A leather shortage following World War II inspired Colorado cowboy Bill Vandergrift to come up with a novel idea: make saddles out of plastic. He teamed up with leatherworker T.C. “Tommy” Nielson and craftsman Bernard Thon, and in 1946, the All Western Plastic Company opened its doors for business in Lusk, Wyo.
Each handcrafted saddle was built on a traditional tree, with the rest of the saddle components cut from quarter-inch-thick sheets of plastic called Geon. Geon came in a variety of colors and could be cut into nearly any design imaginable. A hallmark decoration of the All Western plastic saddles was the bucking horse symbol found on Wyoming license plates. The saddles were sold from $800 to $1,500.
Although they were lightweight, waterproof, and showy, the saddles failed to catch on with working cowboys. Plastic was sweaty in warm weather and slick in colder temperatures, and those who made their living horseback preferred to do so in leather tack.
Silver screen cowboy actor Roy Rogers, however, took a liking to the colorful gear, and he and wife Dale Evans each purchased several. They primarily used the saddles for public appearances and parades, and photographs featuring the duo with their plastic tack made the covers of dozens of magazines. Rogers liked the saddles so much that he became a spokesman for the company.
In 1949, the All Western Plastic Company moved to a larger facility in Scottsbluff, Neb., and branched out into other plastics projects, including the famous plastic yo-yo endorsed by Rogers. Despite the heavyweight endorsement from the King of the Cowboys, the company shut down in 1951.
During their brief years of operation, the All Western Plastic Company produced 60–65 saddles. It’s unclear how many of the plastic saddles have been located, and the 40-some that have been found are dear collector’s items. A 2010 Christie’s auction of Roy Rogers memorabilia sold three of the saddles: a blue saddle with white filigree trim and red bucking horse decorations sold for $22,500; Roy’s favorite—and most photographed—plastic saddle (pictured here) sold for $50,000; and Dale’s red parade saddle, which was displayed on Buttermilk at the (now-closed) Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, sold for $104,500.