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Cowboy Leather

Buck Steiner founded Capitol Saddlery six decades ago to supply what every good Orange rider needs

FOLKS around here can tell you about how T.C. (Buck) Steiner was scarcely a dozen years old when he left home in 1912 to ride bulls in the rodeo. Or how he used to break broncos on Congress Avenue.

Better yet, Mr. Steiner will tell you those stories himself if you stop by Capitol Saddlery, the business he opened at 1614 Lavaca Street 62 years ago. The welcome he gives to visitors is as pleasant and inviting as the leather scent that permeates the brick building.

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Like many people in central Texas, Steiner has roots in Germany. His immigrant grandfather opened the town's first buggy, harness, and saddle shop on Pecan Street.

"My daddy was kind of a rancher when he started out, but he got broke," Steiner says. "I had one uncle, John B. Moore, [who] was the biggest rancher in this country at one time." That uncle even bought the first automobile in Austin, a Buick, in 1908. But "he died blind and broke."

Steiner, however, had a knack for business and investments. He reportedly once owned 92 pieces of land around Austin. Much has been sold to developers, but the family still has thousands of acres.

On one ranch he maintains the largest herd of registered Brangus (3/8ths Brahman, 5/8ths Angus) cattle in Texas next to that of Clayton Williams, the millionaire Republican who lost the last election for governor. Steiner still uses the XS brand that his father and grandfather used.

Steiner dropped out of school halfway through the second grade - "I didn't see no future in it." He became a cowboy, driving cattle through the streets of Austin to deliver to buyers.

"One time we crossed the river, and I was behind the cattle, and the guy that was in the front of them got scared," he recalls. "The cattle got to running. And I come around and turned them east on Fifth Street. They was going all the way to the capitol when I turned them."

Steiner started traveling with Wild West shows when he was 12. One of his specialties was riding bulls backward: It paid $25, compared with $1.50 to $2.50 for facing forward, he says. "That was big money in them days, I'll tell you."

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Eventually Steiner started his own traveling rodeo. The show included his young son Tommy on a buffalo. "That's the first thing he started riding," Steiner says.

The Steiner family even raised bulls and broncos to be used in rodeos, prizing the most difficult animals and getting rid of ones that could be ridden three times in succession. In 1973, when Tommy's son Bobby won the world bull-riding championship, the Steiners were "the royal family of rodeo." This year Buck and Tommy are nominees for induction into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

While traveling with the rodeo Steiner got into the saddle-making business. He bought a building that had once been a three-horse fire station and the site of dances every Saturday night. Eventually he had 96 saddlemakers, who supplied every Sears and Montgomery Ward store in the country.

The saddle business dropped off after World War II. Now the store primarily stocks production saddles, but riding professionals still want handmade ones. "I'm looking for a good saddlemaker," Steiner says, but "I've tried five men and none of them made saddles to suit me."

Capitol Saddlery also offers hand-made boots, starting at $500. "We make the finest boots of anybody in the United States," Steiner says confidently. Ramon Navarro is the chief bootmaker, having worked there 21 years. For the first six he worked alongside Charlie Dunn, whose bootmaking prowess was celebrated in a Jerry Jeff Walker song.

It takes Mr. Navarro 18 hours to make a pair of boots, and there's a three-month backlog. He shows the order book, where customers stand on blank pages so he can trace the outline of their feet. Besides Texas, there are pending orders from Illinois, New England, and even France.

Leather tooling completes the activity at Capitol Saddlery. Mike Slover and several apprentices make anything customers want, usually fancy chaps ($300) for bull riders like Aaron Semas, who leads the standings at the moment. Mr. Slover has made many custom items, such as a guitar strap for Lyle Lovett.

"It's hard to get in business for yourself and get experience," Slover says of leather tooling. For the first week after he started, "I worked for nothing. Then I was on minimum wage for 40 hours a week."

Steiner keeps a close eye on quality. "He doesn't want any garbage turned out," Slover says.

Austin's population is 20 times larger than when Steiner was a boy, but he doesn't seem to mind. "I like it better than anywhere in the United States or I wouldn't be here," he says.

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