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Remembering Ed Bohlin

Remembering  Ed Bohlin
Silver Screen Legends XVII.

Each year the Happy Trails Children’s Foundation carries on the work started by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to raise money for work with abused children. This year’s Silver Screen Legend’s offering is the 17th to be produced. Let’s look at a little history behind this year’s tribute.

The first Western movie, in fact the first movie, was The Great Train Robbery starring Bronco Billy Anderson and was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. It wasn’t long before the movie industry really began to expand and was headquartered in California where there was plenty of open spaces and good weather for filming.

One of the first stars of Western movies, which were silent, was William S. Hart, a former Shakespearean actor. Hart tried to dress and act like a real cowboy. He was followed by Tom Mix, who set the guidelines for “reel” cowboys—those who rode the silver screen and thrilled kids at Saturday matinees.

Tom Mix was flamboyant where William S. Hart was plain. Mix and his horse Tony made the transition from silent movies to talkies and set the stage for Gene Autry and Champion, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Hopalong Cassidy and Topper, and a whole long list of other “B” Western movie stars who tried to top each other when it came to fancy sixguns, leather and saddles.

Tom Mix himself really got around. Seth Bullock was a marshall in the Dakota Territories when Theodore Roosevelt was a rancher. In Bullock’s book there is a picture of a group of cowboys in the Dakotas and one of those young men is Tom Mix. In 1905, Mix, who was then 25 years old, was one of 50 Dakota cowboys riding their horses and carrying their sixshooters in Theodore Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade. It was Tom Mix who was instrumental in having Ed Bohlin move to Hollywood, Calif.

It certainly would not be unexpected for the younger members among us to ask, “Who is Ed Bohlin?” Edward H. Bohlin (born in Sweden in 1895) like many young boys, wanted to be a cowboy. In the late 19th century there were no Western movies, however, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show traveled all over Europe and young Bohlin was captivated. So he immigrated to the United States and cowboyed in both Montana and Wyoming.

He started doing leather work repairing saddles and bridles and apparently soon realized the truth of the statement from the cook in The Culpepper Cattle Co., namely, “cowboyin’ is something you do when you can’t do nothing else.” Bohlin did less and less cowboyin’ and more and more leather work. He had learned to rope and ride like a real cowboy and also realized cowboys needed someone to repair their gear. He not only learned how to repair saddles but also how to build them and decorate both the saddles and bridles with silver.

Bohlin opened a saddle shop in Cody, Wyo., and became a full-time saddle maker. Tom Mix saw his work, and in fact, actually bought the boots off Bohlin’s feet causing him to travel home in his stocking feet. Mix convinced him to open shop in Hollywood, Calif., and two of the first saddles Bohlin produced were for another cowboy star, Buck Jones and his wife. Both Tom Mix and Buck Jones were extremely popular cowboy stars throughout the 1930’s and both lost their lives in tragic accidents in the early 1940’s. Both were enthusiastic users of Bohlin saddles and holsters.

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Ed Bohlin and his Palomino both wear silver-mounted
leather crafted in the Bohlin shop.

By the time talking pictures arrived, Bohlin had among his clients not only Tom Mix and Buck Jones but also other Western stars such as William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson and Jack Holt. The holster rig worn by John Wayne in Angel And The Bad Man and Tall In The Saddle was made by Bohlin. Ray “Crash” Corrigan one of the Three Mesquiteers, had a beautiful double rig crafted by Bohlin, and although such movie cowboys as Roy Rogers and Monte Hale had belts and holsters crafted by others, the silver mounted saddles and bridles on their horses came from the shop of Ed Bohlin.

In special appearances, Brace Beemer, who played The Lone Ranger on the radio, wore a double holster and belt created by Ed Bohlin. The same rig was later worn by Clayton Moore in his role in The Lone Ranger on TV. Bohlin also designed a special rig for William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. Later customers would include Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Clint Eastwood. One of the last of the Bohlin creations was worn by James Conrad’s character Jim West in the The Wild Wild West in the 1960’s.

Another venue opened up as Fast Draw swept across the country in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. The major suppliers of special fast draw rigs were Arvo Ojala, Andy Anderson, Alfonso Pineda and Ed Bohlin. Each of these men had their special designs and Bohlin came up with a belt with a very wide and low drop-loop fitted with a holster without a long shank. This allowed the belt to be tied to the leg instead of the holster.

Bohlin also created a special Elmer Keith Protect-A-Sight rig with the shankless holster, which rode in a slot on the belt and featured a special safety strap. The strap fit over the hammer but was spring-loaded, so when pulled upward it sprang away from the gun. I couldn’t afford such a rig at the time, so I made my own and took it with me when I visited Keith in Salmon, Id., in 1968. I don’t know if he was just trying to be kind to a young shooter, but he had high praise for my work and design.

If any reader would like to know more about Ed Bohlin and his work, which included over 12,000 saddles from 1920-1974, I highly recommend Saddlemaker To The Stars. The Leather And Silver Art Of Edward H. Bohlin by James H. Nottage.

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A page from the early 1960 Bohlin catalog shows some
of the era’s popular rigs, including those for Fast Draw.

Each year a special set of double holsters, belt and matching sixguns is specially commissioned to raise money for the Happy Trails Children’s Foundation. This year’s holster and belt outfit is a replica of a parade/presentation rig made by Ed Bohlin in the 1950’s. Bohlin was known as “The Saddlemaker To The Stars” and during his lifetime produced intricately carved and silver mounted holsters, gun belts, saddles, bridles and any other leather used by the riders of the silver screen. Most of us have at least seen films of the riders in parades on their beautiful Palomino horses and silver-mounted saddles created by Ed Bohlin.

The Silver Screen Legend XVII holsters and belt is a museum-quality rig replicated by Jim Lockwood of Legends In Leather. Jim not only goes for the look, he also desires the same feel as the original… meaning it must fit and hang exactly the same. The level of the holsters, the angle they hang and where they are located on the belt is critical as is the number of bullet loops and the thickness of the leather. Everything must be as identical to the original as possible and no one knows more about this subject than Jim Lockwood.

The holsters and belts are set off by the silver of Conrad Anderson of Rocktree Ranch. This includes silver buckles, conchos and spots. Anderson is also responsible for the engraving and custom tuning of the special sixguns, which ride in these historic holsters. What sixguns could be more appropriate or more special than authentic Colt Single Actions?

Each year Colt donates a matched pair of Colt Single Actions. These are chambered in .45 Colt, with consecutive serial numbers, 4-3/4-inch barrels, silver plating and as mentioned, engraving by master engraver, Conrad Anderson. The backstrap of each sixgun is etched with “Silver Screen Legend 17” while the ejector rod housings bear the inscription “Happy Trails.” The engraving of the balance on each sixgun is carried out with scrolls, flowers and leaves. The grips are of genuine elephant ivory and exquisitely crafted by Bob Leskovec of Precision Pro Grips from ivory donated by Warther Carvings.

Tickets are available at $10 each or 11 tickets for $100. The drawing will be held on December 13, 2014 in Victorville, Calif., and you do not need to be present to win. The winner will be notified by phone and the name will be posted on the Happy Trails website. Tickets may be ordered by phone. Discover, MasterCard and Visa are all accepted. Checks may be mailed.
By John Taffin

Happy Trails Children’s Foundation
10755 Apple Valley Road
Apple Valley, CA 92308
(760) 240-3330
www.happytrails.org

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