History of Cody’s Contribution to the Functional Arts

A unique, regional style was born when Buffalo Bill Cody settled in northwest Wyoming in the late 1800’s. The roots of Cody’s style actually come from early Adirondack furniture but early leaders in the western design field like Edward Bohlin, “Saddle Maker to the Stars,” and Thomas Molesworth refined and defined western functional art in the 1920s-1950s. Today’s By Western Hands artisans produce a wide range of functional and decorative arts including furniture in the Molesworth and Adirondack styles, as well as work that’s much more contemporary, inspired by Sam Maloof and others. BWH legacy artisans also specialize in beadwork, fabric, carving, leather work including saddles and bags, and metal work including bits and spurs and jewelry, as well as architectural design. This functional art is historically significant to the American West and helps sustain the romanticism of the West promoted by Buffalo Bill.

TIMELINE

1896

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the American scout, bison hunter, and showman who presented the Wild West Show, settled and founded the town of Cody, WY

1917

Edward Bohlin moved to Cody to open his first saddle shop. He later moved to Hollywood to become the “saddle maker to the stars,” and his saddles and silver work are still collected today.

1931

Thomas Molesworth moved to Cody to open the Shoshone Furniture Company, which remained in business until 1958.

1936

Paul Hindman opened rival Wyoming Furniture Company, which produced furniture for homes across the United States until the 1980s.

1964

Ken Siggins opened Triangle Z Ranch Furniture.

1989

Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West) exhibited Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth. The opening of the exhibition reflected an increase in the popularity of Western Design, as national publications featured Molesworth and contemporary western furniture and clothing designers.

1993

Master Artisans Guild, a group led by Mike Patrick, a local furniture maker and artisan, hosted the first Western Design Conference at Old Trail Town in Cody, WY.

2007

Cody Western Artisans Guild hosted the first Cody High Style exhibition, a tradition that continued at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West from 2007-2012.

2003

Western Design Conference was sold to Western Interiors and Design magazine. For the first time in its history, it was a for profit venture, which was somewhat at odds with the original vision. The show was eventually sold to a publishing group in Jackson. Recognizing the loss this would mean for the Cody community, artisans, and Western Design aficionados, a 26-member group of artisans established Cody High Style in 2007.

2015

By Western Hands was formed by Harris Haston and Carlene Lebous, along with a group of local artisans and community members. The group was excited and relieved that after an economic downturn and exhibition hiatus, this new idea could gain traction by hosting yearly pop up exhibitions in a tent at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The fourth annual exhibition was held in September of 2018.

2019

Saw the completed renovation of the old Gambles Hardware store, the new permanent physical location of By Western Hands in downtown Cody.

Influence of Thomas Molesworth and Edward Bohlin

Edward Bohlin
Thomas Molesworth

Though Thomas Molesworth is, for many people, the craftsmen most identified with western studio furniture, one of the first names to become associated with western decorative arts was Edward Bohlin. Swedish born, Bohlin came to America in 1900 and moved to Cody in 1917 after working in Montana and on several ranches in the area. Established in Cody, he opened his first saddle shop, and after honing his craft there for several years, moved to Hollywood where his skills in leather and silver led him to become the “saddle maker to the stars.”  Over the years, Bohlin’s pieces have inspired countless artisans. His pieces are still collected, and being used and worn today.

Counter to the popularity of Edward Bohlin’s saddles and tack, western furniture did not gain immediate and early recognition. Towns with train service ordered furniture from back East or through catalogs. Those towns and ranches, whose isolation made ordering furniture impractical, had it built by local log builders and ranch hands. Early “pole” furniture came from the use of lodgepole pines and was first and foremost functional, with little to no emphasis on artistic integrity. As western furniture started to gain popularity and skilled artisans garnered recognition, they added aesthetic elements to their designs. Many early makers of western furniture – Eagle Rathe Furniture of Dean, Montana; John Stark in Seeley Lake, Montana; Kranenbergs of Jackson, Wyoming; Uptown Furniture in Sheridan, Wyoming; and Thomas Molesworth’s Shoshone Furniture Company in Cody, Wyoming – all had distinct construction techniques and decorative elements, but they were also influenced by and imitated one another.  It was this confluence of style and timing that would ultimately lead to the success and recognition of Thomas Molesworth and the Shoshone Furniture Company.

The son of a wealthy Methodist minister, Thomas Molesworth, was born in Kansas in 1890. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to South Dakota, and then again to Forsyth, Montana. In his youth, he became an avid horseman and developed a strong connection to the West, so much so that he wanted to become a painter and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908. This was the time of the Arts and Craft movement. Arts and Crafts stood for traditional craftsmanship, using simple forms made in a factory setting using a hands-on approach. Molesworth’s arrival in 1908 Chicago was deeply rooted in the Craftsman style – most notably expressed in the Prairie School architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries.

Molesworth would return to Montana after only one year at the Art Institute after his family finances took a downturn. However, that single year in Chicago would leave a lasting impact. Molesworth would later integrate into his own furnishings a style reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement, using simple forms, and a clean, solid style that would come to define his furniture.

After returning to Montana and working on his family’s ranch, Molesworth served in the Marine Corps in World War I. His tour completed, Molesworth returned to Montana where he worked, as a banker for five years then as the manager of the Rowe Furniture Company in Billings for seven years. In 1931, Molesworth, who now had a wife and two children, moved to Cody to open the Shoshone Furniture Company. Originally Shoshone Furniture Company was a retail furniture store; it sold products of various manufacturers and Molesworth’s previous jobs provided him with an excellent background to run the budding business. However, it is clear that Shoshone Furniture Company did not start as a furniture manufacturer. According to noted Molesworth historian, Terry Winchell, the first documentation of Molesworth, as a furniture maker, was in a 1933 Cody Stampede Rodeo program. The ad presented Shoshone Furniture Company, as a “maker of distinctive furniture for western homes.”

Like the western furniture makers before him, some of Molesworth’s earliest customers were area ranchers. Anthony Huber, who owned the Indian Head Ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, commissioned Molesworth to build a bedroom suite. E. V. Robertson, owner of the Hoodoo Ranch, also commissioned the Shoshone Furniture Company. Though these commissions were good for the growing business, the turning point for the Shoshone River Company was the commission to furnish Ranch A in Crook County, Wyoming.

Ranch A was owned by Moses Annenberg, a Russian immigrant who worked under William Randolph Hearst, had great success, and later purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer. Annenberg amassed tremendous wealth, and his retreat in Crook County was one of the finest log structures in America.  The commission was an enormous opportunity for the Shoshone Furniture Company. Upon its completion, Molesworth had gained recognition in the elite circles that would become his future client list, the capital to grow his business, and the confidence to continue to develop and refine his style.

By 1936 Molesworth, who had a relationship with the Abercrombies, put Shoshone Furniture Company on a national market with representation by Abercrombie & Fitch of New York. This led to commissions with eastern clients looking to build second and third homes in the West. The Shoshone Furniture Company likely received its commission to furnish The Old Lodge, George Sumers’ ranch near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, from this exposure.  From that point going forward, the Shoshone Furniture Company would go on to be the premier furniture maker of western studio furniture.

As the Shoshone Furniture Company grew, it faced challenges from changes in clients’ tastes, shifts in the economic climate, and competition in the emerging western-inspired furniture market. One of Molesworth’s competitors came from another Cody-based furniture company.

Paul Hindman had worked for the Shoshone Furniture Company since its inception, along with his brother Don, who was one of Molesworth’s finest woodworkers. Paul then left Molesworth in 1939 and started the Wyoming Furniture Company, based off a commission to furnish the lobby of the Noble Hotel in Lander, Wyoming. In addition to the sting of his departure, Hindman’s Wyoming Furniture copied Molesworth’s unique style, a trespass that Molesworth would never forgive.

Despite the bad blood between the two local companies, Wyoming Furniture Company operated for many years. It was sold on several occasions, once to Pete Fritjofson, who had worked under Molesworth in the early 1950’s. Fritjofson, who mentored future craftsmen Ken Siggins for a short time, worked in Cody until his death in 1964. Hindman would eventually come to own Wyoming Furniture once more, but by the 1980s Hindman’s health was in decline and Wyoming Furniture Company closed its doors.

In addition to the Wyoming Furniture Company, Molesworth was also competing against craftsmen who had developed their local followings, but now had new opportunities to advertise in magazines, such as the Dude Rancher .  However, despite increasing competition, Molesworth was able to remain not only one of the most influential western designers, but one of the most sought after. Molesworth adapted his designs to reflect the more modern tastes of a post-World War II America, and Shoshone Furniture Company remained popular until Molesworth retired, and the company closed its doors in 1958.

Molesworth’s legacy and unique design were recognized in 1989 in the exhibition, Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and in 1990 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.  These shows, along with several articles in the New York Times, helped spark a revival of interest in western studio furniture that had not been seen since the 1930s. This wave of enthusiasm would last for nearly two decades, and Cody would be at its epicenter.

Cody, Wyoming is a uniquely western town, steeped in history, rich in tradition, and surrounded by inspiring landscape. Cody, once home to Buffalo Bill, became home for the renowned furniture designer Thomas Molesworth and many of his contemporaries. Not easy to get to, but always worth the trip, over its history Cody has become the acknowledged center for some of the West’s finest art. With the advent of the By Western Hands Design Museum, Cody is also staking its claim as a center for western design, craft, and couture. Cody remains today the nexus of a western furniture and design industry that has now flourished here for nearly three quarters of a century.

The examples of Western Style presented in By Western Hands’ inaugural exhibition are representative of the historic and contemporary creations born of Cody, Wyoming and its surrounding West. The inspiration of consummate craftspeople and artisans, each piece is an emblematic sample or an award- winning example of what is simply the best from our West.

The authorship of Western Style that was assigned to Thomas Molesworth has been challenged by a few, but for most of us, that style and the attendant decorative system attributed to him hasbecome an historic reference in a developing American Regional Style. Western Style has not always been exclusively created of natural and available materials of the West. The style is just as often created by craftspeople dwelling elsewhere, inspired by personal perspectives on, of, what is, or what was the West. One could suggest that it was inspiration principally drawn from youthful imaginings of rugged western heroes or sentimental perspectives of the rugged western landscapes. It might also be argued that the style comes more deeply from within the individual craftsperson’s artistic and creative experience, vision, imagination, and intent.

Western Style is very often design without specific historic or cultural reference and yet in its way, it screams western. It is the product of a complex intellectual “creating activity.” It often involves utilizing leather, wood and cloth in functional, but singular and unexpected ways and ultimately mirrors the image of the craftsperson that made it. Western Style transcends defined geographical borders and utilization of indigenous materials. It transcends historical and traditional construction techniques. And though it owes some of its mystique to Buffalo Bill and much more to Thomas Molesworth, perhaps it transcends them too. Western Style continues to evolve, beyond Buffalo Bill, the generation of Thomas Molesworth, his contemporaries, and their followers. We can no longer feel ourselves obliged to identify and attribute historical antecedents or influences that many thought once necessary ingredients to legitimize examples of that style. Beyond identifying an immediate and unabashed westerness in the creations representing such style, the challenge remains to continue to examine, and to test the limits of what we find to be authentic and exceptional creations, done up in Western Style!

The Switchback Ranch Collection of Western Decorative Art at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, originated in 1994. Each year, an exemplary piece of furniture, ironwork, leather work, or couture, created by exhibitors participating in the original Western Design Conference and later from Cody High Style event, was selected for purchase, and inclusion into the Center’s permanent collection. With the award, made possible by David Leuschen, owner of the Switchback Ranch, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West developed an exceptional collection of premiere western decorative arts. It is that collection that has been gifted to the By Western Hands Design Museum, featured for the first time in its entirety in our inaugural exhibit. Our craftsmen and artisans produce the genuine western article. Their body of work provides the vantage point from which we might stylishly and comfortably engage the West!

Exhibit – Switchback Ranch Award Winners

Archives – Participants and Works from Past Exhibits

2019 Rendezvous Royal

Cody, Wyoming and Thomas Molesworth's contribution to Western Design and Functional Art