Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sullivan Saddlery

Nevada City, once a booming gold camp, is now a recreated western town with buildings from across the state. One of its best treasures was rescued from demolition in 1940. Fort Benton was itching to demolish what they considered a public eyesore. The late Joseph Sullivan had crafted saddles in this shop for nearly forty years. Sullivan had died, and Charles Bovey of Great Falls chanced to meet the saddle maker’s daughter who gave him the building along with all its contents.

Inside the Sullivan Saddle Shop. Photo by Daniel Hagerman
The historic saddler was one of the first buildings constructed outside the stockade of old Fort Benton. It was originally used as the first Blackfeet agency in 1863. Acting Governor Thomas Meagher, agent Gad Upson, and others negotiated an important treaty with Piegan chiefs Little Dog and Mountain Chief in the building in 1865. Later, it was a flop-on-the-floor hotel and saloon known as the Council House. In 1881, partners Sullivan and Goss set up their saddlery business in the building. Artist Charlie Russell was a frequent visitor. The rocking chair where he sat and told his endless yarns remains as if Russell were about to return. The entire Sullivan inventory remains intact in the shop. It still smells of horses and leather. This was the first building Charles Bovey “collected” and the beginning of his indoor exhibit in a huge barn at the Great Falls Fair Grounds called “Old Town.”  When asked to remove the “Old Town” exhibit in 1959, Bovey relocated his buildings to Nevada City, and that began the fabulous building collection you can visit today.

The Sullivan Saddlery building in 2012. Photo by Larry Myhre via Flickr


  1. My family is originally from Choteau County (Fort Benton and Geraldine), and I have a 1906 Sullivan saddle that was passed down through two generations on my mother's side. It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and has, with grace and good care, withstood the tests of time. It is a treasure.

    1. Of course, the saddle was never used after the day in 1961 when my grandfather's beloved Palomino was gored out from under him by a cantankerous bull. Without a word, Grandpa removed the saddle and bridle, took it to the barn, retrieved his rifle, returned to where the doomed bovine was still standing, and put a .30-30 round right between it's eyes. The carcasses were still there when I first saw them and heard the story from a cousin in 1964, and the skeletal remains lingered for many years after that.

  2. The Great Falls Leader- July 07 1888 says that Joseph Sullivan of Fort Benton was going to open a harness shop in Great Falls in a building that was previous occupied by I L Israel as soon as the remodel of the building was done and that he move with a large stock of goods. Does anyone have any record of him actually having a shop in Great Falls.
    Bob Reynolds