Almost untouched since the day it closed in 1972, the Ben Schroeder Saddletree factory is the nation's last intact 19th century shop where craftsman built the inner workings of saddles. Sawdust from the last run of saddletrees and the internal wooden skeletons of riding saddles (saddletrees) litter the floor. Rickety wooden bins wedged between antique machinery overflow with decades-old scrap lumber. Hundreds of saddletree patterns – made from discarded boxes – hang cobweb-covered in the recesses of the rafters. A frayed denim work apron dangles from a rusted nail where its owner hung it decades ago. A unique, award winning restoration, the factory building offers the opportunity to explore the history of the frugal Schroeder family, the obscure craft they pursued, and the life they fashioned with single-minded devotion for more than one hundred years.
German immigrant John Benedict Schroeder began making saddletrees at 106 Milton Street in 1878 after learning the trade in one of Madison’s other saddletree shops. Using axes and hand tools, he and his workers hewed locally harvested lumber into the curved, twisted shapes needed to make a saddle fit both a horse and a rider. A steam engine and belt powered machinery would replace much of the hand-crafting and artisanal work that Schroeder and his team did. The pace of production would increase and it would allow him to expand the factory and adjacent home.
In Madison’s “Golden Age” (1820-1850s), the industrial sector offered traditional trades that attracted German immigrants: pork-packing, brewing and woodworking. The Madison area also provided abundant wood for the craft of saddletree making.
Schroeder as well as other German and English immigrants who settled in Madison made it the center of saddletree making in the US. In the late 1800s the city’s twelve saddletree companies crafted more than 150,000 trees each year shipping them to saddle makers around the world. As a result, Madison, Indiana was an integral part of the international trade network that supported leisure horse-riding, agriculture, and horse-based transportation. During 94 years in business, the Schroeder Company made between 300,000 and 500,000 saddletrees. As saddle sales declined, the business diversified in the 20th century to make nearly 2 million wooden clothespins, countless stirrups, and other horse related wooden items as well as lawn furniture & work gloves.
After Ben’s death in 1909, his sons and a daughter ran the firm until 1972. When Joe Schroeder, Ben’s last son, died in 1972 the heirs donated the factory with all its contents to Historic Madison, Inc. (HMI). The National Park Service recognized the importance of the site in the 1970s. HMI led a ten-year project to study and document the site. A three-year award winning preservation effort followed to save this industrial relic as is.