Smith-Worthington Rides High on Saddles : Manufacturing: The 200-year-old Connecticut company produces about 2,000 seats each year.
Curtis Hanks strolled over to a custom-made leather saddle and admired the dark, rich texture with satisfaction.
“That’s our pride and joy,” he said. “In fact, we think it’s the best in the world.”
Hanks owns the Smith-Worthington Saddlery Co., where employees have been stitching saddles since George Washington was president.
It was 1794 when Normand Smith opened for business, making and repairing saddles in a shop on Main Street in Hartford. The company has since filled thousands of orders worldwide, producing, on average, 2,000 saddles each year.
Smith-Worthington is “almost certainly the oldest surviving saddle manufacturer in the United States,” said James Hutchins, supervisor of the division of armed forces history in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“They’re probably, I think, certainly one of the oldest manufacturing concerns of any kind in the United States,” he said.
The company made saddles and harnesses for both sides during the Civil War, as well as holsters for the bobbies in England during World War II. It also made harnesses for Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd’s sled dogs.
“I just think that’s another interesting fact that has to go with the (company’s) longevity,” Hanks said.
Back in the late 1950s, the Shah of Iran visited the company to purchase some materials for his royal horses.
The Shah arrived with an entourage of 10 people and bought 10 complete horse outfits, including bridles and blankets, recalled Clinton Hanks, 77, who owned Smith-Worthington for about 35 years before giving the business to his son. “We were quite thrilled to have him here.”
Each year, about 80 custom-made saddles are produced in Hartford, pieced together by three saddle makers, one of whom has been at the company for 25 years. The company’s ready-to-use saddles are made by contractors in Britain.
It takes about 42 hours to make an average custom saddle. They cost about $2,200 each, while ready-made saddles run between $680 and $1,403.
Hanks said he began helping out at his father’s factory in his spare time as a college student. “I was just very interested in watching the saddlers when I started here.”
Today, he has come to identify the ingredients of a top-notch saddle.
“I haven’t yet seen a synthetic that works in saddles,” he said. “In fact, I see a lot of leathers that don’t work in saddles.”
Wool and pigskin are among the materials used in Smith-Worthington’s saddles.
“We use the best grade of pigskin in the world. Pigskin doesn’t mean much to most people. But pigskin is the second strongest leather in the world,” Hanks said.
Although Hanks doesn’t release sales or earnings figures for the privately held Smith-Worthington, he says profits, sales and inventory were up last year. He estimates sales increased about 20% in 1992 over the previous year, even though the weak economy forced the closing of several shops that carry Smith-Worthington saddles.