Story and Photo By Bob Stone
Jeff Beach skillfully fashions about two dozen custom saddles a year in the shop behind his home in rural Gilchrist County, near Trenton. Strikingly beautiful examples of functional artistry, he decorates most of them with graceful, hand-tooled or “carved” designs. Although Jeff will make any type of saddle, most he builds are used in the highly competitive rodeo event of tie-down calf roping. His impressive list of clients includes Trevor Brazile (Decatur, Texas), winner of twenty-three PRCA World Championships, and considered by many as the greatest professional rodeo cowboy ever; Cody Ohl (Hico, Texas), six time PRCA World Champion; Fred Whitfield (Hockley, Texas), seven times PRCA World Champion calf roper; and Caleb Smidt (Bellville, Texas), 2015 PRCA World Champion calf roper. At this time, he has a waiting list of more than three years. “I lose a lot of orders because they don’t want to wait,” stated Jeff. “I can understand that, but the saddles have got to be what I want them to be, or else I’m not going to send them. Almost all of my customers want their saddles tooled,” he added, “And that takes a lot of time.”
Jeff is the third generation to live on the Beach family farm, which his grandfather, John Franklin Beach, Sr. (1892-1956), purchased in the 1930s. Jeff said his family originally came from South Carolina, but did not know exactly where. According to the1830 U.S. Census, several members of the Beach family were living in present-day Colleton County, on the South Carolina coast. John Franklin Beach served in World War I; his draft registration card, completed when he was twenty-four, listed his occupation as “steam shovel crane operator” and his employer the W. G. Williams Company of Macon, Georgia.
Jeff said his father, Forrest Beach (1923-2009), remembered clearing the land, picking up stacks of big pine trees and burning them. Forrest Beach farmed for several years. Later, he was head of the Road Guard agricultural inspection stations for the North Florida region under Commissioner Doyle Conner. He retired from that position, never returning to farming.
After he graduated from Trenton High School, Jeff attended the University of Florida, graduating with a degree in Agriculture Business. After college, he returned to the family farm, growing row crops including corn, soybeans and wheat. He started calf roping as a young man—and at sixty-five still competes. When he was younger, he competed in rodeos throughout the Southeast. “I never was that good,” Jeff declared in his typically modest manner. “I mean I paid my way—but I really liked doing it. I still do.”
Jeff quit farming for a while during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the agricultural economy was difficult, and started training horses for a living. At first, he learned by trial and error. He enhanced his horse training skills considerably by attending a Ray Hunt clinic in “natural horsemanship” held at Ham Brown’s ranch in Kissimmee.
Jeff has always enjoyed making things with his hands. In 1982, he saw a “how to” book on saddle making advertised in Western Horseman magazine, ordered it, and has been making saddles ever since. Jeff enjoyed building saddles and strived to improve his work. Two renowned Florida artisans helped him achieve a high level of skill in tooling leather: Ocala saddle maker Blake Kral and Okeechobee master leather carver Bob Dellis. “Blake helped me a lot, taught me how to tool. He helped me with style and design. In the late 1980s, I went to his shop and bugged him to death, and he was glad to help me.” A little later, he met Bob Dellis, who enjoyed a national reputation. “I visited him in Okeechobee a lot.” He produced a series of video tapes that proved invaluable to advancing Jeff’s skills. “That changed the way I laid out my designs. His methods really helped me a lot,” declared Jeff.
Jeff married his high school sweetheart, Marilyn Fletcher, in 1974. They had two children, Devon and Garrett. While Devon preferred girls’ team sports, Garrett focused on calf and team roping and steer wrestling. Nurturing that interest, Jeff and Marilyn hauled Garrett and his horses to rodeos on the Florida High School Rodeo Association circuit on weekends. Garrett was a talented and focused competitor. He competed in four state and three national high school finals. In 2003, he won the national high school championship in calf roping. Garret attended Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Oklahoma on a rodeo scholarship, where he competed on the college rodeo team in National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association events and earned his Associate of Science degree in agriculture. When he returned home, he attended the University of Florida, earning a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management. continues to be a top competitor in calf roping; he is currently second in the PRCA Southeastern Circuit Standings and placed first in calf roping at the 141st Silver Spurs Rodeo in Kissimmee, June 1-2, 2018.
While Garrett was attending college and competing in rodeos, Jeff made a saddle for one of his college rodeo teammates. While preparing to rope a calf at a big event, a man came out of the stands and asked him who made the handsome saddle, and the student told him Jeff Beach was the maker. The man was Tommy Guy, of Abilene, Texas, a roper who had qualified for the National Finals Rodeo back in the late 1980s. One day Jeff received a surprise call from Tommy Guy. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, trying to find you!” Jeff recalled Tommy remarking. He said he had been hunting Jeff everywhere but nobody knew him, but finally got his phone number from someone. Tommy ordered a saddle and, “From there it just exploded,” recalled Jeff. “Tommy is friends with all the world champions. He knows everybody.” The orders for custom calf roping saddles began to pour in.
Jeff is modest when speaking about his saddles and his impressive list of clients. Why do so many champions prefer his saddles? Jeff’s beautiful, masterfully rendered hand- tooled designs are certainly a factor. “They like the look,” he stated. To minimize leverage from the pull of the rope, calf roping saddles sit low on the horse, have a short horn, short swells, and the seat is smaller—seldom larger than fourteen inches—and lower, to enable a quick dismount. “I feel like the seats I put in them ride a little better because I did rope, and I trained horses for years. I would always tweak the saddles. I’d build one and ride it, see room for improvement, then change it on the next one.” Jeff will also modify his standard design to suit a client. “I tell them I build a seat that I like. If you want something different, tell me and I’ll do different.” Jeff is good friends with Florida’s other renowned maker of calf roping saddles—and 1989 PRCA World Champion—Rabe Rabon, of Okeechobee. (See the November 2016 issue of this magazine for a feature article on Rabe.) Jeff uses nothing but the finest materials. “Most all of my calf ropers use a Hogg tree (made by Billy Hogg of Conway, Arkansas). They are good trees. They are stout and you are not going to break ‘em.” He also uses trees made by Lewis Tree Company of Hereford, Texas and Sonny Felkins (Quality Manufacturing) of Monticello, Utah. Interestingly, Jeff does not sell very many saddles to ropers living in Florida and the Southeast. He buys all his leather from Herman Oaks of St. Louis, Missouri. Jeff will make any type of saddle. “I love it when someone calls me up and asks if I can make them a Wade saddle. I love making Wades. I’ve made a lot of reiners, and quite a few barrel saddles. I’ve made working cow-horse saddles. Cutters, I’ve made a few of them, trail saddles—I’ve made them all. But my biggest deal is the roping saddles. That’s who calls me.”
“Garrett is very handy in the saddle shop,” stated Jeff. “He’s built two or three saddles, but his main interest is farming.” When Garrett’s wife, Heather, was voted Miss Florida Rodeo in 2007, he helped his father make a strikingly beautiful pair of chaps for her. Jeff’s daughter, Devon, is highly skilled at tooling leather. She plans to take a leave of absence from her job as a high school guidance counselor to work with her father, tooling his custom saddles. Jeff is excited about getting Devon involved in his saddle making business. “I want to pass it down,” he remarked. “I want somebody to take my tools and keep going. If it’s her, I would be tickled to death.”
Jeff and his dad had a herd of registered red Brahman cattle for a few years, but sold out in the mid-1980s when the demand for the breed diminished. Jeff has served as president of the Gilchrist County Cattlemen’s Association in the past, but presently does not own any commercial cattle, just a few head of roping stock. “Garrett and I will background stockers sometimes, but not every year. We have fed butcher cows, too. If something looks good to us, we’ll try it. You’ve got to be versatile.”
Today, Jeff and Garrett grow watermelons and hay on family land and leased acreage. Garrett runs the farm day-to-day, but Jeff stays involved in some of the decision-making and farm work. “I’m on call,” said Jeff. They have found it increasingly difficult to lease land at a reasonable rate. “The peanut guys have got it where you can’t hardly rent land around here,” stated Jeff. “But, with the prices for peanuts currently down, we have been able to lease a lot of land for watermelons and hay.” This year they produced 30-40,000 small square bales of hay and about 5-6,000 rolls. They sell hay to brokers, feed stores and individuals.
After supper, Jeff often returns to his shop to spend some relaxing time playing his guitar. “I don’t have any musical ambitions,” he stated. “I just play for my own enjoyment.” He recently purchased a new Martin HD-28, an American classic flattop. Like one of his saddles, it is a handsome example of functional art.
Jeff is thankful to make a living doing something he enjoys, and he gets great pleasure from creating finely crafted saddles that serve his clients well. “I’m blessed to be able to do what I love. I have a good life and am blessed with a wonderful family.”
“Reprinted with permission from The Florida Cattleman & Livestock Journal, August 2018. If you are interested in becoming a Florida Cattlemen’s Association member go to our website at www.floridacattlemen.org or call 1-800-647-0026.”
This article is one in a series commissioned by the Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation in its mission to preserve the history and culture of the Florida beef cattle industry. To learn how you can help support the Foundation through a tax-deductible donation, visit www. floridacattlemen.org or contact chairman Tommy Harper at 352-214-5250 or Jim Handley at 407-846-6221.