strips of leather and rolls of leather waiting to be fashioned into custom bridles or used on repairs. Alford doesn't make many custom saddles these days but he does a lot of saddle repair.
One of his recent projects was refurbishing an older Smith-Worthington saddle for long-time client, Richard Webb, of Southern Pines. Smith-Worthington has been manufacturing saddles out of its Hartford, Conn., location since 1794. People who have Smith-Worthington's tend to keep them.
"I've had that saddle since I was a teenager and I'm now 80," says Webb. "That saddle went to the Garden (Madison Square Garden) when I was riding jumpers. It's an old friend."
"Jimmy does beautiful work and always has. He's willing to fix anything. He just put new tops on my hunt boots that had holes in them. Even though I have a new pair of boots, I prefer my old ones. Jimmy keeps them together for me."
Alford has an average of 20-30 customers per week come through the shop. If someone has an emergency and needs boots stitched, he tries to fix them within a day. Saddle repair takes anywhere from 60 days to 6 months (depending on how big the job is and how in a hurry someone is to have the work done). Alford had a leather trunk that needed repair which he worked on over a year to restore to its former glory.
"My favorite thing to work on is harness since that's what I started out doing years ago, and my least favorite is fixing blankets, though I do it," says Alford.
There aren't many people waiting in line to learn how to do leather repair work but that doesn't seem to bother Alford. "Not too many people want to do this anymore and not too many people have the patience to do it."
Even though Alford is usually under a "I need it yesterday" deadline, you would never know it from his demeanor. He sits behind his worktable with the same hand tools he used years ago, smoking his cigar and taking the time to chat with anyone who happens to stop in. One of his favorite subjects is NASCAR racing.
Alford has earned his reputation as the "Master Leather Doctor" over four decades stitching and fashioning leather. He can treat just about any ailment leather may have and restore it to health.
There should be a sign up as you enter his shop that says, "The Doctor will see you now."
Patricia Smith can be reached at fotobytocco @vbbi.us
More like this story