Frontier Custom Saddlery may be a bit of a challenge to find, but once inside the shop - housed in back and around the corner of building 6413 behind the Chic 'n Chop - prepare to be transported back into history, where a good saddle was not just a luxury but a necessity.
From "fooling around with leather" as a kid to creating a thriving saddle-making business in Bonners Ferry, Willie Cowell has come into his own.
Flanked by a collection of antique Western cans and a vibrant Mexican blanket, Willie Cowell, owner of Frontier Custom Saddlery, nearly glows as he talks of his love for leather work and his passion for crafting custom Western saddles.
"I don't make cheap, I don't cut corners, I use only the finest materials available," said Cowell. "I feel that my construction is second to none. That's the most important thing to me - making sure that nothing is going to fail the rider. Most of my saddles go to working Vaqueros who use their saddles every day in their work. It is a lifestyle to them and I want them to be safe and comfortable. Their lives depend on it."
Leatherworking since he was six years old by helping his mother with taxidermy work in northern California, Cowell began to acquire skills that would start him on the path that would lead him to set up shop in Boundary County three years ago.
"My mom was a natural seamstress and fabricator," said Cowell. "Since we were home-schooled, we were able to help wet-stretch deer hide, and then began to help making garments and lacing. I then started to explore nylon fabrication and textiles."
When he was 15, Cowell accidently got back into leather.
"I worked starting colts for an outfitter," said Cowell. "I also needed my own equipment as well as repairing my own tack and other odds and ends. I repaired some friends' tack, who told their friends, and the word spread. After that, the business just exploded."
Cowell said he was "talked into" making his first saddle about 10 years ago when he was in his early 20s.
"I already knew the ins and outs of Western saddles," he said."My first customer loved his saddle so much that he bought two more. I then made my own saddle. At that time, I owned some mules with unique backs and made saddles to fit them as well."
Cowell opened up a shop in Diamond Springs, Calif. near the Lake Tahoe region. Learning through trial and error, he said that he was not a natural talent.
"I've worked really hard to acquire what I've learned," he said. "I am a bit artistic, though. My challenge is to take the vision that I see in my head, translate that to a pattern on a piece of paper, and then transfer that pattern to leather. The advantage of being self-taught is that I've got my own style, and it shows in the work I do."
Cowell said that his work is very precise and symmetrical, which give a distinctive, unique quality to saddles that carry the "Willieboy Cowell, maker" mark. Each side of the saddle is a mirror image of its opposite side, and the embellishments he adds, like flowers or leaves, are all different. He also fills in the background extensively.
Cowell said he mostly makes Buckaroo-style saddles, which are prevalent in northern Nevada and the eastern Sierras, where the traditional Vaquero methods of raising cattle and horsemanship are still alive. A working buckaroo may order a specific saddle that can cost $6,000 to $10,000 and may be worn out in four years. But for him, Cowell said a custom saddle gives him status and is also an essential tool of his trade.
"Creating that kind of work for me is a lot of hard work," said Cowell. "What I generate truly comes from the depths of my soul."
Cowell also makes chaps, holsters, gun belts, rifle scabbards, purses, bible covers and saddle repair. He said he enjoys working with exotic leathers such as elephant, sting ray, shark, cayman and alligators. He can also inlay jewels or any other kind of stone.
"I can do anything anyone wants for a truly custom, one-of-a-kind item and I've never had an item returned or a dissatisfied customer," he said.
Cowell is also known for his expert horse tack repair. He said that the public is welcome to drop by the shop any time for a repair, but now that it's hunting season, he is not always there, so it's usually best to call for an appointment.
"I love my work and northern Idaho," he said. "I don't aspire to greatness. I just aspire to be happy."