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Grand Canyon Saddle Maker Enjoying the Ride

Across from the Xanterra South Rim is a mule barn sitting on an inconspicuous lot at the Grand Canyon Village. The historic building was a blacksmith’s shop.

Inside, the old wooden floors show their age, while the aroma of worked leather and mules give away its purpose. This is Joe Marshall’s territory: the Saddle Maker’s shop.

Neatly arranged are leather straps and scraps, saddles, tools, machinery, a bottle of soda and a bag of chips. Like a Western Santa in his workshop, Marshall joyfully makes and repairs saddles, chaps, holsters, britches and “anything leather,” for Xanterra’s mule operations.

Marshall has been a saddle maker for more than 50 years and claims, “I’m probably one of the luckiest people on this property here. I’m doing what I love to do.”

All the tools and equipment in his shop belong to him.

Growing up outside of Phoenix, Marshall has worked as an animal control officer, police officer, carpenter and cabinetmaker.          “I then started working on ranches all over Utah, California and Arizona,” he said.

In 1981, Marshall built a house in Cedar City, Utah. He also built a saddle shop behind his house. “When the economy went south and our daughter, Danica, graduated high school, this job opened up here at the Grand Canyon. I applied and was hired, back in 2008. I feel real fortunate to have this job.”

His wife lives at their Cedar City home. He travels back and forth. “I work a four-day, 10-hour schedule and go home about every month or so.”

“Having the best equipment here is vital for the safety of our guests, employees and our mules,” said Livery Manager John Berry. “Joe does an outstanding job in mastering his craftsmanship to assure this.”

Matt Joseph, Xanterra packer supervisor, likes to visit Marshall in the evenings after work. “Joe has a really good sense of humor, so he’s fun to hang out with. He’s a good teacher, too, and if he doesn’t know an answer, he’ll find out. His saddles are great; they fit the mules really well and they’re comfortable. It’s important to have a sense of craftsmanship and Joe obviously has that.”

Marshall puts his mark on every saddle. “When you have a job that enables you to do what you love, it gives you a sense of immortality,” he explained. “I’d like nothing better than 50 to 100 years from now know someone is saying, ‘Yeah, this is a Joe Marshall. He made this for the Canyon.”

What is your superpower?

“I am the leather guy. I’m a mere mortal.”

What advice would you give a young person interested in learning your craft?

“Don’t. There are too many of us now. Marry well. Do you know what the difference is between a saddle maker and a large pizza? A large pizza will feed a family of four, a saddle maker won’t.”

What is your guilty pleasure?

“Jameson Irish Whiskey.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“My father said, if you’re gonna do something, do it right. Have a plan, implement the plan and stick to the plan. We’ll review later whether it’s a good plan or not.”

What’s your favorite time of the day?

“I like night. If you come by here late at night and you hear tapping and slow, sad country songs, I’m tooling leather and I’m in my element. There have been times I’ve looked up and it was 3:30 a.m. Just got lost in my tooling and forgot the time.” FBN

By V. Ronnie Tierney, FBN


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One Response to Grand Canyon Saddle Maker Enjoying the Ride

  1. Jack Rinaldi December 9, 2019 at 4:24 AM #

    Joe is the ultimate craftsman, a true artist and overall a great guy. We were very fortunate to be able to call him our friend while we lived at the Canyon. Joe is the best that there is…period.

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