With cows outnumbering people by more than 2-to-1 in Montana, leather is a big part of the state’s heritage. One Missoula business is transforming all that rawhide into practical works of art. Reporter Eric Clements stepped inside the workshop of Goertzen Adventure Equipment to learn how rough leather is transformed into beautiful bags in this Montana Made report.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s true for Joe Goertzen, who from a young age knew he had a knack for creating gear to explore the great outdoors. He spent his youth altering equipment to better suit his needs.
"You know, hiking backpacks, that kind of stuff,” said Goertzen. “And so I always kind of sewed and cut up things, and then I started making a fly fishing lanyard. That really took off."
That fly fishing lanyard was based on a tried-and-true design, but Goertzen saw room for improvement. He set up a shop in a basement and got to work. Goertzen Adventure Equipment was born.
"I added all the leather extravaganzas to (the lanyard), and then the actual fly, this component. This is pretty unique to my design, and then the stomach strap as well, the belly strap," he said.
The lanyard’s success took Goertzen by surprise. He was able to buy better leather working equipment and move from the basement into an actual shop where he began to focus on crafting hand-made bags.
But his business is called Goertzen Adventure Equipment for a reason, and the leather he uses lives up to that name.
"I prefer to call it kind of a cowboy leather,” he said. “The same leather a cowboy has on his chaps. It’s got scars from barbed wire fencing, it’s got the brands still in it, it’s got real cows that you see walking around Montana."
Goertzen said cowboy leather makes for durable bags, but it’s okay if they get beat up.
"Most people like them the more beat up they are," he said. "They age and weather real nice."
Goertzen and his employees can turn out about six bags on a good day, each hand made. Goertzen Adventure Equipment now ships bags worldwide, but he says there has been a learning curve.
"I’m good at making the bags and everything, being a businessman I had to learn along the way," he said.
Goertzen said he’s happy to share his passion with the world, and that he’s lucky his hobby doubles as his livelihood.
He sells bags and lanyards at the Missoula Farmer’s Market and online at GoertzenAE.com.