Elko’s buckaroo roots on display at new Cowboy Arts, Gear Museum
The northeastern Nevada town of Elko certainly has a strong claim to being America’s cowboy capital. In addition to hosting the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering every January, it’s also home of the Western Folklife Center and the new Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum.
The latter opened in February 2018 and showcases a host of beautiful, handcrafted leather saddles and silver work. The museum is located inside the former G.S. Garcia Saddle Shop at 542 Commercial St,, which was built in 1907.
The setting is appropriate since Guadalupe S. Garcia is considered one of the most gifted saddle makers and silversmiths of all time. Born in Sonora, Mexico in 1864, Garcia moved to California as a child and, at the age of 16, became an apprentice saddle maker in San Luis Obispo.
In 1884, Garcia opened his own saddle shop in Santa Margarita. Within a few short years, he became known as one of the premier saddle makers in the world. About a decade later, he relocated to Elko, where he found a ready market for his fine, handcrafted leather goods.
Originally situated in the Mayhugh building (owned by John S. Mayhugh, a successful civil engineer and prominent Elko businessman, who also served as a state legislator and was one of the first regents of the University of Nevada), Garcia’s saddle shop was almost immediately successful and within a few months he was able to hire an assistant.
In 1895, Garcia moved to a larger building and a year later opened a branch shop in Deeth, Nev. In 1903, he began work on a magnificent saddle — now considered his masterpiece — to show at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and at the Lewis and Clark World’s Fair and Exposition in Portland, Ore., in 1905.
Called “Garcia Beauty,” the saddle, dyed a rich black, boasted hand-tooled American Beauty roses and was decorated with gold, silver and diamonds. Across the rear of the fork were $20 gold coins with the likenesses of President Theodore Roosevelt and two of Nevada’s governors, John Sparks and William Nye. Not surprisingly, it earned three gold medals at the fairs.
Garcia’s fame continued to grow throughout the years, with eager customers ordering his gear from the catalogs he distributed throughout the west, starting in 1899. His business also grew, eventually employing more than dozen master gear makers, who produced silver bits, spurs, rawhide braiders, hair cinches and ropes — in addition to the world-famous saddles.
By 1917, however, Garcia, in poor health, began spending more time in Southern California. By 1920, he had turned over operation of the Elko shop to his two sons and was living full time in Los Angeles. He died in 1933 and was buried in Santa Margarita.
As for the Elko shop, his sons continued to operate it until 1938, then relocated to Salinas, California, where they continued making saddles and other western gear until 1966.
As for the G.S. Garcia building, it was purchased in 1940 by the Elko-Lamoille Power Co., which later became NV Energy, to serve as their operations and business center. The power company continued to use the building for that purpose until 2016, when it constructed a new building on the east side of Elko.
Shortly after moving out, the power company donated the building for use as a museum to honor Elko’s cowboy traditions.
Wandering through the building, visitors will find rows of vintage — and beautiful — saddles on display. The museum, in fact, has recreated the atmosphere of Garcia’s original shop with antique bridles, harnesses, spurs, bits and other western gear. Future exhibits will show how a saddle is constructed and how cowboy gear is utilized.
In the back of the museum is a small gift shop that offers Made-in-Nevada items.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For information, go to http://www.cowboyartsandgearmuseum.org.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.