It’s All in the Family: Harris Leather and Silverworks
When Mabelene and Ralph Harris ran their first advertisement in the NSBA “The Way To Go” for Harris Leather and Silverworks years ago, it read: “It’s All In the Family.” Today, the feeling is still the same, with the third generation of Harris family members now starting to make their mark on the business.
“We have been so blessed, and it makes you proud to think your children want to be in the same business you are in,” said Phil Harris. Harris’ two sons, Preston, and Stanton, as well as brother Eddie’s daughter Mary Gwyn, all work in the shop. Eddie’s youngest daughter Victoria, is currently attending college at Appalachian State University.
Kitchen Table Business
“Mabelene’s little side business” has grown into a business that employs about 30 people, including the silver shop, leather toolers, saddle makers and bridle makers. It has come a long way from Mabelene’s kitchen table. And while it has grown larger, Harris Leather and Silverworks remains all in the family.
“There’s only one person who might answer the phone who’s not a Harris family member,” Phil said. The shop is close to all three family homes. “I can look out the window and see Momma and Daddy’s kitchen light on, and know that Momma is getting ready to fix supper right now.” Phil and his wife Phyllis, and Eddie and his wife Robbin each live a quarter mile and half mile from the shop on property that is all connected.
Mabelene Harris began hand tooling leather belts and purses in the 1960’s in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. She took her handiwork along with her husband, Ralph, and Phil and Eddie to open horse shows around North Carolina. Mabelene’s handiwork soon became popular with the horse show crowd. Before long, Mabelene and Ralph were working long hours at that kitchen table trying to keep up with the orders.
Quality and service were hallmarks of the business from the beginning, and something Phil Harris still insists on today. “We probably get three or four emails a day and three or four calls a day asking about a used Harris saddle, and we take the time to research each one to find out when it was made and our best guess of its value,” Harris said. “There are a lot of companies now that won’t do that, but we feel it is important.”
The First Tack Items
Their quality products and attention to customers have kept the orders coming in, and when the family moved to State Road, North Carolina in 1973, they were happy to move from the kitchen table to a shop in the basement. With Phil and Eddie showing their ponies in riding events, Ralph tried his hand at making headstalls with a bit of silver. Phil and Eddie’s headstalls were the first tack items made by Ralph Harris Leather, Inc., and became the foundation for Harris Leather and Sliverworks.
By 1978, Ralph and Mabelene had hand-tooled and dyed leather show halter orders coming in too, and the couple began an assembly line with Mabelene doing the tooling and Ralph providing the silver. That year, Ralph quit his job at the telephone company to jump full time into the business.
Saddles and Silver
Both Phil and Eddie Harris grew up in the business and each began to lend his area of expertise to the growing business. Phil had made and sold tack to a company in Chattanooga, Tennessee while in high school and became adept at making saddle repairs.
“I have a very mechanical mind,” Phil said. “When I’m not in the shop, I enjoy old cars. I like taking things apart, figuring out how they go together and how they work.” Phil put his mechanical mind to work to see how a quality saddle should be made. He made his first saddle in 1982 and promptly sold it to his uncle, Donnie Dickerson, for $875. He joined Harris Leather and Silverworks after graduating from college that same year.
One year later, Eddie Harris graduated from Appalachian State University, and while the family was at an event in Montgomery, Alabama, 25-year-old Eddie had a fateful meeting with jewelry maker Ann Beard. She encouraged Eddie to begin making the silver items that the family was at that time purchasing to place on show equipment.
“This has been a journey of many, many years,” says Eddie of the silver making process. “When we started, I never had any experience in art, and I never considered myself an artist. You are continually learning.”
He began by learning wax molding, and later hand engraving and silversmithing. Eddie’s hand-engraved silverwork has been seen on countless headstalls, halters and saddles and also extends to one-of-a-kind jewelry and buckles for customers in the equine industry as well as NASCAR drivers like Richard Petty and country recording artists such as Kenny Chesney and George Strait. Eddie said he finds his inspiration from nature and the outdoors, where he spends his time when not working.
“You try to make it look as real as you can, almost alive,” he says. “I love the challenge of creating unique and different things, and the creativity and art of it.”
The Next Generation
“I think Eddie and I in our own way helped take the business to the next level with the addition of the saddles and silverwork, but I also believe the next generation is going to take the business to an even greater level. It’s going to be fun to watch them take a fresh approach into the coming decades,” said Phil Harris.
Much like Phil and Eddie had done, the third generation of Harris family members is each finding areas of expertise in the business. “Stanton gets involved in our clerical and IT area as well as design, and has taken on the marketing duties,” Phil said.
“Mary Gwyn answers the phones, does some design work, and also does a lot of our clerical work. Preston has always been interested in making saddles and leatherwork. They all grew up here working in the summers and have traveled to the shows with us whenever they could.”
Partnership with NSBA
The NSBA and the Harris family have a long history together. NSBA’s first president, and Sharon McLendon, NSBA’s first secretary, approached Mabelene and Ralph about becoming a sponsor in the new National Snaffle Bit Association shortly after it was formed in 1983. “We believed in what they were trying to accomplish and felt it would be good for our industry,” says Mabelene. “We were glad to be a part of it.”
Mabelene also remembers the first saddle that Harris Leather and Silverworks donated to NSBA. “It was on display at the Congress,” she says. “That was a very big step forward for us and we were so excited.” There would be many more saddles displayed at the NSBA booth over the years, long before the Harris family themselves would have their own booth there. “We knew we wanted to have a booth there, but we wanted to be sure we were ready,” says Mabelene. Eventually, they were more than ready.
NSBA introduced the Harris family to a whole new audience. “Our success went hand in hand with NSBA,” says Eddie. “The development of the Two Year Old Snaffle Bit Western Pleasure and the Three Year Old Snaffle Bit Western Pleasure classes coincide with the coming of age with our business.”
Through lean times and flush, the Harris family has continued to support NSBA through sponsorships and donations. “There were times that we donated a saddle when I really couldn’t afford to donate one,” remembers Phil. “But we believe so strongly in what they are doing. There was never any question that it was the right thing to do.”
Today the Harris family continues to be at the forefront of the Western Pleasure industry. “We try to be at the top of the game, rather than following someone else’s trends,” says Mabelene. “We know that you can’t be all things to all people, so we try to make the best product we can for our customers and we always look for something unique and different to offer them.”
That innovation is a real collaboration with the customers, says Eddie. “I think it really is a combination of the ideas of our customers and our imagination and creativity,” he notes. Phil agrees.
“I think Eddie and I complement each other very well in that I can develop the mechanics and he provides the artistry, and together we can come up with a design that is aesthetically pleasing and yet functional for the customer.”
Since the typical custom saddle order can take six to eight months to produce, many of the custom orders the Harris family will deliver to this year’s Congress began the planning process as early as January.
All in the Family
So what is it like to work with your entire family? Phil said: “You know, we have watched many other families that have gone into business together, and for a while it seems to work well and then at some point it seems to implode. We are so blessed that we don’t have that here. I think the key is that each one of us has an area that we are responsible for, and although we depend on each other to make it, we each have our own area of focus.”
“We owe everything to Mother and Daddy,” adds Eddie. We wouldn’t be able to be here today if it weren’t for them. The one thing I’ve realized over the years is that it is a blessing from God that I get to work with the family every day, and that we all live so close and we all get along.”
That’s not to say they never disagree. ‘Of course we do disagree from time to time,” laughs Phil. “But Mother is the great peacemaker. And sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and go on. I think that’s a testament to our parents and how they raised us.”
For the Harris family, every day they spend together is a blessing. “We’re a 30-year overnight success,” laughs Phil, “but we’re blessed to be able to do it together.”
And every day, it’s still all in the family.