The land and everything on it gets all the attention.
The majestic sights of pastures and prairies and populations of wildlife, and the hard-working, old-fashioned way of doing life here, is often what brings photographers and journalists and animal lovers and artists and advanced riders and wannabe ranchers and wanderers to Chico Basin Ranch, the 87,000-acre working cattle ranch 35 miles southeast of Colorado Springs.
Being outside here, you feel small. Everyone around you feels, just, big.
That has always distracted, understandably, from the little things happening in the little leather shop on the ranch. Maybe someone was fixing a rancher’s tack or bridle. Or making a gift for a little girl. Chatting over beers after a long week. Little by little, it became a sort of social heartbeat of the ranch.
Still, for years everyone on the ranch thought so casually about the leather shop that they didn’t consider its potential to legitimately help the business.
That business is the multifaceted family ranching operation called Ranchlands, which owns and manages cattle operations in the American West.
It was founded by Duke Phillips, or Big Duke as he’s also known, who was born on a ranch in Mexico and has been in the business ever since. By the time he and his family moved to the Chico Basin Ranch in 1999, Phillips had collected tools for leatherworking as he learned the necessity of being able to fix your own equipment.
He used his skills for fun, too, fashioning carved leather handbags to give his three daughters. They resembled the kind of satchels ranchers might use to carry supplies for a day of riding. As his daughters carried them around like any other purse, friends started asking how they could get one.
That’s how Ranchlands Mercantile, the name for the leather shop, came to be. But it’s always been sort of in the background of everything else that goes into the business. Along with its conservation and education efforts, Ranchlands also runs a hospitality off-shoot that hosts unique stays for guests from around the world.
In the last couple of years, though, things have ramped up for Ranchlands Mercantile thanks to members of the family’s younger generation. Big Duke’s daughter, Tess Leach, 35, a co-owner and the director of business development at Ranchlands, teamed up with her sister-in-law Madi Phillips, 29, to take the little leather shop to the next level.
A glance on the shop’s website, where they do the majority of sales, shows a sophisticated brand offering products you’d expect to find in a stylish big-city store.
The sleek products include things inspired by ranching, like knife sheaths, satchels and cowboy hats. There are also belts, bracelets, dog leashes, koozies and notebooks. As Leach says, they are “fashion products that are just as at home in New York City as they are on a ranch.”
Vogue, the fashion magazine, used a similar description in a 2019 article about Ranchlands Mercantile, another testament to the shop’s growth.
There’s the 15,000 followers on Instagram, too. They’ve seen a spike in growth since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Sales increased as did their staff of makers, which is now at six people. They poured more energy into all aspects of the business, especially marketing via social media.
“We started pushing things out in a more intentional way,” Leach said. “It’s taken off a whole new life.”
The physical shop has stayed the same. The rundown building on the ranch doesn’t have the look of an expanding fashion brand. Chances are, the drive to the shop on a dirt road will include having to stop for horses and run over horse droppings.
There’s not much of an indication saying you’ve arrived at Ranchlands Mercantile. A small sign hanging over the door is barely legible as the white paint reading “Leather Shop” has faded over the years. The red paint on the outside has also faded.
This is not a place customers come to browse. It’s a place of work, as you can see by the tools arranged on the walls and products in progress.
Across the room, passing by the shop dog Lola, is where they keep the saddles.
In case you could forget, this is ranch life. And it’s a life chosen and fiercely loved by Leach and Phillips and their families who all live on the Chico Basin along with other staff. For Leach, she knew she wanted to stay in the family business without being a traditional rancher. That’s led to her current role.
Phillips, who grew up in Illinois with a love for riding horses, first came into the picture as a seasonal worker.
“It was so much deeper than ‘Come ride at a pretty place,’” she said.
She opted for joining the ranch instead of going to veterinarian school. Part of that was because she fell in love with the mission and heart behind Ranchlands. She also fell for Duke the Fourth, the son of Ranchland’s founder, who she’s married to. She’s pregnant with the next Duke.
She’s been a big part in growing the leather shop, where she and a team of all-female artisans spend their days carrying on a craft as traditional as ranching itself.
“It’s part of the culture for old ranches to have their own leather shops,” Leach said. “We just didn’t always think about it as something that could actually contribute.”
They have an anecdote on hand to make that point.
As Phillips was mastering leatherwork, she made herself a simple knotted bracelet. She wore it around for two years before it occurred to her and Leach they should start making them at the shop and selling them. The bracelets, priced at $35, are now one of their most popular items. They get ideas straight from the ranchers and what they wear. Some bags, Phillips says, are just a step or two from being ready for the saddle.
The popularity of everything shows that Ranchland Mercantile has something every brand wants: a good authentic story.
“The fact that we didn’t create it to make money makes it easier to make money, if that makes sense,” Leach said. “People are resonating with what we’re doing and why.”
And the shop is making much-needed supplemental money, she said.
It’s not just the story that sells. The quality is unmatched. They confidently say these products will last a lifetime, if not more. The leather itself doesn’t come from their ranch; most of it comes from Horween Leather in Chicago, which is the oldest family-owned tannery in the country. The shop’s makers turn that leather into things that have the potential to be long lasting family heirlooms.
A few steps from the shop is its shipping department: a shipping container without air conditioning and with only enough room for one or two employees at a time and boxes of back product.
Looking around, Leach talks about the little details that make these hats and bags unlike anything else at any other store. She also mentions she’s thought about how to keep up with demand. That won’t include moving the leather shop off the ranch.
“That wouldn’t make sense,” she said. “This is who we are.”