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Making saddles in a trail town

Mar. 31—OLIVE HILL — A weathered sign with a saddle on the corner sits along U.S. 60 just outside of Olive Hill. The lettering is faded, some are missing. A tattered American flag flies from the top of the simple wood sign.

A few yards behind the sign sits Danny Grim's leather workshop; a place where Grim creates remarkable custom-made leather goods. Inside a converted garage the walls are lined with straps and pieces of leather, tools line the workbench along the back wall, two sewing machines and a table dominate the floor as a wood stove warms the shop; adding the smell of burning wood to the air.

"When I open that door right there and come in my shop in the morning this whole shop smells of leather," Grim said. "That right there puts a smile on my face when I first smell it. I can be having a bad day or something like that and I can lose the world in here."

The unassuming shop matches the unassuming man.

"The Lord give me talents, he give me many talents, he's the man I give praise for all of that and I want everyone to know that," Grim said.

Grim has used his talents to open his business, Circle Bar G Saddlery, where he works with leather; the bulk of Grim's work is saddle repair, but he makes his own pieces.

"Anything in leather, pistol belts and holsters, bridles, breast collar, you name it, billfolds, belts, I've made many, many belts over the years," Grim said. "Anything they can come up with I've made over the years. I've made it or can make it."

In addition to the custom leather work, Grim hand-tools some of the pieces.

Grim said he would guess he's done more than 1,000 saddle repairs in his lifetime.

"I never really did keep track of (repairs), but on my custom saddle now, I do keep track of how many I've built," he said.

Sitting on a stand he built is the 68th saddle Grim is making. Along a wall sits No. 67 completed.

"It's a roping saddle going to Northern Ohio," Grim said about his current project.

Grim's saddles have gone across the country and even the world.

"From Jackson Hole, Wyoming this a-way, I've got business all over the United States," Grim said. "I've got two custom saddles in Spain. I've got work in England."

Only the best

Grim only wants the best of items used in his saddles, which often means building parts himself.

"I don't want my name on junk," Grim said. "Listen, if you do a quality job and use quality material, then people will come back to you. It's gonna last longer. They see the job that you put into it and, also, the material you put into it. You know, that goes a long way in a business."

That dedication to quality is the foundation of all of his pieces, which are all made on a stand Grim built.

"I built this when I first started building saddles," Grim said. "I've seen this pattern in a saddle book. and they showed the dimensions of it and I thought, 'Well, shoot, I can build that.'"

Before he starts on construction of a saddle, Grim makes bridles and straps as well as the rest of the additional items, before tackling the seat of the saddle.

"I use Herman Oak Leather, and that is some of the best leather you can buy in the United States," Grim said.

He starts by creating poster board templates of the items to be made.

"That way I'm not wasting leather," Grim said. "You get that paper pattern to suit you. Then you lay it down on a piece of leather and you trace around it, cut it out and you start that way. That way you don't waste a lot of leather."

Grim said he keeps the cardboard patterns to use on future projects.

The construction of the saddle starts with a saddle tree, which gives the basic shape and strength to a saddle.

"This is a wood tree wrapped in fiberglass," Grim said. "What people call fiberglass trees today is a plastic tree and they think it's fiberglass. It's not, it's plastic. I don't want my name on something like that because it don't last. It will break up over a period of time. Where they put the screws in or they put the nails in it starts cracking right there. I've repaired a many one of them. I know I've seen many of them."

The saddle has a strainer seat installed. While there are commercial available seats, Grim often makes his own.

"It has to be in there to keep the leather from breaking down over a period of years. That's the foundation of it," Grim explained. "I use a good galvanized metal. In fact, it's heat duct material."

Grim has also made his own tools for the process. One such tool is a piece of Osage wood Grim has formed to help him work the leather.

"You wouldn't believe what it helps me do on building a saddle," Grim said. "It helps me smooth out wrinkles. You wet that leather down and (the tool) has to be good and smooth so it doesn't scratch the leather."

One tool Grim has made also keeps track of the number of saddles he's made.

"See that doorknob right there? That porcelain doorknob?" Grim says. "That has helped me build every saddle I've built, will every build."

Grim said there is a specialty tool that costs between $150-200, but he built his own using an old doorknob and an old hammer handle he found at a flea market to do the same job.

"I may have 50 cents or a dollar or dollar-five into it," Grim said.

The handle has marks for every saddle Grim has built on it.

"I burn (a mark) into the wood," Grim said. "That way I keep track of how many saddles I've built over the years."

Packages from the pen

"My uncle started me in the early '70s," Grim said.

As a child of 8 or 9, Grim recalled getting packages from his uncle, Edmund Slone, and knowing then leather working was in his future.

"He was in La Grange State Penitentiary," Grim said. "He was sending home to my mother (Slone's sister) billfolds, shoe boxes full of billfolds and handbags, beautiful handbags he'd hand tooled."

"I'd open that box when he'd send it home and I'd get one of them billfolds out and smell that leather and twist it and hear it squeak and I knew I was going to be saddle man or a leather craftsman from that day on."

Slone was the nephew of James Monroe Slone who worked leather in Johnson County.

"He was the man that actually started it. I'm third generation," Grim said. "(James) had a shoe shop, harness repair shop and saddle repair shop and built custom Kentucky quilted seated saddles."

While Grim knew what he wanted to do, it took a couple more decades for him to get trained in the family craft.

"Now my uncle, he'd get out on parole and he'd break his parole and have to go back to prison. You know what I mean? He's getting drunk, getting in a fight or something other, you know," Grim said.

In the early '70s, Grim was working in construction in Columbus.

"When he got all his time served in prison and I knew he wasn't going to break his parole, I come down and got him and took him back to Columbus with me," Grim said. "I kept him about three weeks and he got me started in leather crafting."

The trail to Olive Hill

Grim was born and raised in Paintsville.

He moved to Columbus in the '60s to work construction.

He got married in 1965 to his wife, Judy.

"I was called to Uncle Sam's Army in '66," Grim said. "I was with the Nike Hercules missile base."

Grim said he got a letter of induction, but volunteered instead. He served for two and a half years in radio communications and then as a kitchen supervisor.

After getting out of the Army, Grim returned to Kentucky.

A miner's helmet hangs on a hook alongside an assortment of belt buckles in Grim's shop.

"That's kept my knot from getting hurt many, many times under the hill," Grim said about the helmet. "I spent five years in the deep mines. Up at the head of Wolfe Creek in Martin County."

After five years, Grim moved back to Columbus and worked in carpentry.

In 1992, Grim decided he was done working in construction.

"I told my wife I was tired of working for the other man. 'I'm going to pray about it, ask the Lord to help me do my business,'" he said. "You know, get started in building saddles and stuff like that. And he did, he covered me up."

Grim bought a farm in Lawrence County before selling it and moving to Olive Hill.

"I had people coming to me up there, but (business) wasn't real good," Grim said. "I knew there were more horses this way."

"This is a horse county," Grim said. "People rode horses down in this area."

The future for Grim

"When I pass on, my daughter gets this shop," Grim said. "Her son was really interested in it when he was younger. But when he got girls on his mind he dropped the leather work. He might come back to it. He's married now, got kids of his own and he loves horses. He may come back to it. If he does, he's set up. He don't have to buy nothing."

Grim said he doesn't have plans to retire or hand the shop down to a fourth-generation leather worker in the family any time soon.

"As long as the Lord gives me the will and the ability of doing work, I'm going to be working," Grim said. "When you see Danny Grim quit working, you'll see his 10 toes sticking up. Or eight toes now, I've lost two toes from diabetes. I told 'em over there at the VA hospital I can still count to 18, I've got ten fingers and eight toes."

Getting a Circle Bar G Saddlery piece

Grim said it takes about three months for him to complete a custom saddle.

"I could build them when I was younger in two months. Now that I've got some age on me I can't do that," Grim said. "I don't run through my saddles. I take my time on them and make sure they're right as well as I can do them."

Grim, at 76, still works six days at week.

"Anymore, it depends on my legs," Grim said. "My feet and legs are messed up on me now. On this concrete, when my legs and feet start hurting I quit and go to the home and prop my legs up. I work maybe five hours a day. Used to I could work eight hours, maybe 12, but I can't do that anymore."

For information about a saddle, belt, harness, chest plate or anything made in leather, contact Grim at (606) 286-0089. Grim also makes oil paintings, blacksmithing items and items from wood.

606-326-2644 — mjones@dailyindependent.com