IDER, Ala. – For 60 years, the Valley Head Saddlery LLC has carried on the proud tradition of manufacturing, selling and repairing saddles. They’ve adapted to a number of challenges during those six decades.
Kathy Tidmore co-owns the business with her brothers, Charles and Dale McAdams. The business started with their grandfather, Lowell McAdams, and father, Paul McAdams, who worked in the saddle trade in Chattanooga during the early 1950s.
The McAdams family got into the trade in Valley Head to offer saddle repair for the girls camps in Mentone.
In 1981, they relocated the business to Ider, where the family calls home. Tidmore said they kept the name despite it being confusing because they’d built a solid reputation.
“We felt like we’d lose our heritage if we changed the name,” she said.
Charles and Dale McAdams joined the business full time after their employers in Chattanooga shut down operations.
When their mother died in 2013, the third generation took over the business.
When asked what the biggest change has been in the six decades they’ve operated, Charles McAdams says “the internet” without hesitation.
About 90 percent of their products now are custom builds, mostly because of heightened competition from saddles made overseas. That requires spending more time on sales calls and responding to emails, with about 60 percent of their sales happening on the internet. They’ve been reluctant to take the full leap into eCommerce out of loyalty to their long-time buyers who sell their saddles from brick and mortar locations.
Tidmore says Facebook generates some interest, “and let’s people know we are still around.”
While they continue to operate a retail store across from Foodland in Ider, selling a variety of things such as their high-quality saddles, saddle blankets and even toys and cowboy hats, they largely thrive now by shipping their goods to wholesalers from the U.S., Sweden, Germany, Canada, and other nations.
“There are fewer people on Sand Mountain who ride now. Young people want to stay indoors and play video games. Not a lot of people learn this trade anymore,” Charles McAdams said.
The greatest challenge they’ve faced is competing against cheap imports that may look the same but are usually of inferior quality. Customers may bring those saddles in for repair when they could have gotten a more durable product at a slightly higher price from the start. They proudly promote the “Made in the U.S.A.” branding in their marketing. Recognizing the peak they reached in 1981, the name of the game in 2019 is focusing on producing quality over quantity.
Working closely alongside family has worked for Tidmore and her brothers because the three siblings stay in their individual lanes, she said.
“I feel blessed to work with my brothers,” she said.
Dale McAdams said they occasionally “butt heads, but then we walk away and come back when we cool off. We all stay in our own niche and know what the others are good at doing.”
Tidmore primarily runs the retail store and does bookkeeping while Dale McAdams handles the creative and design side of the business and Charles McAdams is a jack-of-all-trades.
They’re joined daily by two other family members and one longtime employee who feels like family.
They function much like a traditional family farm, each person doing their part to get work done so everyone eats.
Charles McAdams said that people are also keeping their horses longer, whereas they used to replace them once the equines could no longer ride because of age. He said they actually sell more saddles for mules than horses these days. Fewer tanneries in the U.S. make it more challenging to keep costs down since older ones were grandfathered in and were able to avoid the high cost of modernizing equipment to meet pollution standards set by the U.S. government.
“Down in Mexico, they just dig a hole and discard the waste, then move on to another when that one’s full,” Dale McAdams said.
When asked for the secret of their longevity as one of the oldest businesses in northeast Alabama, Tidmore said she thinks the key has been to roll with changes but never become bigger than you are capable of sustaining if there’s a downturn in the economy and you have to downsize operations.
Valley Head Saddlery has survived seven recessions since 1959, watching most other businesses fail by trying to grow too aggressively.
“We’re fine keeping it small,” she said.
Their saddles are made from leather hide and beautifully hand-carved with intricate patterns, making them luxury items.
“The recession in 2008 hit hard,” Dale McAdams said. “When times are tough, people will keep their saddle a little bit longer instead of investing in a new one.”
Their biggest hardship came a couple of years before when their factory burned down– along with a $40,000 order for merchandise that was sitting ready to be shipped. They made the choice to start over and have continued to trot along ever since.
Dale McAdams said they were blessed to inherit tools that were fully paid for and well taken care of by their father and grandfather.
They continue to use some durable equipment they’ve owned from the start.
Family-owned and operated businesses may become a thing of the past, but Valley Head Saddlery stands as an enduring monument to one family’s six decades of hard work and quality workmanship.
Valley Head Saddlery is having their annual Christmas sale this weekend, Friday, Dec. 6 from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 7, from 8 a.m.- 2 p.m. Central time.