Connolly Saddlery Got Its Start in Ireland
by Linda Grosskopf
John Bradley Connolly was a horse collar maker in Ireland who, with thousands of his compatriots, emigrated to the United States in the 1870s and settled in Minneapolis.
About 1907, his three sons---Jack, Andy, and Pat---moved to Butte, Montana, where they opened Connolly Bros. Harness Shop.
Jack and Pat moved to Billings in 1912 and opened a small shop on North 29th Street where they manufactured harness, horse collars, and saddles. Jack was the saddlemaker, and Pat made the harnesses.
In 1919 the brothers purchased lots at 2911 Montana Avenue and built the building which still houses Connolly's. When the advent of tractors ruined the harness business, according to Allie Connolly, they began stocking western clothing. Under the name of Connolly Bros. Saddlery, Jack and Pat continued to make saddles and tack items. In addition, they did lots of repair work.
In 1929 Jack and Pat dissolved their partnership. Jack moved to Livingston and opened up Jack Connolly Saddlery, where he made saddles from 1929 to 1937 and from 1940 to 1946. According to Kristi Baukol, "About 1936, Jack invented and patented the "Free-Wheeler," a free-swinging stirrup leather. Most stirrup leathers go over the bar of the tree, but the Free-Wheeler hangs in the rigging and gives the rider more freedom. Jack made many saddles for cowboy author and artist, Will James."
Pat remained in Billings, renaming the business the Pat Connolly Saddlery. In 1937 Pat's son John joined him, and three years later Pat's daughter Alice known as Allie joined the team. In the early 40s, due to failing health, Pat was forced to retire.
In 1946 Pat's son-in-law Chuck Harris, husband of Pat's daughter Catherine, joined his in-laws at the store as the saddlemaker. John managed the business, and Allie with her pretty smile was jack of all trades.
The business was incorporated in 1951 under the name of Connolly Saddlery Co. and for the next 26 years business went along smoothly. A series of changes took place starting in 1979 when Harris retired. This was shortly followed by Allie's retirement in 1980. Then in 1982 John Connolly sold the store to his son Patrick.
Montana natives Dave and Barb Wagner opened the door at 2911 Montana in August 1995 as the new proprietors of the fine old business.
Dave said, "I respect the Connolly family tremendously, and it's a great honor to have the opportunity to buy their store. In 83 years, it's come up for sale once, and I'm blessed with the chance to buy it."
One of the final pieces of business transacted before Wagners took over seemed ordinary enough the---paying of a bill. What made the transaction newsworthy is the fact that the invoice was dated 1917 and that it was paid by a grandson for a grandmother long since gone to her reward. Going through his grandmother's papers recently, the grandson discovered the invoice in its original envelope addressed to "Mrs. Cashen, Pryor, Montana." He promptly brought the invoice to the store to settle his grandmother's account, and although the Connolly's staff assured the grandson that he did not have to pay the bill after all, there was no proof that she hadn't paid the bill he insisted and paid it to the penny. The bill itself was interesting. The majority of it was for a horse collar, but part of it was to settle up for a series of small ($5 to $20) loans made over an extended period of time.
A 78-year-old invoice---nearly as old as the business itself---has been paid; a grandson has honored a grandmother's memory; and the trust extended from a businessman to a member of the community has been validated. ...What a great way to end 83 years in business. And what an auspicious start.
Note: This story originally appeared in the August 25, 1995, issue of Agri-News, a weekly ag newspaper in Billings, Montana. To find out more about Agri-News, or for subscription information, contact:
PO Box 30755
Billings, MT 59107