MONTICELLO, Minn. - Give the guy on 101st Street credit for sticking to his story. If he’s wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, then, by gosh, he’s living on a ranch.
“100 by 200 foot lot, no animals except Toby here,” but, says Mike Bray, pointing to his loyal sheep dog, “We call it a ranch.”
A better word might be eclectic.
“I've got a fetish for outboard motors,” says Bray as he walks between dozens of antique Evinrudes and Johnsons mounted on stands and on retaining walls around the organized chaos that is his lake lot.
“The neighbors all shake their heads at me; nothing surprises them anymore what I bring home,” the flea market aficionado says.
OK, maybe the neighbors were a little surprised when Bray quit his job selling cars and gave his hat, boots and ranch some authenticity.
In a shop converted from his garage, Bray carves detailed images in leather. He learned the craft nearly two decades ago when he traveled to Kansas for several weeks and lived in a small pull-behind trailer, all to study under a master leather artist.
“When I told my boss I was going to quit and do this here, he thought I was nuttier than a fruitcake,” Bray says.
Wren Bray never doubted her husband. “I just knew he could do it,” she says.
Today Mike Bray sells meticulously carved saddles and leather art works, many in Native American and western themes.
“Barbed wire always sells,” quips Bray. “If something don't sell throw barbed wire on it, it usually moves.”
Just don't try to buy one of the three saddles perched on stands near the back of his shop. Those are not for sale.
“This is a saddle I built in 2011,” Bray says of the first. “I call it the ‘Tribute to the Troops.’”
Bray spent 18 months carving into leather, images of the branches of the U.S. military, support organizations, and historical markers such as Rosie the Riveter and the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima.
“I didn’t want really nothing political on it or religious, but then again I said this is my saddle, I can do what I guess I want, so I did put ‘In God We Trust,’” Bray said.
Bray transports the saddle to honor veterans at events near and far.
“Never kept track of my hours,” he says of his work on the saddle. “I just look at it this way, it's nothing compared to the hours our men and women are serving.”
Last year inspiration struck again, as Mike began work on a saddle to honor law enforcement officers.
“My idea was to get police badges from all over the state,” he says. More than 80 badges already grace the saddle, with room for more.
“You have a half-a-percent of bad cops out there and they’re all getting punished by it,” Bray says. “We’ve got to be thanking these guys.”
Bray rolls out a third tribute saddle he crafted between the other two. "This one I call the Saddle of Hope,” he says.
Bray’s tribute to those who've battled cancer hit close to home after his neighbor Chloe Fruth, a champion barrel racer, was taken by cancer at 16.
“I asked her mother what Chloe’s favorite saying was and she give me that,” says Bray, pointing at an inscription he hand carved into the saddle. “Keep moving forward," it says.
Surrounding the inscription are some of the more than 1,500 leather flowers Bray carved into the saddle.
He pauses at another flower-flanked inscription. “You asked which my favorite is,” he says. “I think this one is here,” Bray says, pointing to an inscription that reads “Someone I love needs a cure.”
Wren Bray’s diagnosis with colon cancer at the age of 42 impacted her husband deeply.
“Just give me a minute,” Mike Bray says, turning his back to his visitors.
Wren Bray understands his difficulty, years after her successful cancer surgery. “It's the not knowing if it's going to go away or not, or what's going to happen,” she says.
“I'm supposed to be this big tough cowboy and cowboys don't cry,” says Mike Bray. Perhaps so, but cowboys do occasionally need some time alone beneath their cowboy hats.
“Once you have it that never goes away,” reflects Wren Bray. She, too, has a symbol in the form of a feathered wren on her husband’s Saddle of Hope.
“Yep, we survived,” she says.
The ranch that isn't.
The horses that aren’t.
But what is true under the hat, is the cowboy’s heart.
Note: all three of Mike Bray’s tribute saddles will be on display in the Minnesota State Fair Coliseum during the entire run of the 2017 state fair.