Younger generation at Valley Head Saddlery keeps family business going
By Cliff Hightower
For Valley Head Saddlery, the business is all in the family and has been for 56 years.
Nestled atop the plateau near Ider, the store and factory pumps out saddles day after day. But the business is more than just a factory for saddles. It has been owned by three generations of McAdamses and is currently operated by six family members and two longtime employees who might as well be part of the family.
“Once this business gets in your blood, it’s hard to stop doing it,” says Kathy Tidmore, who 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 first started doing repair of saddles for a girls camp in nearby Mentone.
But what started out as repairs soon became a family business that has lasted more than five decades. Upon the death of their mother last year, the third McAdams generation took over the business and are now pressing on with the family trade.
The family brand
It’s a trade that requires a lot of blood and sweat.
Each day, the three come to the shop where they each have their own responsibilities. Kathy primarily runs the retail store and does bookkeeping, Dale handles the creative and design side of the business and Charles is a jack-of-all trades.
The family is proud of their business. They ship out handmade saddles to wholesalers from the U.S., Sweden, Germany, Canada and other nations, doing business the old-fashioned way in a new and changing world.
And they don’t plan on letting it go anytime soon.
“When you hold onto something since 1959, it’s hard to put it to the wayside,” Tidmore says.
The family makes a variety of different saddles from pro series to penning, roping and show saddles. They make any kind of saddle that’s imaginable and once even made a saddle for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
The business has evolved over the last several years, the family says. Just 10 years ago, Valley Head Saddlery would make around 40 saddles a week, but competition with imported saddles from overseas has changed their main focus to custom-made saddles, Tidmore explains. Customers like individualism, and the company helps provide that for them, she says.
“It’s gone to more of a custom build,” she says. About 90 percent of what the family makes now is custom.
The business itself has undergone changes, too, moving from the town of Valley Head in 1981 to its current location in Ider. Tidmore says they moved because the family lived in Ider and wanted to work closer to home.
They never changed the name because by 1981, the Valley Head Saddlery brand already had a solid reputation. The family continues to march on under that name, even though after 33 years it still causes occasional confusion. “We still have some people who think it’s still in Valley Head,” Charles says, chuckling.
The biggest hardship for the family came in 2006. The old building where the factory sat burned down along with most of the equipment inside it. They had to rebuild from scratch.
The family moved the plant to a warehouse behind the store and started over, just in time for the recession to deal them another blow in 2008. The McAdamses are finding a new place in the custom-saddle market. “We adapt to the customer a lot,” Tidmore says.
But what the family takes great pride in is the craftsmanship and quality of their product, which begins as a leather hide and slowly works its way through the production line to become a high-quality leather saddle. The hide is cut and manipulated into different sections. Then it is engraved by hand and any design elements the customer may want are sewn on before it is attached to a saddle tree. The last step is color. It is a labor of love.
Valley Head Saddlery is also home to a large store that once carried just saddles, but now carries a variety of things such as their high-quality saddles, saddle blankets and even toys and cowboy hats.
“Over the years, it has evolved into a larger store,” Tidmore says.
The company is one of the oldest businesses in northeast Alabama, and the family is fighting to keep it that way and carve their niche in a changing world.
While they don’t do direct Internet sales at this time, they say there probably will be a time when they move in that direction. Looking around the industry, they see more and more small shops like theirs going out of business, having lost the battle against saddles coming over from China that are cheaper but usually of inferior quality.
Kathy says the shop will repair well-made saddles, but won’t even touch imported saddles. “It’s a daily battle to compete against imports,” she says.
But the McAdamses keep trotting along as they make their saddles. Every day they come to work and make a product stamped with “Made in the USA” on it.
And every day someone in the world rides a horse with a saddle that says “Valley Head Saddlery,” made by someone with the last name McAdams. Just like they have for almost 60 years.