Lifetime in Leather: Salinas' Journey as Rich as the Quality Work He Performs on Goods

Joe Salinas frequently says that much of his life is undocumented.

As for the quality of his life's work, the documentation is plentiful.

Return customers, a portfolio of completed projects and letters provide testimony to his success at creating and caring for leather goods. It is evidenced in the hands-on care he gives to tanned hides, keeping them alive, nourished to make them supple, breathing.

Whether he's working with boots, bronc saddle or camel saddle, the proper cleaning and care of old and new leather is Salinas' life.

Each morning for two hours, he plies a portion of his trade in the lobby of the Northern Hotel, where he keeps his two-seater shoeshine stand.

The rest of the time, he provides custom leather work and restores neglected tanned goods of all sizes and shapes. At one time, he made and repaired leather goods for Saudi princes.

"The only thing I dislike is the way owners treat leather," Salinas said in a recent interview. "Leather can be preserved indefinitely if you care for it."

His stint at the Northern Hotel is about five years, but his path to Billings was a meandering journey that took him from San Antonio, to the Navy to Chicago to Houston to Saudi Arabia to Mexico to Billings.

Born in Missouri, Salinas said his birth was registered in Texas. His father, a supporter of Pancho Villa, moved north after the legendary rebel was killed in 1923, Salinas said.

The family eventually settled in San Antonio, where Jose Bravo Salinas began school.

"They changed my name to Joe then," he said of the teachers. Bravo is his mother's maiden name. Salinas said he dropped out of school in about the ninth grade and started hanging out with a gambler, who was killed for cheating in a poker game.

Along about 1940, Salinas joined the U.S. Navy. As many did during that time, he lied about his age. He became a cook and was on the USS Tennessee when it was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Salinas said.

This is a portion of his life he says is undocumented, but he was discharged from the Navy in 1945 "under honorable conditions."

After the war, he ended up in Chicago, where a friend introduced him to a man who collected old furniture made of leather. It was here that Salinas was introduced to leather work through on-the-job training.

"He told me it would not take long to learn how to cut and care for it," Salinas said. He has done custom leather craft since 1947.

"I never put my name on anything until I moved to Billings," he said.

Salinas said that sometime in 1948 he answered a blind newspaper ad promising a $1,000 a month. The job offer was from Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company. Hired, he was, the next thing he knew, on a ship bound for the Gulf of Aden, Salinas said. Once on the Arabian Peninsula, he was part of a pipe-laying crew.

By happenstance, he was introduced to a Saudi prince (there are hundreds of them) who was in need of a sheath for a scimitar, Salinas said.

"It took me about three hours to cut and stamp it and put it together," he said. Afterward, the prince allowed Salinas to set up a shop from which he did all kinds of leather work for Saudis who were quite fond of horses.

Salinas said he remembers the prince as Faisal, who he believes was the member of royal family who became king in 1964.

Back in the United States by 1959, he thinks, Salinas went to Mexico for a sojourn that lasted about 15 years.

"I am not really good with dates," he noted, but he remembers being back in the United States on the last day of 1976. Fifteen years later he moved to Billings.

Salinas and his wife had vacationed in Montana for three weeks in 1991 and quickly made a decision to move here, he said.

He believes his purpose in life is to care for leather and to observe the Golden Rule.

A soft-spoken man, he bears resemblance to fabled author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His hands, too, have a soft touch for the material of his livelihood. He speaks with pride at having resuscitated a saddle, maybe 130 years old, that belonged to local cattleman Jim Leachman.

"It was all dried up, hard as a board," Salinas said. "If you had bent it, it would have cracked."

He kept the saddle for three years, periodically rubbing the desiccated hide with an oil-based rejuvenator.

"It takes a while to penetrate, to get the right texture," he said. "I brought it back to life."

Other projects do not take as long, but the process is the same: slow restoration of the leather until it becomes pliant," he said.

A recent visit with a local businessman brought him a job of restoring a camel saddle, which he recognized from his days in Arabia. The saddle was purchased at an art sale.

Salinas' treatment has restored the rich color of the leather.

He makes all kinds of customized leather goods: cutting, tooling with intricate designs and polished.

Most habitu├ęs of the Northern Hotel recognize Salinas as the operator of the shoeshine stand in its lobby.

His clientele varies widely, he said, but he keeps the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. hours weekdays to accommodate overnight customers. He takes appointments for the off hours.

"I like to do the work, to see people satisfied," he said. "It is a pleasure for me."