Eugene Joseph "Gene" Martin (1927-2002)

Eugene Joseph “Gene” Martin, also known to some as EJ, was born to Albion “Al” and Virginia (Gieffels) Martin on November 15, 1927 at Great Falls, Montana. Al, wanting their baby to be born a United States citizen, sent Virginia to Great Falls from Alberta, Canada to deliver their baby. In the spring of 1928, Al joined Virginia and son Eugene as they traveled back to Canada with intention to claim a homestead near Le Duc. As a result, Gene spent his early childhood in the Canadian wildnerness.

Gene’s parents moved to Helena, Montana in 1934 where he started school. From there the family moved to Portland Oregon pursuing a taxi cab business. At 13, Gene quit school due to illnesses in the family and became the main wage earner allowing his mother to care for an ailing Al and Gene’s three-year-old brother Bill.

Though he had a full-time delivery job his love of horses and yearning for the cowboy life enticed Gene to start entering Saddle Bronc rodeo competitions under the alias name of Tex Martin, so his unapproving parents would not know he was riding. When the cost of repairing his back rigging was not affordable at the Portland Saddlery, he asked the proprietor to sell him the leather and show him how to repair the saddle himself. It was then, Gene got his start repairing saddles and working with leather.

Assisting Al and Virginia with the family's move to Wolf Point, Montana, Gene rode the only West to East Immigrant Car commissioned from Portland. He moved the family’s belongings and horses by rail car in 1944, joining his parents whom had travelled earlier. This journey was an exciting adventure that Gene enjoyed relating for the rest of his days.

Gene served in the United States Army during the Philippine Insurrection of 1946. Receiving an early discharge in 1947, due to service related health issues, Gene recovered at the Portland Veterans Hospital. Returning to Wolf Point later that year, his first enterprise was a restaurant partnership on Main Street with G. Madison.

On April 17, 1948 Gene married Loretta Stidolph at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Wolf Point. Into this union were born four children, Joanne, Allen, Larry, and Randy.

In February 1948, using the motto, Everything for the Horseman, Gene opened his first official store in a one room building located on Main Street where the business prospered. Gene and Loretta were proprietors of the longest single owner business in Wolf Point history lasting 59 years at various locations. One locale was made possible when Gene solicited a customer donation of one hundred dollars to be invested in the business. He in turn gave his word that their financing would reward them ten percent off all lifetime purchases. These terms were carried over to the last locality at 214 Main. Loretta maintained the agreement, even after Gene’s death, until the final business day of the Wolf Point Saddlery in July 2007.

Gene was a natural artist, using leather as the final medium instead of canvas. Numerous people have memories of watching him tool hundreds of belts, wallets, purses, and saddles of which the signature 500th custom-made saddle was raffled and later drawn at the Wild Horse Stampede. He drew all his patterns for use on quality leather products he crafted for his loyal patrons. Gene designed his own Martin Special saddle tree, which was assembled by the Standard Saddle Tree Company in Texas. Most of his 510 saddles were made using that design, leaving a lasting legacy.

Gene and Loretta had a great respect and connection to the Native American community; employing native leather craftsmen, and displaying hand crafted beadwork for local artisans.

A 1997 newspaper article in the Wolf Point Herald News written by W. Spence affirmed Gene as an inventor of words, as well as saddles. "He (Gene) talks of symmetrizing two saddle skirt halves and complains about interruptions, as in “I thought I was in the saddle-making business but all these derruptions are keeping me from my work."

The article describes Gene working in "a basement shop that a sorcerer's apprentice would feel at home in. Multicolored piles of leather and... a workbench with perhaps 60 tools scattered on top..." "Martin, not surprisingly, has the appearance and manner of a mad inventor. Pliers and a knife hang from his hand-tooled belt. Suspenders help hold up his well-worn jeans. His shirt is fraying at the edges and in the elbows. A dark leather golf cap perches on his thin gray hair, drooping so low he has to tilt his head back to see across the room. This is a man used to working on things right in front of him. His right thumb is missing and his hands are stained from decades of rubbing oil into leather. They are the color of a well-tanned hide.”

Gene was a skilled horse trainer and over the years raised many competitors. Cowboys in the area talked of the benefits of a place to practice rodeo timed events in the winter. Gene’s entrepreneurial nature gave him the idea to build an indoor arena, he proudly named the Cowboy Palace, which gave the locals a place to practice and hone their skills. Several events, competitions, and training sessions were held there over the years.

In his younger days Gene rode saddle bronc, calf roped, and team roped. A favorite photo of riding a bucking horse in the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede hung prominently in the saddlery. For several years, Gene directed the Wild Horse Stampede Queen Contest, enlisting a good panel of horse worthy judges and encouraging many young ladies who earned the crown. He was a member of the American Quarter Horse Association, the Charo’s, and several Wolf Point organizations including the Roping Club, Saddle Club, Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. In 1999 Gene was honored to serve as Grand Marshal of the Wild Horse Stampede. He rode his favored ranch raised palomino stud, Pal, in the three-day-parade. Just three short years later, Pal would follow behind the horse drawn hearse that carried Gene to his final resting place in Greenwood Cemetery.

Gene's lifelong respect of the cowboy way and lifelong passion with horses filled his life with joy. His accomplishments were recognized through journalists and reporters from magazine, television, and radio across the state of Montana. As noted by his children, Gene’s success would not have been possible without the support of his loving wife and business partner, Loretta.

Biography Reference:

Martin family memories

Spence, W., Wolf Point Herald News, 7 August 1997

Photo Reference:

Courtesy of Ruby Nygaard

L to R – Wilbur Reid, “Ace” #29 Martin Special; Ruby Nygaard, “Chief” Sid Special; Roger Nygaard “Gunner” #29 Martin Trophy; Duane Nygaard, “Zeke” Round-Up Roper; Darrell Zimmerman, “Bugsy” #29 Martin Special; and Ray Nygaard, “Roanie” modified Round-Up Roper.