Silver & Saddles
originally published in the December 2009 issue
This time of year, stories of Santa Claus, elves and a workshop at the North Pole fill children's imaginations. If there's such a thing as Santa's workshop for cowboys and buckaroos, it's J.M. Capriola Co. in Elko, Nevada. The store has outfitted horsemen and working ranch hands for 80 years and is connected to the G.S. Garcia bit- and spur-making legacy that began in 1864. Capriola's, as the store is commonly known, is also a planned stop for travelers passing through Elko, many of whom grew up adding items from the Capriola's catalog to their holiday wish lists.
Located in a historic block of the old mining and cow town, Capriola's has always been a cowboy's one-stop shop. On the lower level of the two-store building, you'll find racks of shirts and jackets, shelves of colorful boots and neatly stacked jeans, a wall of hats waiting to be steamed and shaped to perfection, and any piece of rawhide, horsehair or leather gear you could ever want. Most impressive is a glass case filled with ornate spade bits and vaquero-style spurs, all made under the Garcia trademark.
Besides a great selection of gear, one of the unique things that draws visitors into the store is the upstairs saddle shop and museum. In this era of mass production and custom commissions, it's rare to find a local saddle shop that still makes its own custom leather and silver goods on site, and that has a vast collection of saddles and gear from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The door to the saddle shop is always open for visitors to observe and ask questions. As you walk up the steep, narrow staircase toward the workshop, you'll hear tapping mauls and mallets, and rumbling sewing machines. You can't help but breathe in and appreciate the musky smell of leather.
That smell is what Betty Bear remembers most about visiting the store as a ranch kid growing up in Elko County.
"I just loved how the store smelled of leather," she says. "I couldn't wait to go there with my family. Everyone [in Elko County] shopped there. I've spent so much time in the store through the years that I no longer smell the leather."
In 1958, Betty and her husband, Paul, purchased J.M. Capriola Co., a 29-year-old business at the time, from Frank Jayo. The couple had been working on a ranch 30 miles outside of Elko and needed to be closer to town for Paul's health and so their three children—Bob, Bill and Paula—could be close to school. The Bear children all ended up working at the saddle shop and eventually purchased it from their parents. Now, Paula's son, John Wright, is preparing to carry on Capriola's craftsmanship heritage with his partner Andy Stevens.
Built on Artistry
The story of Capriola's traces back to 1896, when G.S. Garcia and his wife, Saturnina, moved from Santa Margarita, California, to Elko to capitalize on the bustling buckaroo culture. In addition to employing several craftsmen in his Elko saddle shop, he also had his own tannery and saddle-tree operations, and bought cattle from local ranchers.
Garcia became a prominent figure in Elko. On his property he created a racetrack, speedway and rodeo grounds for the public. This was the start of the Elko Rodeo. Garcia also was the first Elko resident to receive a parcel post package and was one of the first gear makers to offer a mail-order catalog. Sent in 1897, the catalog contained 13 pages and offered seven chap styles, three bits and three types of spurs.
As demand for Garcia's gear spread, the craftsman had to innovate to gain efficiency. His custom saddles remained hand-tooled, but he developed embossing plates for standard catalog saddles. With the embossing plates, a leather worker could place leather on the plates and, using a mallet, pound a pattern into the leather.
Despite its success, Garcia Saddlery Company was plagued by fire, economic depression and family tragedy through the years. Deaths and illnesses forced the Garcias to spend the majority of their time in California, so Garcia opened a branch store in Los Angeles. By the 1920s, Garcia's craftsmanship had gained international notoriety, which led him to open a store in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Shortly after Garcia died in 1933 at age 69, the Great Depression took its toll on Elko County. Seeking ways to increase business, Garcia's sons Henry and Les opened another saddle shop in Salinas, California, a community based on farming and ranching, and relied on horses rather than mechanized machinery. Once the Salinas store was up and running, Les returned to Elko to manage the flagship store until it closed in December of 1938.
Competition from Capriola
Many craftsmen began their saddle-making careers at Garcia Saddlery Shop, including Joseph Martin Capriola, who apprenticed under Garcia from 1905 to 1907. After marrying and working on a ranch in Lamoille, Nevada, Capriola returned to Elko in 1924 and rented space to do leather and canvas repairs. By 1929, Capriola's business had expanded to making saddles, and he opened a shop down the street from Garcia's. Both shops did well and supported each other. Capriola was not a silversmith, so sold Garcia bits and spurs.
Capriola's son, also named Joseph, and his wife, Rosie, partnered with the elder Capriola from 1944 to 1947, when the younger Capriola died. Then Rosie and her father-in-law ran the business for eight more years, before selling it to Rosie's brother, Frank Jayo, in 1955.
As the cattle business boomed in the 1950s, so did Elko. Celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Joel McCrea and Jimmie Stewart performed at the casinos in Elko before they became household names in Las Vegas and Reno. They bought ranches in the area and brought attention to the town, the Western lifestyle and Capriola's.
The day after Jayo's sudden death in June 1958, ranchers Paul and Betty Bear purchased the store. Just a few months later it burned to the ground.
"We received a phone call in the middle of the night about the fire," recalls Betty. "We were able to get only a couple of truckloads of merchandise, and then we had to just watch it all burn."
Just a few days later, Capriola's was back in business in a leased building with existing inventory and some Paul had picked up from a vendor in Utah. The Bears purchased the demolished building from Capriola and began rebuilding the store and expanding its merchandise.
To local ranchers, cowboys and buckaroos, Capriola's was more than a store. It was also a hangout and a place to find out about ranches that were hiring hands.
"My dad was friends with everyone and had a good rapport with the local ranches," recalls Paula. "If he couldn't find a cowboy a job, he'd put them to work on our ranch until they found something else."
The store was a family business. Paul worked in the leather shop, while Betty handled the buying and bookkeeping duties. Even the Bear children contributed to the store's craftsmanship when they weren't competing in rodeos or working on the family ranch.
"My earliest memories of the store are making dog collars and cat harnesses," Paula recalls. "When I was 19, I began making all the chinks and chaps."
After graduating from college, each of the Bear children returned to Elko and learned all aspects of running the saddle shop. In 1972, they purchased the shop from their parents. Under their management, the new owners added a second story to the store for showroom, saddle shop and office space. They also purchased Les Garcia's bit and spur making business, bringing the legacy back to Elko.
Saddle makers such as Eddie Brooks and Pedro Pedrini started their careers at Capriola's. Former Capriola's craftsmen visit the store and often provide pointers for the new generation of saddle makers and silversmiths.
Technology and Tradition
Paula always had a special interest in running the store, so it was no surprise when she and her husband, Doug Wright, took full ownership of the business in 1985. Still under the Wright's management, the store employs 10 people, including three full-time craftsmen.
"I'm not sure how this store has survived and recreated itself so many times," Paula says. "But I do think it has to do with the fact that families ran it."
The Wright's 28-year-old son, John, manages the saddle shop. Like his mother, John started working in the store at a young age, sweeping the shop and making small strap goods, and also working on ranches. While attending college, he did repairs for side money, knowing that he'd eventually return to Elko and run the shop. John and his wife, Susan, have two children, Charlie, 4, and Audrey, 2.
"I was born into saddle making, and it's a traditional I want to keep alive for my kids," he says.
A Nevada state all-around cowboy in high school rodeo, John not only makes tack, but he also uses it to cowboy, rope and ride roughstock in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
"We pride ourselves on having durable saddles with good ground seats that cowboys can ride comfortably all day long," he says. "There are a lot of craftsmen who can create beautiful work on a saddle and bit, but function is a totally different thing. That's why it's good for a saddle maker to get input from a cowboy or go use the gear himself. You have to use the gear before you can build it."
John is joined in the shop by Armando Delgado, who came to Capriola's from Mexico 25 years ago. Andy Stevens is the newest craftsman to join the crew and runs a herd of Corriente cattle with John. The 33-year-old craftsman hails from Orleans, Nebraska, where he had his own saddle shop for 15 years. He apprenticed under Doug Krause.
"I remember the first time I came into the store," Andy recalls. "It was 1999 and I was on the way to the Snaffle Bit Futurity with Doug Krause. We drove hard all day to make it to Elko in time to see Capriola's and have dinner at the Star. I'd heard about Capriola's since I was a kid and had some of the old catalogs. I was enamored with the store when I finally got to see it."
All Capriola's leather gear is stamped with the company's name, but discerning horsemen can distinguish each craftsman's unique style, as well as the different eras of Garcia's work. Custom tack continues to be a tradition at Capriola's, but repairs are just as important.
"Capriola's motto of 'We make the best and repair the rest' holds true today," says Doug Wright.
As John and Andy transition into management and ownership, another phase of Capriola's begins. This era is marked by cyberspace sales and finding ways to increase production efficiency without sacrificing quality craftsmanship.
"Our challenge is to marry technology with tradition," explains Andy. "We still make everything by hand, and one guy builds an order from start to finish, but we now have power tools to make certain parts of the job more efficiently."
Capriola's has had to evolve with the times, but many things remain the same. Cowboys and buckaroos still feel a connection with the store and its heritage, its Great Basin influences and its commitment to traditional cowboy craftsmanship.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. For more information on J.M. Capriola Co., visit capriolas.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.