From the street, the small brick home looks like all the other bungalows in the St. Louis suburb of Overland. Inside, it couldn’t be more different. Where a couch, coffee table, and TV would normally be found, there are dusty saddles, dangling lariats, and stained cowboy hats. The smell of leather permeates the room. It’s the home of Martin Bergin, a talented cowboy poet and world-renowned saddlemaker.

“Each of these saddles has a story,” Martin says. “That one there is probably close to one hundred years old. It came from a dear friend who died several years ago. They don’t make them like that anymore; it’s one of a kind.”

Martin is equally one of a kind. His story began in west Texas, not too far from New Mexico.

“I was fourteen years old when I got my first leather tool kit,” he recalls. “I was a curious kid. A couple of old cowboys taught me how to make bridles. Then I started buying old saddles and tearing them down and using them for patterns. I would eventually rebuild them.”

The west Texas cowboys taught Martin to ride broncos and bulls at the local rodeo. Add to that years of driving cattle and roping calves, and the cowboy ethos runs deep through Martin’s veins. Throughout his career with the Navy, he always kept a hand in building saddles, owning horses, and rodeoing.

He married Maureen Wurm, a St. Louis girl, in 1960 and settled in his wife’s hometown when he got out of the Navy in the mid-1970s. Not too long after their move, the “cowboy invasion” took over the Bergins’ small home. “My wife told me that my cowboy paraphernalia couldn’t go past the kitchen,” Martin notes with a smile. “So I took over the living room and converted the two-car garage into my saddle shop.”

A widower since 2011, Martin still surrounds himself with the stock in trade of saddlemaking. His workspace is as much a museum of leather crafting as it is a saddle shop. Here the clock seems to have stopped quite a few decades ago. Some of his tools are 125 years old. “My wife used to call this stuff our 401k retirement plan,” he says. On the workshop walls, antique leather-crafting tools hang from pegboards. Buck knives of all sizes line a nearby wall. On another hang stained and faded photos of Martin with various celebrities.

The 1990s were Martin’s heyday; he was making around 12 to 15 saddles a year while doing repairs and other leather projects. Now, he does three or four saddles a year and a fair amount of leather-repair work. A typical saddle takes around 40 hours of labor. Thirty-five years ago, one of his signature saddles cost about $1,000. Today, a Bergin saddle comes in at about $3,500.

“I start my work with a saddle tree, which is the framework of the seat,” he says. “Then you work your way up, layering the leather. The key is patience. A good saddlemaker takes the time to make sure things fit right.”

Doing it right has earned him a reputation as one of the finest saddlemakers in the country. He’s made saddles for Hollywood cowboys and actors as well as the weekend trail rider, but Martin is proudest of his saddles that have kept the cowboys of the West comfortable on horseback year after year. “These are men who are in the saddle working cattle for ten to twelve hours a day,” he says. “So they need a seat that is just right and one that will stand up to rain, sleet, snow, and sun. A good saddle will last a working rancher at least a decade, and then I get a call from them for a new one.”

Saddlemaking traditionally is passed on between a master and an apprentice. About twenty-five years ago, Martin attended a saddlemaking school in South Dakota, but he lasted only a week or two. “The owner of the school was so impressed with me that he offered me a partnership in the school,” he says with the smile. Martin turned him down.

Saddlemaking has the reputation of being a territorial trade, in which makers won’t share how they do things. But Martin says he has no secrets and is happy to pass on his knowledge to others. For eight years, Martin was the master saddlemaker in the Missouri Folk Arts Program. Each year, a student worked with him to complete a saddle from scratch.

Martin’s artistic ability extends beyond leather and into the world of cowboy poetry. He was roped into the spoken word by a ranching friend. He was so good at it that he twice landed a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “That was my big break,” he shares with a wink. “Afterward, I was getting invitations to perform my poetry at every cowboy gathering across the nation.”

With an open-crease cowboy hat stuck firmly on his head, a handlebar mustache just above his lips, and custom-made boots on his feet, Martin landed a few roles as an extra in some Hollywood Westerns, including Defiance(2002), Open Range, and the Lonesome Dove miniseries. “It’s not as glamorous as it looks,” he says. “It’s a lot of standing around and waiting for five minutes of work. But the movies afforded me the opportunity to meet some really good people.”

At age seventy-eight, Martin has no plans to slow down. He still rides horses at his daughter’s farm outside of St. Louis. As a poet, he travels to a handful of cowboy poetry gatherings around the nation each year, and there are still saddles to build and leather repairs to be made.

“I get as much satisfaction from the last saddle I made as from the first saddle I put together,” he says. “When the day comes when that’s not the case, I’ll shut down my shop, pack up my dog, and go ’possum hunting.”