The Ballad of Burns, the Country’s Oldest Family-Owned Western Wear Store

Established in 1876 and headquartered in Salina, Utah, Burns has been owned by the same family for six generations.

Burns Saddlery

Burns manufactures all of its heirloom-quality goods at its production facilities in Salina, Utah.

Courtesy of Burns Saddlery

The mystique of the American West is indelibly linked to the mythos of the cowboy. Of course, a pair of cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat does not a cowboy make, but having those things in one’s possession certainly doesn’t hurt. Burns Cowboy Shop, headquartered in Salina, has been supplying American-made western wear to working cowboys, rodeo performers, and Western enthusiasts alike for six generations and counting—and it is not planning on stopping any time soon.

Ariat, Wrangler, Justin: Many of the world’s most iconic and recognizable western wear bands now outsource most, if not all, of their manufacturing overseas. Burns, however, still creates all of its products—including flat leather belts and trophy saddles—in its workshop and headquarters in Salina, Utah, which is about two and a half hours south of Salt Lake City. It sells most of its products at its storefront in Park City, Utah, or through its online shop.

It can take between 50 to 80 hours to manufacture one standard saddle.

It can take between 50 to 80 hours to manufacture one standard saddle.

Courtesy of Burns

Although it has always been popular with ranch wear enthusiasts in the know, Burns has been enjoying the limelight the past few years thanks to its products’ appearances in the wildly popular neo-western drama Yellowstone. Series creator Taylor Sheridan sought to dress the show’s actors in the most authentic American-made cowboy gear he could find and was particularly attracted to Burns, with its multigenerational roots planted firmly in rural Utah. Its products have also appeared in The Walking Dead and its many spin-off shows, and its hats have been spotted atop the heads of pop idols like Post Malone and Brandon Flowers of the Killers.

Miles Lamonie Burns founded the company near the southern Utah town of Torrey in 1876 and began by selling handcrafted harnesses to local ranchers and cowhands. Today, his direct descendant, Braydan Shaw, helms the company as president.

“We’ve started out as harness makers and blacksmiths and it’s evolved from there,” Shaw says. “We have a unique history and that’s embodied in our products and the experience [in the store] we offer.”

The family has had to pivot the focus of the company several times over the years. In the 1950s, when work horses were becoming less common but the popularity of saddle horses (kept for recreational purposes) was on the rise, the company began making leisure saddles and riding equipment. And in the 1970s, far past the golden age of the Wild West, Burns patented a design for Indian blanket–type automobile seat covers, which were so popular that they began manufacturing them in a building next door to their saddlery. In the 2000s, it dabbled in running a department store–style storefront that sold many different brands of clothing and saddle wear. But, today, Burns is back to being focused on creating artisan-made western gear.

“If we were still harness makers and blacksmiths, the tractor and the automobile would have made us irrelevant, but each older generation has seen the importance of letting the next generation take the business in the direction that they’re passionate about,” Shaw says.

Burns likes to call its products “heirloom-quality,” meaning that they will last long enough to be passed down to the next generation. Everything, from its hats, saddles, and leatherwork goods, like its belts and boots, are either entirely handmade or molded by craftspeople. For production president Matt Wanner, who grew up breaking horses and has worked for Burns for more than 15 years, it’s all about the love of making beautiful things with his hands.

Burns has one brick and mortar storefront in Park City, Utah.

Burns has one brick and mortar storefront in Park City, Utah.

Photo courtesy of Burns

“It’s something that you get to see, touch, and look at it in the light,” Wanner says. “You can say, ‘I was a part of making this piece of art and I’m proud of it.’”

Saddle making, boot making, and leatherwork are labor-intensive crafts—saddles can take 50 hours or more to make. Needless to say, there aren’t as many people making saddles as there once were. But Burns is making sure that future generations won’t forget the art. Salina has a population of just over 2,600 people. Shaw says the farming and ranching town’s biggest export are its high school graduates, since many young people move away to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Some, however, work at Burns for a summer or two—and some make it a career.

“Many of our artisans are paired with a young apprentice who’s learning from these master artisans that have been working in our shop for 35 to 45 years,” Shaw says. “We give those ranch kids that love that lifestyle a way to stay in our community.”

As for the future, Burns has big plans to eventually expand its operations in Salina and hire even more craftspeople. But more importantly, they want to welcome more people into the western lifestyle who thought they wouldn’t ever don a cowboy hat.

“We’ve made a big effort to preserve a culture,” Shaw says. “But we don’t want to just reach people that feel they have this super western heritage. We want to make it so everyone can appreciate the spirit of the West.”

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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