BACKUS — Doug Kuschel has been a rancher his whole life. It’s in his blood, passed down through several generations.
Kuschel and his family run their beef cattle ranch the old-fashioned way — the cowboy way — on horseback.
“Part of our job here, being in the cattle business, is to ride horses. That’s basically, I believe, the only way to handle cattle,” Doug said. “It’s been done for 100 years and I’d like to continue on with the tradition.”
That tradition, however, posed a small inconvenience for Doug, as either he was spending too much time fixing his saddles or the saddle he used didn’t fit right.
The solution he came up with was to take matters into his own hands — literally — and it spawned a new business, 33 Ranch and Saddlery in rural Backus.
“It was riding inferior saddles, basically. I thought I could do better, make a saddle that I could ride all day,” Doug said. “That’s where I got into it.”
The ranch’s rural Backus address is a little misleading. It’s actually about 20 miles west of Backus, at the very end of 16th Street Southwest on the Cass County line with Wadena County. The ranch, at more than 1,000 acres, is rolling pasture and wetland surrounded by woods.
The name itself — 33 Ranch and Saddlery — was born out of convenience, Doug said.
“I wouldn’t call it a necessity, but when you walk through the fire several times while branding, it’s only one iron, (in the shape of) a three and again a three,” Doug said.
Doug made his first saddle about 30 years ago and it took him nearly two years to complete. When it was finished, he recalled, a guy walked into his shop and said the saddle was exactly what he was looking for. They struck a deal, the saddle went out the shop door to Washington state and a business was born.
Over the years, while continuing the cattle operation, Kuschel worked to perfect his leather craft and his family. Wife Paula, daughter Jennifer, son Levi and daughter-in-law RoseAnna joined together to operate 33 Ranch and Saddlery with a customer base that’s now nationwide.
And a true family affair it is.
Levi and RoseAnna run the ranch, with Doug helping out when he’s needed. Doug and Jennifer run the saddle shop. Paula handles bookkeeping for both operations.
“We’ve got a close family, we’re diversified in cattle and leather, and we’re pretty much going to keep it that way,” Doug said. “It’s worked out for us.”
Doug started making saddles from scratch, taking trips out west to pick up tips and advice from well-established saddle makers. Over the years he honed his skills in saddle making, from stretching leather to the intricate work of stamping designs.
“It was addictive to me, working with leather,” Doug said. “The more I got into it the more I wanted to do it. Along the way I kept gathering better tools, machines, stuff like that so I could do a better job on the leather stuff.”
Today it takes Doug about 60 hours to create a plain saddle and 200 hours to make a highly tooled saddle. Everything starts with a tree — basically a skeleton of a saddle made out of wood — that’s designed to a customer’s specifications and made by another company. Doug said he spends hours forming the leather around the tree. When it’s set, the detailed design work begins.
From order to delivery, a custom made saddle will take about eight months, depending on how many orders are ahead of it, he said. For people who can’t wait, saddles are always available for sale in the 33 Ranch and Saddlery showroom. Doug said he makes those saddles during slower months.
The emphasis of the saddle shop is not quantity but quality, Doug said.
“It’s a long process, where you got time to think. We can’t get it done overnight,” Doug said. “A lot of people have tried making saddles and gave up. I kind of stuck with it because I like to always improve on the product.”
His daughter, Jennifer, joined the shop making saddle bags, chaps, bridles and her own line of jewelry, just to name a few products. They redesigned a garage next to Doug’s and Paula’s house to serve as a shop and showroom.
One of the things many people don’t realize, Jennifer said, is that there is a showroom at the ranch and it’s outfitted with saddles, accessories, jewelry and other gear ready to move out the door.
Saddle sales started by word of mouth amongst friends and neighbors. Then came advertising in horse magazines and at trade shows. Now 33 Ranch and Saddlery’s website, www.33ranchandsaddlery.com, accounts for about half its sales.
Jennifer maintains the pictures and descriptions on the website.
“She’s my Internet girl,” Doug said with a smile.
A lot of customers are repeat customers, and all have become friends.
“We have made so many good friends through the saddle shop,” Paula said.
The business is also as a point where it can offer up-and-coming saddle makers advice.
“Now that we’re kind of in the middle range as far as saddle makers, we’re trying to pass along what we know to younger people, people who want to get started,” Jennifer said. “It’s kind of a nice feeling to be able to give that back.”
Saddles and saddle accessories aren’t the only things the Kuschel family will make out of leather. Wallets, vases, cases for flasks, photo albums and scrapbooks are among many other products produced at the shop.
“If you can make it out of leather, we’ll try it,” Jennifer said.
Both Doug and Jennifer are accomplished in designing leather, one tiny stamp or knife carving at a time. As Jennifer noted, a mistake on leather is permanent. It also doesn’t help that each leather hide is unique, and a leather maker often has to work around imperfections in the hide.
“It’s kind of like the starving artist thing,” Jennifer joked.
Added Doug: “It can cross your eyes.”
The Kuschels take their operations seriously. The family holds weekly business meetings — Doug, Jennifer and Paula for the saddle shop; Doug, Levi and RoseAnna on the cattle side.
“We pretty much keep them as two separate businesses,” Jennifer said.
Doug said what’s most important is creating product that holds true to the businesses slogan — Cowboy Made-Cowboy Tough.
“We’ve made a Western atmosphere here you can’t find any other place,” Doug said. “We don’t have a lot of stuff but what we got is good, quality-made stuff. That’s what we emphasize. What we have is very well made.”
The saddle shop is open seven days a week and Doug figures he’s there working on saddles every day, except when he’s helping Levi with the cattle.
“I believe what’s held us together is we’re a diversified ranch family,” Doug said.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.