Scott City School Teacher is still a cowboy at heart with various leather and ranch businesses
By Frank J. Buchman
“He’s a jack-of-all-trades cowboy and so much more.”
Although the description is true, the talented man from Scott City is much more than that. In fact, it’s such a long list that it’s probably impossible to name them all.
Here is an attempt: Yes cowboy; trainer, farmer, saddler-harnesser, leather repairer, craftsman, wheelwright, carpenter, collector, restoration master, well beyond.
But above all, it’s Mr. Thornburg. This is Allen Thornburg, the high school carpentry, drafting, and carpentry teacher.
So what should it really be called? Let’s call him Allen, nothing more personal than his own name.
A teacher by profession, Allen is probably best known throughout the Midwest for Thornburg Leather. “I have a leather goods store in my garage that keeps me busy after school,” he admitted.
No pun intended, but it’s almost “easy to put the cart before the horse” when telling Allen’s story.
“I grew up on a farm in Utica, I always have cattle to tend to every weekend,” Allen said. “We worked cattle with Quarter Horses, but we also had driving horses with horse-drawn farm equipment and parade cars.”
As a youth, Allen did much of horse training. “Most of our horses were harnessed and mown to drive by pulling a vehicle when they were one year old. This generally made it easier to train the horses to ride as they got older,” he recalls.
Interest in leatherworking came from his experiences with horses, but Allen also had a very diverse talent. “I’ve always loved building things too, working with my hands and wood,” he said.
“I really wanted to be a cowboy, but the pay didn’t always seem so good,” Allen continued. “So I became a teacher, not that it was the highest salaries, but with the averages of leatherwork and agriculture.”
Before moving to Scott County for the past 18 years, Allen taught at Burr Oak, Lindsborg and Dighton.
“The Ness County farm is about 50 miles away, where I have about 90 cows calving in the spring,” he said. My uncle, 87, and my mother, 83, take care of them during the week. I also hire younger help, especially when we have to pass the cattle down the chutes.
His wife Julia is from Hays and taught primary school, but is now a librarian in Garden City. “We have two adult daughters out of college living in Kansas City. One is married and the other is engaged, no grandchildren,” Allen said. interest in the ranch or the leather trade, maybe their kids will.”
Coming from the “old school” of teachers, Allen travels early, around 5:30 a.m., to prepare for lessons. “Then when school is out, around 4 p.m. or so, I come home to work on the leather goods,” he said. “Sometimes it gets quite late before I quit, it depends on what I’m doing.”
There really isn’t any specialization in Allen’s leather goods. “I fix a lot of saddles and gear for cowboys at feedlots around the area,” he said. “No more chaps, slits, bridles, custom tack, leather accessories to fit the working cowboy or buckaroo.”
He makes holsters, gun scabbards, knife scabbards, splints, collar stirrups, belts, moccasins, whatever.
Over the years Allen has made a number of saddles as well as individual and team riding harnesses. “I haven’t done too much of that lately,” Allen said. “However, I can duplicate almost anything and do any special project someone wants.”
He found some demand for Angora guys, especially by former cowboy re-enactors. “Finding the goatskins in the spring is more than some guy makers want to undertake,” Allen noted. “In fact, there aren’t many people in those areas who work with leather that much, which is good for my business.”
With seven sewing machines, including three “old Singer”, Allen sometimes had trouble finding parts for them. “I still have a full line of basic hand tools that I put together,” he said. “I often have to do a lot of hand sewing for certain projects.
“I worked with rawhide braiding and took a course in making silver upholstery. I may also learn to make boots.
Not only an artisan leather repairer Allen is a collector. “I have large collections of spurs and bits, even sleigh bells and conchos, all identified and on display.
“Plus a number of high back saddles that were common at the turn of the last century,” he said. “It’s nice to find out who made the saddles and then restore them.”
Horse-drawn vehicles are also dear to the collector. “I have timber wagons, surreys, sleds and more,” Allen said. “I started restoring a horse-drawn hearse, but I sold it before I was done. I have the framework to build another hearse when I get there.
One of his favorite vehicles is an undercut grain wagon. “It was hanging from the ceiling in a food establishment,” Allen said. “When they took the wagon down, I bought it and found out the wagon was made by Minneapolis-Moline.”
Several equestrian vehicles are in the restoration phase. “I try to keep them indoors, away from the weather, rodents and the like,” Allen said.
Now an obsolete trade, wheelwrighting is another of Allen’s talents. “I can make spoked wooden wheels for almost any horse-drawn vehicle,” he verified.
“I only have two riding horses left now,” Allen noted, “but they could probably be trained to ride too.”
Using his carpentry skills, Allen has completed a number of carpentry, construction and restoration projects.
“I worked on a large barn built from a Sears-Roebuck kit set in the early 1900s,” he said. “We tried to keep it as original as possible, but there have been some renovations.” This prevented the barn from being designated a Registered Historic Landmark.
“I still want to be a cowboy, move to the ranch, expand the herd, ride and drive more,” Allen said. “There probably isn’t as much demand for leather work in Utica. But there will be enough with all my own saddles, horse-drawn vehicles, other collections and restorations.
At age 56, a few years from retirement, Allen envisions that day being a full-time cowboy rancher and leatherworker. “I have plenty of projects to keep me busy,” said the teacher.
Among his various talents, Allen Thornburg of Thornburg Leather in Scott City is a wheelwright capable of making spoked wooden wheels for antique horse-drawn vehicles. A number of horse-drawn vehicles have been restored by Scott City School teacher Allen Thornburg. They are popular in parades over a wide area.
Old saddles are collected and restored by Allen Thornburg in Scott City. There are a wide variety of spurs in Allen Thornburg’s collection, many with straps he made in his leatherwork.
Cowboys from a wide area come to Allen Thornburg in Scott City when they want new guys or splits made to personal specifications. At Thornburg Leather, a popular item often made for former cowboy re-enactors are Angora chaps. Scott City’s Allen Thornburg broke this mule to ride and pulled the prized Moline delivery wagon complete with some 1920’s silver saddles for a parade.