Those of us living in and around Petaluma have often heard this region referred to as ‘wine country,’ ‘dairy country,’ or as an ‘egg basket.’ Another moniker to consider, with nearly 25,000 horses enjoying life in Sonoma County, is ‘horse country.’ Throughout our history, for many local kids who dreamed of owning their own horse, that wish came true as a birthday, holiday, or graduation gift.
For those lucky enough to own a horse, the next step was to find the proper-fitting saddle, but over the years the number of saddle makers skilled in the craftsmanship and tooling required to build custom saddles has dwindled to a select few. In California, there are only about a dozen custom saddle makers still plying the trade, and just two are in Sonoma County.
In Petaluma, 65 years after esteemed saddle maker and bull riding rodeo cowboy Jim Palm — who also rode bucking broncos — first opened Palm’s Saddle Shop, his son, Jay Palm, is dutifully carrying on the family tradition as a third generation saddle maker.
Jim was born on the Sonoma Mountain Road ranch his parents, grandfather and an uncle moved to from San Francisco in 1908. The middle child of three, he learned the finer points of saddle making from his father, and from artisan Walt Goldsmith of San Francisco, before joining the Army and serving in Korea. Home from the service, he worked for a custom saddle maker in Santa Rosa before opening his own shop in a converted chicken house on sparsely populated Ely Road (now Sonoma Mtn. Parkway) in 1952.
Relying on his newly learned skills and employing a set of leather-working tools acquired from a Petaluma harness maker named Northrup Myers, Palm gained a wide reputation as a custom saddle maker specializing in ranch and show saddles. In addition to his shop, he accepted orders for his ornate show saddles at fairs and rodeos and at the prestigious Grand National Livestock, Horse Show and Rodeo at the Cow Palace. A superb saddle builder, Palm didn’t really enjoy performing the required intricate leather tooling, so he brought in one of the best, Gene Sisko, who worked for him for 30 years.
Jim and his wife Arlene raised two children on the property. Jay was born in 1964, and sister Jaky in ’66. Jay’s first horse was an old roping horse, and his first saddle was very plain, while his sister had a fancier, flower-tooled model. Among Jay’s earliest jobs was learning the repetitious process of edging reins, how to braid rawhide and practicing tooling.
As a freshman at Casa Grande High School (Class of ’82), Jay capitalized on the great opportunity to learn the art of saddle making from his father, and dedicated himself to the difficult task, which requires about two years of apprenticeship.
Saddle making is complex and time consuming, and demands patience. No two saddles are alike, and a well-built saddle is capable of lasting a lifetime. With more than 20 individual parts comprising the finished product, its design, construction and craftsmanship are vital. A wall of bewildering looking leather carving tools — more than 200 of them, according to Palm — all as sharp as surgeon’s scalpels, are within easy reach of the builder. Awls and hafts, creasers and folders, hammers and mallets, pliers and nippers, grommet tools and stamps, and many more, line the wall.