A History of Mexican Americans in California:
Visalia Saddle Company Site
Juan Martarell and his two associates, Alsalio Herrera and Ricardo Mattley, opened the first store of the Visalia Saddle Company in the community of Visalia in 1869. Here, they began making the famed Visalia Stock Saddle for the vaqueros and herdsmen of the surrounding ranches in Tulare County. These three men had come to California from the Mexican state of Sonora during the gold rush and settled in the town of Hornitos, a center of Hispanic settlement in Mariposa County. Martarell entered the saddle business and originated the Visalia Stock Saddle design, which he called the Vaquero Saddle. This model was lighter, stronger, and more comfortable for both horse and rider than the Spanish saddle that was then widely used. It quickly gained renown for Martarell and his associates in the saddlemaking trade.
When the three men moved to Visalia and opened their store, they brought their business to the heart of California's open-range cattle region. Mattley, a specialist in carving saddle trees from native oak, and Herrera, an expert silversmith, worked closely with Martarell in perfecting the Visalia Stock Saddle design. Juan Salazar, another saddlemaker who moved here from Sonora, Mexico, also contributed to the development of the Visalia saddle pattern.
According to tradition, Martarell had first hit upon his saddle design when a vaquero asked him to repair a worn Spanish saddle. Instead of making repairs, Martarell completely transformed the vaquero's equipment. His model lacked the high horn and long stirrups of the classic Spanish saddle, and it added a skirt for protection of the rider's legs. As this pattern was developed by Martarell and others, Visalia saddles defined an ideal of saddle design for skilled riders wherever the Hispanic vaquero tradition spread. Other saddle makers in Visalia adopted the design and helped give Visalia saddles a worldwide reputation for excellence in craftsmanship and practicality.
A year after his store opened, Martarell sold the business to David E. Walker, an experienced businessman and promoter who began an extensive advertising campaign to expand the market for the Visalia Saddle Company. Martarell, Herrera, and Mattley remained in charge of saddle production, though in time Martarell went to work for another Visalia saddle shop. Mattley and Herrera remained with the company more than 20 years.
Walker was extremely successful in building up the company's trade, especially through his catalogs which brought in a large mail-order business. His D. E. Walker trademark was stamped on every saddle that left the shop, making his name famous wherever cattlemen and riders gathered together. Visalia Stock Saddles and other company products found a market throughout the American West, as well as in British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands, Central America, Argentina, Chile, and Australia.
Walker retired in 1887 and sold the company to his nephew, Edwin Weeks, who began transferring the business to San Francisco. The Visalia shop was closed in the 1890s, and the firm then moved its headquarters to 221 California Street in San Francisco. Still known as the Visalia Saddle Company, the business continued to produce the Visalia Stock Saddle for decades. The shop also did an extensive business in custom saddles and other fine work, including hand-braided riatas and jaquimas, caronals, conchas, quirts, tapaderos, chaperejos, stirrups, and harnesses.
This company, an extremely successful pioneer enterprise, emphasizes the importance of Mexican contributions to the growth of California's economy and cultural life. Many of California's most skilled saddlemakers, including some still active today, received their training in the shops of this firm. They have carried on the tradition of Martarell, Herrera, and Mattley, a notable tradition in the history of the open-range cattle industry, not only in California but throughout half the world.
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