It has been called the Cadillac of all saddles.
Many knowledgeable horsemen consider the “Kentucky Springseat” the finest riding saddle ever made, but few know the story of its creator, Eugene Minihan, who fashioned the unique product in his shop in Owingsville, Kentucky, from the late 1880s until his death in 1926.
Now, an Eastern Kentucky University senior is helping to perpetuate his legacy.
Jessica Tallarigo, a senior animal studies major from nearby Mt. Sterling, has worked with local and regional community leaders and others familiar with Minihan’s work, to launch a GoFundMe campaign (http://gofundme.com/eugene-minihan-memorial-statue) aimed at funding and placing a statue commemorating the craftsman at the Bath County Courthouse, not far from what was once the Eugene Minihan Saddle and Harness Shop. Based in EKU’s Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work and under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, the “heritage preservation project” is designed to raise awareness about the important roles that horses and horsemen played in the regional economy and in history of Appalachian Kentucky.
The initial goal of $10,500 will cover the cost of a life-size bronze saddle statue. If $38,500 can be raised, a life-size bronze statue of Minihan will be built. The sculptor in either case will be Sam McKinney, a highly regarded artist from Elliottville, Kentucky, near Morehead. Anyone donating $250 or more will receive as a souvenir a handcrafted mini-statue of a Minihan saddle, a $20 value and suitable to be placed on desktops.
According to Tallarigo, the project originated with Langley Franklin, who was inspired by similar statues in his hometown of West Liberty, longed for some means to memorialize Minihan and approached Bath County and Owingsville officials with the idea. “I think there’s interest in it,” Langley said, “and it’s still growing.” Franklin also envisions a “Kentucky Plantation Saddle Trail” along I-64 in the area to further spotlight the story of Minihan and similar saddle makers.
As part of a very labor-intensive process, Minihan took a standard Somerset Broad Cantle saddle tree and removed the center of the tree bars, then splicing in pieces of stiff leather to make what amounted to a hinge, thus creating the first, and most successful, flexible tree design. Each saddle was tailor-made to fit the individual. Original Minihans are highly prized possessions that have been passed down through generations.”
Bath County Judge-Executive Bobby Rogers remembers his grandfather having a “very good” Minihan saddle, and his father using one as well. “If I was out at an auction and saw one for sale, I’d definitely be interested in it,” he said.
Many apprentices copied the “spring tree” saddle design, including John and Thomas Salmons, who opened their own saddle shop in Mt. Sterling around 1900 and were known for sewing Minihan’s pattern into their saddles.
Gary Hunt, a retired schoolteacher now serving as Owingsville mayor, spoke of the need to “extend” Minihan’s legacy “to our children, and to visitors here. It’s a great resource for our people here. Economic development takes all kinds of shapes and forms. Hopefully, down the road, this will pay off for all of us.”
Tallarigo, who said she loves history, feels a certain connection to Minihan.
“I want to help honor my Native American heritage and keep it alive by handcrafting beadwork, so I can relate to the craftsmanship of how the saddles were made,” Tallarigo said. “What I have enjoyed the most about this project is seeing the craftsmanship and the heart that went into making each one of these saddles.”
Other EKU students who played leading roles with the project included Kailynn Eggett and Kerie Steele.
“A Quilted History: The Kentucky Riding Saddle,” a documentary on the subject directed by EKU faculty member Chad Cogdill, McSpirit and Neil Kasiak, oral historian with EKU Libraries, is airing on Kentucky Educational Television this spring and helping to raise awareness of the region’s heritage and Minihan’s contributions. It will air on KET Kentucky on Monday, April 10, at 5:30 a.m. EDT, and again on Tuesday, April 18, at 11:30 a.m. EDT.
Inset photos, from top: A minitature replica of the Minihan statue; Sculptor Sam McKinney (right) with Langley Franklin.
Bottom photo: Jessica Tallarigo at Owingsville welcome sign