Jess Willard's Saddle
Like many athletes who gain fame, a championship title brought Jess Willard business opportunities he wouldn't have had otherwise. One such opportunity was to appear in wild west shows, where Willard rode this ornate saddle.
Jess Willard, a Kansas native, became the world heavyweight boxing champion in April 1915. Shortly after capturing the title, Willard succumbed to the lure of Wild West shows, made popular by William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Growing up with horses on a Pottawatomie County farm had made Willard an excellent rider. His sports fame, combined with his riding skills, attracted the attention of the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Real Wild West, and Willard signed on with the show. He was billed as the "cowboy from Kansas, crack rifle and revolver shot, expert swimmer" who never drank nor smoked.
After a short stint with the 101 Ranch show, Willard bought Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1917, the same year Cody died. During the four years Willard held the heavyweight title, one estimate suggests he earned $750,000 outside the ring as a Western performer.
Willard likely used this saddle while performing in Wild West shows. Made for him during his four years as a heavyweight champion, the saddle's tooled designs show Willard as a boxer on both fenders (pictured at left); steers can be seen on the sides of the seat. On the back of the seat, the saddlemaker has tooled his own name and the words "Jess Willard Champion Heavyweight."
The saddle was made by Victor Marden of The Dalles, Oregon. The 1905 An Illustrated History of Central Oregon indicates that Marden, a native of Oregon, began working at harness making in 1892. After going into business for himself in 1900, Marden quickly gained a reputation for creating artistic saddles.
This saddle, along with other memorabilia of Jess Willard's career, was donated by his son to the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Jess Willard's Saddle
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.