Wisconsin Man One of Country's Few Harness Makers

Feb 28, 2014

If you're looking for a true horseman, look no further than Richard Savatski, who lives just outside of Waterloo, Wis.

The harness maker grew up on a farm and spent most of his life working with huge draft horses called Belgians. He also built fancy wagons for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo and drove teams of draft horses in their parades.

He says an ad in a local farm trade paper got him off the farm and into harness-making - his retirement "hobby" he began at 58.

Savatski says being around work-horses all his life, he learned early on how to repair their harnesses - and that made making them easy. But the old machines that fill his shop haven't always cooperated.

That's why Savatski's made some "minor" adjustments to them over the years. The creasing machine looks like an old wringer washer, but instead of a hand crank, Savatski attached an electric drill.

“There was a crank on it and I don’t like the ideal of cranking that so I put the drill on it. That thing saves a lot of labor, and that thing turns hard," he says.

His sewing machine is made of iron. It’s heavy, black and goes by the name Union Lock when it behaves. Savatski has another name for it when it doesn’t.

“There was a lot of these machines all over. Every harness shop had on or two of ‘em. And when I got it…that’s been my biggest problem. It’s a temperamental machine. What little religion I got it almost wrecked that a couple times," he says. 

Savatski says he can’t stand sitting still and spends up to eight hours a day in his shop. When he’s working on his harnesses, Savatski says his mind often wanders – reaching what material culture academics call transformative state or flow.

"Sure, you keep your mind on what you’re doin’ but…I got an evil old mind once in a while and it all depends on who I’m thinking about or whatever," he says.

Savatski designs his thick leather harnesses specifically to give the driver control over the horses, like the entire steering system in a car. But they are not plain black leather made just for working; they are shiny, beautiful showstoppers - what Savatski calls "handsome."

“Why do women need a wedding dress to go to a wedding? They could go in a pair of overalls! Well, same thing here. If you gonna go out in the bright lights, you want to look dressed up, don’t cha?" he says. "We’re horse people. We like to see them all dressed up hooked to these wagons, fancy wagons and that so it looks nice for the crowd.”

Savatski is one of only a handful of harness makers in the country. It’s a skill that for some commands a high price, but not Savatski. He is a man from a certain generation where you speak plainly, stand your ground, and if somebody needs your help, you help them.

"I’m a Pollack. I come up on the lower end in school. I was a red F student and I never got up in the ruts that far, I guess. I haven’t got anything against a rich man or a poor man. I lie to be on a even keel with everybody," he says. "I say I helped a lot of people who would have never bought a harness. I made more people like him happy because they could afford me."

Savatski realizes that he can’t do this forever and when he hangs up his hat, he hopes his son will pick up the trade.

“He says he’s gonna learn, but he never comes here to help build harness. Then he said a while ago, 'I gotta come out there and help build harness pretty soon.' He’s gonna get this when I’m gone. When I’m outta here. It’s gonna go by him," Savatski says.

But for now, Savatski is still working. He says he can still drive a team of horses, build the wagons, and make the harnesses he needs to steer them - even at the age of 87.