Sunday, January 1, 2012

Perpetuating a Tradition | 1/25/2012

The Downtown Saddle Shop

By Diana Hunt, Photography by Gary Knoll
Article originally printed in The Aiken Horse



The Downtown Saddle Shop is a small storefront on Park Avenue filled with saddles in all stages of repair. There are pieces of leather hanging from cubby holes, photographs, work items and tools tucked into carriers, and bridles hanging from hooks. Particularly eye-catching are the intricate braided leather pieces of art hung on the walls. These are Hungarian shallongs, which are decorative leather ornaments that are traditionally attached to a horse’s browband to serve as fly shields. In one corner stands a well-worn antique European stitching horse, a special wooden bench designed to hold leather for hand-stitching.

Welcome to Aiken’s newest equestrian support system, Ava Vettenburg’s saddle and tack repair business.

Ava, who is a master saddler, grew up in a small village cradled in a bend of the Danube River not far from Budapest. She always liked to travel and, in the process, found she had a knack for picking up languages. She has a degree in German and in Italian, and she also speaks English, Greek, Finnish, Russian and several other languages. To feed her taste for travel, she became a flight attendant with Malev Hungarian Airlines when she was a young woman, and had the good fortune of being based in several countries. Flying runs in the family, and both of Ava’s brothers are pilots in Hungary.


Love of Leather


“While I was still flying I met a woman who worked as a leather artist in Budapest,” Ava explains, “and I just fell in love with leatherwork. She invited me to come work with her to see if I liked it. In four weeks I was no longer with the airlines. She taught me so much about leatherwork. After three years with her I felt that I could do leather in a much different way. I wanted to do something that was more permanent, more of a specialty. I decided I wanted to be a saddler.”

However, Ava had never even seen a horse, let alone a saddle. But somehow the idea persisted in her mind. Her world changed from leading the glamorous life of an international flight attendant (this was in the 1970s she says, when it was still glamorous to fly) to the hard work of leather making. She went to a small saddle shop north of Budapest and asked the master saddler there, Ferenc Laszlo, if she could apprentice with him.

“I asked if I could watch and he said O.K.,” she explains. “For three weeks all I did was come in every day to watch and learn, following him around every step. Then he said ‘yes’ he would take me on as an apprentice if I could learn to sew with two needles, not just hemming a skirt. He taught me saddle and tack repair. He had only one basic requirement: In order to repair properly you must know how to build and make tack items and know the purpose of each. He said that would put me in a position to do a better job. I found out this was much more than work. Craftsmanship is an art, it’s a business, and it is the friendships you make. But he warned me it was hard work: you can learn as long as a candle burns down. It is an old Hungarian saying, meaning it will take years to learn your craft.”

In Hungary, a saddler apprentice must work with the master for five consecutive years, learning theory as well the mechanics of tools and machinery. In the sixth year, after taking an exam, showing five original pieces and writing an essay detailing the history of leatherworking, one finally becomes a master saddler.

After becoming a master saddler, Ava went on to work for the National Riding Club of Budapest, the home of the Hungarian Equestrian Team. It was here that Ava took her first riding lesson. She rode every day for the years she worked there. After five years at the club she decided to open her own repair business, fortunately able to keep many of those same elite horsemen as her clients.

The Long Road to Aiken


While still living in Budapest, Ava came to the U.S. to visit a friend in New Mexico.

“On the second day, I still had jet lag, I found a copy of a horse magazine on the table,” she says. “A company in Virginia was advertising for a master saddler specializing in English saddles. It turns out there were a lot of people who made Western saddles but, at that time, very few people in the United States who specialized in English tack. My friend encouraged me to talk to them. It turns out that the advertisement was a connection to Tad Coffin, a former Olympic eventing rider. He had been advertising for three years and had only one response. When I told him I knew Bert de NĂ©methy [the former USET show jumping coach] that sealed the deal without any further interview.”

That was 1997. Ava returned to Budapest, packed up her things and moved to Virginia. With Ava on board, Tad Coffin Performance Saddles was launched. Coffin had been working with various designs since the late 1970s, testing types of trees and fine tuning jumping saddles. He had even consulted with NASA engineers to come up with lightweight, flexible and strong saddle trees.

“This was the very beginning of his business,” Ava explains. “We even had to build our own benches. Tad was tireless in testing saddles on horses. He is a perfectionist. He could tell if a saddle was a quarter of an inch off just by riding in it. Those were the best years of my career, working with an Olympic rider such as Tad. He himself actually worked on the saddles. It was the best saddle making school - I learned the most with him. There are not many chances to work with people who are so dedicated to working with horses and for their benefit.”

Life later took her to Florida where she continued her repair work. In 2005, Ava became a U.S. citizen.

"At that point in my life I wanted to be employed,” she explains. “I eventually took a job with Custom Saddlery [at their Aiken production plant] to be the master saddler for their production of 15 dressage models. At that time, I maintained – repaired and restored – Steffen Peters’ saddles.”

In Aiken, Ava found a beautiful and welcoming equestrian community. The place reminded her of European towns, with a wide variety of different types of people and a large international community. After several years in Aiken, she felt there was room for another saddler and tack repair service. In May 2012, she opened her own store on Park Avenue. While the name says “Downtown Saddle Shop,” she says she only specializes in saddle and tack repair, reconditioning and restoration. She no longer makes saddles from scratch, although the job of restoring some of the saddles in her store looks very close to starting from the beginning.

Future Plans


“I like educating individuals about saddle making and leather work,” Ava explains. “I would like to do training and educational programs about English saddlery - how to buy, maintain and how to fit a saddle. It’s a two-hour talk, from a saddlemaker’s point of view. I want people to know what makes a good saddle.”

In the longer term, Ava would like to train saddlemakers and to train people in English saddlery and leatherwork.

“My goal is to leave my knowledge to people who would serve in their own home states,” she says. “They would be certified by me. I could mentor people who come to my shop to learn the business. I would like to see more certified saddlers serving people and their horses. If your horse is happy, then you are happy and I am happy, too.”


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.



Saving the Gaston Livery Stable | 1/13/2012

Preserving Aiken’s History

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll



The Gaston Livery Stable was built in 1893. It is a massive, 12,000 square foot, two-story barn, made entirely of local brick. When it was constructed, brick barns were something of a rarity, especially in the Southeast. Brick was more expensive than wood and was more likely to be used in a home than in a stable. According to some reports, the brick structure replaced a wooden one that had burned down. This explanation has a certain logic to it, as well as a precedent. Another historic brick barn, one built by Leland Stanford in Palo Alto, California, was built in 1888 after the original barn went up in flames. That stable, still standing today and built of "fire-proof brick," is now home to the Stanford University equestrian team.

Back around the turn of the last century, the ground floor of the Gaston stable had a number of stalls for horses and space for carriages. The second story was a loft, where carriages could be stored if there was not room for them downstairs. There may also have been a repair shop for the carriages in the loft. Vehicles were hoisted to the second story through the use of a carriage lift, a device that was used in two-story barns in the years before the horseless carriage triumphed over the traditional one.

The stable was owned by David W. Gaston, who was a member of a prominent family in Aiken – his younger brother was the mayor of Aiken at one time, as was his son, and throughout his life, he held various positions in city government. Starting around 1900, he operated a livery as well as a riding school. The livery catered to members of the Winter Colony – wealthy ladies and gentlemen who came to Aiken from Northern climes for the milder winters of the South.
Old Barn 1968
Some of the ladies and gentlemen of the Winter Colony stored their own carriages at the Gaston stable and also boarded their horses there. Others rented horses and vehicles from Mr. Gaston. There were saddle horses available, as well as pony carts. The stable could supply carriages for "hunting parties, picnics and moonlit hay rides." An experienced driver was sent along with the rig as well as a stable boy to watch the horse while the customer went shopping or calling on friends. Located just outside the historic horse district between Park and Richland Avenues, the stable was close to the railway and a convenient distance to the train depot as well as to the majority of the Winter Colony homes and the downtown shopping district.

Mr. Gaston ran a thriving business until his death in 1930. His clients included such illustrious personages as Tommy Hitchcock, the 10 goal polo player, who reportedly boarded some horses at the stable. In a short piece written by Dorothy MacDowell and published in the Aiken Standard in 1970, the author, a historian, compares the stable to structures at the magnificent Middleton Place in Charleston. "Even after the advent of the automobile in Aiken there were numbers of carriages, elegant victorias, surreys and rigs here," she continued. "I have heard several people speak of the charming Mrs. R.V. McKimm, dressed all in white and looking every bit like a queen."

After Mr. Gaston died, the livery stable went out of business. The property itself was passed down to Gaston's descendants. With each generation, the amount of land that belonged to the home and stable diminished. The property was sold in 2005 along with the original Gaston home, which has since been restored. Today, the home, stable and the 3.4 acres of land they sit on are again for sale.

Although the Gaston Livery Stable is eligible to be listed with the National Registry of Historic Places, it currently has no historic designation. Aiken has several historic districts that provide some protection to significant structures that lie within their boundaries, but the Gaston stable is just outside these districts.


"There is nothing to prevent someone from buying the property and tearing down the stable," says Coleen Reed, a historian who has been active in saving other Aiken landmarks. "I read an article that said that fewer than one third of the barns that were in the United States in 1930 remain. This is a unique barn in its shape and in its style. I've only been able to find five all brick barns in South Carolina that are still standing. It wasn't very popular to have a brick barn – it was a little elitist. There were probably never more than 25 in the state. From my research, it's probably the oldest of the existing brick barns in South Carolina. A carriage lift is even more rare. This is one of four carriage lifts left in the entire United States."

Worried about the future of the historic structure, Coleen Reed formed an advisory committee with some like-minded people about 18 months ago. This July, the Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable was incorporated. The group's goal is to purchase the stable, secure it a historic designation, renovate it, and then make it available to the public for some kind of educational or recreational purpose. The group, which has applied for its own 501c charitable status, is currently operating under the umbrella of the Friends of the Aiken County Historical Museum. They have raised funds through grants and private donations and are now in negotiations to buy the barn and 1.9 acres surrounding it.

"First we have to buy it," says Coleen. "Then the big thing is to get it restored."

After that, there have been many different suggestions for the structure's use.

"I was very involved with Aiken's 175th year celebration,” says Coleen. “I have been thinking, wouldn't it be grand if we could do something like this every year? But it is a big undertaking. So if we could scale it down, but continue to celebrate the founding of Aiken, I think it would be great. We could have a founder's day at the barn. We could establish it as a living history park. A lot of people have approached us – farriers, blacksmiths, saddlemakers – they are all very interested. But we can't make any plans until we are the official owner."

Elliot Levy, who is the executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, would like to see the stable returned to the carriage trade. He sees it as the natural setting for a carriage depot, a place where tourists could come to board carriages that would take them on a tour of Aiken's downtown and historic districts. Before that could happen, city ordinances would have to be changed to allow carriage tours of Aiken again – they are currently not permitted.

According to Coleen, support for the project has been phenomenal. One of the first public fund-raisers is a barn dance on October 15 at the Red Barn on Chime Bell Church Road. In addition a square dance, the Save the Gaston Barn Dance will offer a Chinese auction, a live auction and a cakewalk.

"Everyone has been so generous," says Coleen. "Everything for the dance has been donated. The most wonderful people stop me on the street to say how happy they are that we are doing this." People who are interested in historic Aiken are unanimous that the stable should be saved. "It should happen," says Elliott Levy. "It has to happen."

To make a donation to help save the stable, send checks to Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable, 433 Newberry Street, SW Aiken SC 29801. Or contact Coleen Reed for more information at 803.648.4123.


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.