Branding iron tradition stays alive

Erick Peterson/For the Capital Press Primo Villalobos makes few branding irons these days. He said their popularity has decreased, and he has focused his business more on creating decorative art pieces, including decorative branding irons.

Not all ranchers are ready to turn their backs to the old way of doing things.

They prefer branding their animals with old-fashioned branding irons to using newer methods, and in the process they have created business for local businesses.

Gene Hedden, rancher and owner of Harrah Farm Shop in Harrah, Wash., is one of those people who favor the older branding irons. In fact, he makes 30 to 40 of the irons every year for his customers.

“A lot of people still like these,” he said, talking about his branding irons.

He likes branding irons that he can heat up on a fire, because they create a neater mark than electric devices. He said that the electric ones can slip, especially if a person is not careful.

He also said that the older branding irons are more convenient than electric ones or freeze brands.

Also the owner and operator of the Walking H Ranch in Harrah, he said he has tried different branding methods.

Thus, he does not see much reason to change from one method to another. The old ways still work and have not needed improvement, according to Hedden.

“So why change?” he said.

Still, local ranchers are not ordering as many brands as they did in the past. Twenty years ago, he said, he would make over 100 brands per year for local ranchers. Now, he makes and sells less than half that.

In nearby Granger, Wash., artist and blacksmith Primo Villalobos, owner of Metal & Iron Artistry, has also seen a decrease in the demand for branding irons.

Growing up in Mexico, he used branding irons quite often. He would help with branding cows, horses, donkeys and other animals when he was a child. But this was nearly 40 years ago.

He said that fire branding was especially popular as thieves would commonly remove ear tags, which were also used to identify ownership.

He developed his skills in metalwork during the 1970s, making brands and horseshoes. In later years, he made fewer branding irons. People called on him to make gates and other objects. In more recent years, he established himself in the United States as an artist.

His most common customers these days customers who want decorative gates or balcony rails. He has recently sold branding irons as art pieces to local dairies.

“You probably have more people in Mexico who use these,” he said, holding up a branding iron that he put together in around 15 minutes. “And they work just fine. They’re not so hard to carry, they make a good mark and they’re traditional. People have been using these for years.”

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