Omahan’s saddles rode the Wild West

More than a century ago John S. Collins, above, ran an Omaha saddle shop, where William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a customer.

Mary Leinen doesn’t ride horses, but she has family ties to a man who made saddles for cowboys across the American West, including one very famous one — William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Leinen of Harlan, Iowa, is a relative of John S. Collins, who more than a century ago ran a saddle shop in Omaha and counted Cody among his customers.

Cody is considered one of the first international celebrities, a frontiersman who became famous for his Wild West shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

An exhibit on Cody at the Durham Museum through May 1 features a saddle made by Collins in 1897 that Cody once owned and considered one of his favorites.

Collins is Leinen’s great-great-uncle and she said she’s fascinated by his story. He became one of the best-known saddle makers in the United States.

“He was quite the entrepreneur,” she said.

Collins was born in Galena, Illinois, and moved to Omaha with his brother in the 1860s and opened a saddle and harness business. Collins died in 1910 in Omaha and the headline on his obituary in The World-Herald called him one of the “oldest and best known Omaha pioneers.”

Among cowboys, a Collins saddle “in ordinary repair was worth an even $100 in a jackpot,” the obituary said.

Leinen said her relative was an adventurer who road in a wagon train across the Great Plains, worked for bankers in mining camps and hunted for bear with Gen. George Crook. He traveled to Europe, Alaska and across the United States.

Collins kept a diary and used his detailed notes to write two books on his adventures.

Leinen said he was a successful businessman who left an estate of about $250,000 when he died, roughly $6 million in today’s dollars. He never married nor had a family.

She remembers her father telling her about her relative’s adventures when she was a young girl, and thought her dad was kidding her.

As she grew older she began to understand the role he played in keeping cowboys comfortable on horseback. And, with the help of her husband, Paul, she has researched Collins’ life.

She owns five of her great-great-uncle’s saddles and last week visited the Durham to see the one that’s part of the Cody exhibit.

She’s always felt proud of her relative, but seeing the saddle displayed at a museum for others to learn about and admire took that feeling up a few notches.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1122,

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