All Western Plastics, Inc. from Lusk, Wyoming built the original plastic saddles from 1946-1949. There were only 65 saddles built before they closed their doors forever.
The All Western Saddle Company was the brain child of Bill Vandegrift, a Colorado resident who came up with the idea of a plastic western saddle in the late 1940’s with leather still in short supply following WWII. The huge sheets of plastic, called Geon, were about 1/4" thick, and basically the same material as today's PVC pipe - coming in a variety of colors. It was possible to place a seamless cover on the saddle seat by heating the sheet and wrapping it while still warm around the form. The few seams that were necessary, such as around the horn or the stirrups, were covered by decoration, according to plastic saddle aficionado and historian Tom Harrower.
T. C. “Tommy” Neilson had come to Lusk in 1936 to establish a shoe repair and leather shop. In the small building just north of the Safeway store he began his saddle manufacturing with the help of well-known Jack Kirwan. In 1942, Tommy found it necessary to buy the former Berry building for expansion, and expanded his leather manufacture business. This business expansion convinced Mr. Vandergrift, who owned a shop in Alliance, Nebr., that the Lusk firm was the one to pioneer the plastic. In 1946 Vandergrift enlisted Tommy Nielsen and Bernard Francis Thon, an excellent craftsman, to produce each hand crafted saddle. It took two months for Thon and Neilson to build the prototype plastic saddle that would be functional, durable, salable, and attractive.
“Van” was a cowboy, grew up on the Western slope in Colorado, and knew what the horseman wanted in the way of gear. He said that the only problem was to get this plastic gear where horsemen could see it. He believed that once they saw it, they could not resist its beauty.
Getting the plastic saddles in front of the public eye was accomplished when cowboy legend Roy Rogers was chosen as the spokesperson for these saddles. He was not only a promoter, but also a collector of the novelty saddles - frequently riding his flashy and unique plastic saddles in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade.
Due to the company’s success, the All Western Plastic Company moved to Scottsbluff, Nebraska in 1949. After they reopened the business there a cyclone destroyed the building and the business. This was the end of the plastic saddle company.
The Lusk Herald
October 17, 1946
PLASTIC SADDLES TO BE MADE BY LUSK FIRM
A black and white plastic saddle in the window of the T. C. Neilson Co., is attracting considerable attention.
This saddle marks the beginning of a new product to be manufactured by this Lusk saddle and leather good manufacturing concern.
Neilson is to be the sole maker of plastic saddles for the All-western Plastics Company of Alliance, Nebr., and all saddles will carry the brand, "T. C. Neilson Co., Lusk, Wyoming, Saddle Division for All-Western Plastics Co., Alliance, Nebr."
Many will remember the red and white plastic saddle displayed on a mount at the Niobrara County Fair and Rodeo. This was displayed by Wm. Vandergrift of the Alliance firm, and had also been displayed in Madison Square Garden.
The saddle now on display in the Neilson window is the second saddle to be made of this B. F. Goodrich plastic, and the original saddle has been widely advertised in national publications.
With over 40 orders now on hand the Neilson Co. is still in the initial stages of production with experiments in designing of plastic still going on in a Chicago plant. A blue and white saddle is now under production.
While the first saddles will go almost entirely for show purposes, the plastic is said to have all the strength and many of the features of leather. While it looks slick, the feel is much like well-finished leather, and it will not crack or break in any temperature or weather condition.
Only saddles will be made at Lusk. Bridles, martingales, breast collars and other accessories will be made at Alliance.
Further printed information available from the Niobrara County Library:
Saddlemaking in Wyoming: History, Utility, Art
- Dr. Sharon Kahin
University of Wyoming Art Museum
The Legend of the Rawhide Buttes
, Souvenir Program
Niobrara County Fair, August 23-24-25, 1946 (restricted to in Library Use)
The Legend of Rawhide
, Souvenir Program
June 8, 1947, (restricted to in Library Use)
The following links provide further information and photos:
Rare All Western Plastics Inc. Saddle
Roy Rogers - Happy Trails Children's foundation
Blue Plastic Saddle
Roy's Saddles by Joel "Dutch" Dortch
Dale’s Parade Saddle
American Eagle Plastic Saddle
The Circus 'No Spin Zone': Roy Roger’s plastic saddles
Plastic Western Saddles
Synthetic Saddlery – Casper Star Tribune
Unique Items at the North Platte Valley Musuem
Roy Rogers, Dale Evans collection comes to the Autry