The 19-year-old daughter of Ezra Herschberger of Beeville had spent 250 hours stitching and molding pieces of tooled and stamped leather into a saddle.
She couldn’t afford to attend the award ceremony in Sheridan, Wyo. So, the award — a medallion with her name engraved on the back along with a check for $250 — was shipped to Beeville and presented to her by a local saddle maker.
It wasn’t her first award nor, one suspects, her last. It was the latest of a series of local and regional contests entered over the last eight years.
The time capsule of those years is collected in a three-ring binder that begins with a brief biography of her career, followed by photographs of 117 leather projects ranging from wallets to purses to belt buckles to saddles. Eleven pages, going back eight years.
IN 2005, Ezra Herschberger had a problem. Well, more than one. After years of indecision, he and his family left the local Amish community, willing to endure all that contained: banishment, shunning, friends lost who were like family.
And he needed help in his leather shop, and he couldn’t find it.
“So, I drafted Clara.”
She was 11 at the time, his eldest daughter.
Ezra now was of the Amish community but not in it. Whatever his doctrinal differences, much of the tradition and the training remained. For Clara, going to work not yet a teenager was the pattern. Besides, she wanted to do it, for even then, she had an abiding interest in her father’s work.
In her brief biography, she writes, “It always fascinated me how Dad could take a flat piece of leather and make a useful item of quality that would last for years.”
Like all apprenticeships, she began to learn her trade with the basics: cleaning and oiling saddles.
Soon, she was changing the leather on stirrups and doing small repair jobs — vital tasks, perhaps, but repetitive and therefore boring for a child.
“Dad told me to stick to it,” she says, “that I would come to enjoy and love it.”
She did, and did.
IN THE next three years, she still cleaned saddles, but she was beginning to make items, too.
“One day in October, 2008, Dad was doing business in town,” she writes.
When the cat’s away...
She picked up some of her father’s 20 stamping tools, found a discarded piece of leather, and started to experiment.
Her father had told her never to touch his tools, so she stashed her beginning efforts in a dusty corner.
The Ezra Hersberger leather shop is of Amish design, wooden floors — “I love walking around barefoot,” Ezra says. “Couldn’t do that with the Amish” — harnesses, bridles and belts hanging from nails, the shop illuminated by low-energy, compact fluorescent bulbs in the wooden beams of the exposed ceiling. No frills; strictly utilitarian — plenty of places to hide pieces of scrap leather.
Or so she thought.
“I guess I didn’t hide ’em as well as I thought,” she writes.
“I found the pieces,” Ezra says, “but I didn’t let her know that.” Clara, he says, is clever. “Maybe she half-hid them, so that I could find them.”
WHATEVER THE motivation, Ezra built Clara her own stamping table. Clara soon graduated to making Christmas tree ornaments, custom coasters and decorations for saddles her father was making.
To her surprise, and Ezra’s delight, people starting giving her commissions.
Each project, she remembers, was more challenging.
Four years after Ezra asked her to help him in the shop, Clara began her first saddle.
“It took me 140 hours,” she says. The western saddle — she only makes western saddles — consisted of 25 pieces of leather and the “tree,” the molded seat with a cast-iron horn.
She was on her own. Because she wanted to enter it in contests, Ezra couldn’t help, except to offer advice.
She won second place in the beginner’s class at the Boots and Saddle Makers Roundup in Wichita Falls.
She sold it for $2,500.
HER PROJECTS expanded to include belts, Bible covers, purses, gun cases, vests and motorcycle seats.
And more saddles.
Her latest, which won the Stohlman award, sold for $6,000 — 140 percent appreciation over her first one.
It cost between $600 and $800 to build, obviously not including labor costs.
Each saddle bears a stamped alliteration: “Clara’s Creations, ESH Saddle Shop.”
Her award-winning saddle was entered in the novice class; with her next she will be competing in the adult, big league. She says she’s going to wait another two years before entering the contest again.
Ezra is deservedly proud of Clara. “It’s special to see her carry on the business,” he smiles.
Clara smiles back. This, she says, is what she wants to do from now on.
“Leatherwork,” she says.
“It gets in your blood.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.