Spurring a bit of attention
Pueblo’s known for its industrial scale steelwork.
Generations of Puebloans have punched time cards at the Bessemer steel mill.
But in Pueblo West, there’s one man versed in a much different steel-making that’s just as steeped in tradition and equally sought after.
Tom Palmer, a lifelong Puebloan, has quietly forged a worldwide reputation as a fine craftsman of horse bits and spurs.
“This is my hobby gone bad,” the 53-year-old Palmer said Friday, taking a break from welding a pair of spurs in his shop.
He works as a road grader for Pueblo County, but his “bread and butter” lies in the craft he’s honed since his days in metal shop class at Pueblo County High School.
And it’s served him well.
Palmer’s sold bits and spurs the world over. His client list includes numerous rodeo champions, country singers like Tanya Tucker George Strait, Michael Martin Murphey (for his daughter), rock musician Joe Cocker, movie stars Kiefer Sutherland and Sinbad.
“He ropes,” Palmer said, “and he’s pretty good, too.”
New to that list is Colorado Rockies’ legend Todd Helton.
The lifelong Rockies player retired this year and at his last home game, the Rockies presented the slugger with a retirement gift — a champion paint horse with a custom saddle, made by Greeley’s Mark Fellini.
Palmer was asked to craft a cap for the saddle’s horn.
The cap is made of solid sterling silver and 10-karat gold.
Palmer got the service call from Rick Montera, who is cattle partners with the Rockies ownership. Palmer and Montera are longtime friends through their days of competitive roping.
“Rick called on a Wednesday and needed it on Friday,” Palmer said. “I dropped everything I was doing to work on that, and it took me a full two days. I’m a big baseball fan. Huge fan. That was the real neat part of it. At the time I didn’t think it’d be a big deal, but that’s kind of how things happen.”
Palmer long has appreciated the craftsmanship of bits and spurs. After graduating from county he attended Colorado State University and majored in industrial education.
Afterward he moved to Idaho, where he attended the Elmer Miller Bit and Spur School.
“If you look at my work today, it still has a lot of Elmer’s influence,” Palmer said. “In my estimation, Elmer Miller was one of the foremost bit and spur-makers in the country.”
Palmer’s work has landed him prominence in “Western Horseman” magazine.
A few years ago, Palmer and wife Lynne were visiting London and were perusing the jewelry district when they encountered a shop owner enthralled with the American West.
“He had Western everything, but he wanted some boots and spurs,” Palmer recalled.
The shop owner asked the Palmers to wait while he ran to his flat to retrieve a photo of some spurs he liked featured in a magazine.
He returned with a copy of “Western Horseman” and the spurs he admired happened to be Palmer’s.
“And I go, ‘Buddy, are you in luck!’ I showed him my card, showed him my name and the name in the article. I mean this guy went nuts,” Palmer said.
So the London jeweler and the American spur-maker struck a deal. The Palmers walked out with a necklace, a ring and two bracelets. When Palmer returned home he crafted his new friend some spurs, bought him some boots and shipped them to England.
Palmer’s spurs and bits are as authentic as his stories and experiences.
Tucked next to his warmth for silversmithing and steelwork is his passion for riding and roping.
Unlike many of his clients, Palmer’s resume is void of a national or world championship. He’s yet to hang up his competitive rope, but he’s still in the heat and grind of his career. That is, the flame of a welding torch and the sparks of his shop grinder.
In Colorado, Palmer estimates there are only six full-time bit and spur-makers. The demand for his service is great, which famous singers, actors and athletes can attest to.
But Palmer has a greater appreciation for the “everyday” cowboy.
“For me, it’s more about the everyday guy. You look out in that rodeo arena and you see your work. They save up to buy it and they use it and enjoy it. That’s what does it for me.”