Rambling Boy: The King of the Western Belt Buckle Collectors
Robert Brandes is the king of Western belt buckle collectors. He has roughly a thousand of them, and his e-mail address incorporates the words “buckles.com.” His calling card says “Western Buckles” in large type and has his name and address in much smaller type down in the corner.
Brandes, a tall, angular man in his mid-70s who lives in Fredericksburg, has been a collector all of his life. He started collecting Western buckles in the mid-1980s.
“I realized that they were an indigenous art form that was peculiar to the United States,” he said “In the 1970s and early 80s, when the price of silver went up and so many of them were melted down, I decided that they were worth preserving.”
The buckles in Brandes’s collection fall into two types: the ranger-style buckles, which are called that because they were, and still are, used on gun belts worn by Texas Rangers and other law-enforcement types, and the flat square and oval buckles awarded as rodeo trophies, usually engraved with the name and date of the event and the awardee’s name. The ranger buckles are less ostentatious than the trophy buckles and are frequently worn by bankers, lawyers and oilmen who dress in dark suits. The trophy buckles are popular with cowboys and would-be cowboys and look good with jeans.
Brandes says he prefers the trophy buckles to the ranger buckles because the trophy buckles “. . . have an identifiable history—they relate to a particular event, whereas the ranger buckles are more of an everyday wearing piece.”
Both types are fine examples of the engraver’s and silversmith’s art. As a case in point, Brandes told me about a buckle in his collection that is illustrated in a book he did with David R. Stoecklin titled The Western Buckle (Stoecklein Publishing Company, 2003).
The silver and gold buckle depicting a bronc rider belonged to the flamboyant rodeo champion Casey Tibbs who in the 1950s was twice named best all-around rodeo cowboy by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Tibbs won the buckle at the 1947 Boston Garden Rodeo, and it is engraved with his name and the words “Winner of Wild Horse Race, Boston Garden and Lightning C Ranch, 1947.”
When Brandes acquired it in 1997, he discovered that there were additional words engraved on the back. Those words were “Champion XXXXXX, Eskew Rodeo, 1948.” The word following the word “champion” had been partially obliterated, but with a magnifying glass and a bright light Brandes was able to see that it had originally been “Drunkard.”
Some sound reasoning on Brandes’s part, and a telephone call, unfolded the story. Tibbs had a reputation as a hard drinker during his early years in rodeo, although he tapered off toward the end of his life, and he ran around with a group of hell-raising rodeo cowboys. Brandes theorized that after Tibbs won the buckle in 1947, one or several of his boon companions lifted it from him, had the back engraved as a joke, and returned it to him the following year. This was confirmed in a phone conversation Brandes had with the lady friend who had disposed of the buckle after Tibbs’s death.
“I tried so hard to remove that word,” she told him.
Brandes told me that the earliest trophy buckles seem to date from the early 1920s, when promoters such as Tex Austin were taking rodeos to Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden, and London’s Wembley Stadium. The top-of-the-line buckles were made by silversmiths such as Edward Bohlin, whose Hollywood shop produced silver-mounted parade saddles for movie stars, and Hamley and Company of Pendleton, Oregon, which made custom-made bits and spurs as well as saddles.
Some of the most collectible early trophy buckles were made by Chase Holland of San Angelo, Texas, who is best known for his miniature spur tie clips. Another early maker was R. Schaezlein and Son of San Francisco, a company which is still producing beautiful trophy buckles. Brandes has early examples from all four makers in his collection, including a 1936 sapphire-studded Schaezlein buckle on which the word “roping” is misspelled “ropeing.”
Rodeo stars are not the only people who wear trophy buckles. Brandes has a beautiful Bohlin buckle adorned with a fiddle, a bow and musical notes made for Bob Wills in the early 1940s and another presented to Rex Allen about 1950 by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Relief Association.
Some trophy-style buckles are commissioned as works of art by people who, like Brandes himself, love buckles. The morning we talked he was wearing a silver filigree buckle with an RB monogram in the center that was made for him by Alan Hykes of Aspen, Colorado. He showed me a photograph of another trophy buckle he had commissioned from Neil Hunt in Sedona, Arizona, which depicted a cowgirl wearing nothing but a Stetson hat about to climb into a stone tank beside a similarly attired (or un-attired) cowboy. It is sterling and gold with platinum accents.
When he showed it to me he said, “This is an idea I’ve had for years and wanted to try it. I know this scene must happen all over the West.”
During his 30 years of collecting buckles, Brandes set the standard for other collectors. Now he has numerous rivals, including the Koch brothers.
He told me, “At one point I was the big dog, then I was one of the big dogs, now I’m a bit player.”
But if you look at the website he has created to display his collection, buckles.com (what else?), I think you will agree that he is still among the big dogs.
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center. This piece was originally published in the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel on June 23, 2016.