Story and photos By Brad Van Wert Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Somewhere in the
West, a cowboy is
tending to his herd.

Maybe he’s perched atop the Gravelly
Range, or he’s riding fences outside of
Cutbank. Even further west there’s a
woman of high society planning her
latest gala; she might be in Seattle, or
sitting on the dock of the bay down
in San Francisco. In between, a young
buck is waiting for his eight seconds
of fame, as a mean ole’ bull named
Kickstart is led into the gate.

Although these characters seem
worlds apart, they share something
in common. They’re all wearing a
custom piece of leather crafted by
R.O. Brooks.

For the past 15 years Rob Brooks has
made his living crafting everything
leather, from custom saddles to belts,
and to hear him tell it, there’s no end
in sight. Located where Jackrabbit
Lane in Belgrade finds its northern
end, R.O. Brooks Custom Leather is
a place where you can step away from
the hustle and bustle of the Gallatin
Valley and take in the sights and
smells of true craftsmanship.

Brooks working in his shop

The shop is quiet, and that’s just
how Brooks likes it.

In the early 2000s, when he did his
work on Main Street in Bozeman,
Brooks found the constant foot
traffic distracting. After a stint on
Madison Avenue in Belgrade (not
New York) he found even that location
had him paying too much mind
to the front of the house and not
enough to his craft.

Now Brooks has found a place on
the edge of town where he feels
comfortable. If you want to find
him, you will. He’ll be there waiting
with a warm welcome.

Growing up on his family’s farm
outside of Manhattan, this Montana
native has been sculpting rawhide
as long as he can remember. What
started as necessary upkeep for
repairs around the farm soon grew
into a passion.

While riding rodeo bulls as a
young man, Brooks took a deeper
interest in the artistry of custom
leathersmithing, and before long
he befriended the craftsman Ellis
Barnes. Working in a time before
the Internet and social networking,
Barnes was not only a leathersmith
but also a good salesman. Instead of
relying on Google to let the world
find him, Barnes bought the nicest
Cadillac he could find, tore out the
back seat, loaded it with his goods
and took them to the people.

Barnes’s dedication inspired Brooks
to make a career out of leather, and
he’s stayed true to form. While the
Internet has allowed leathersmiths
to share tools and ideas, the techniques
have remained largely unchanged.

When R.O. Brooks sells
a custom piece of leather, you can
rest assured it’s one of a kind.
Rob Brooks loves what he does.

When it comes to building saddles,
Brooks knows each rider requires a
different design and shape to accommodate
his or her style. Because of this,
each Brooks saddle takes at least 80
hours to shape, cut, carve and sew.

Instead of using technology like lasers
and computers to accelerate production,
Brooks values elbow grease,
old-fashioned work and quality. But
being an honest man, he cracks a smile
and admits to a closet-full of discarded
equipment.

Tools of the trade

When asked about his plans to grow
his business in the future, Brooks
quickly introduces his son, who as
a third grader is already deep into
apprenticeship.

Staying small and concentrating on
the craft are crucial to Brooks’s success.
By focusing on individuals and
their needs, he’s allowed the space
to create unique pieces that stand
the test of time.

conglo.ws/ROBrooks

This story was first published in the Winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.