A TRIBUTE TO MARTIN J. BERGIN, 1939-2020
We are saddened to learn that cowboy poet and master saddlemaker Martin J. Bergin, of Overland, Mo., passed away on September 24, 2020. His funeral services are scheduled for Thursday, October 1, 2020 with Ortmann’s Funeral Home in Overland (obituary link follows this tribute).
Mr. Bergin was a longtime participant in projects of Missouri Folk Arts and its predecessors the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts and the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center. Through Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts, Bergin often took to the stage or demonstrated at the Frontier Folklife Festival, during Labor Day weekends at the park under the St. Louis Arch. Between 1986 and 2011, he taught eight apprentices–seven in saddle making and one in cowboy poetry–in Missouri’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Bergin also performed across the state often with Missouri Performing Traditions, a Missouri Folk Arts project that supported traditional arts events around the state.
Martin Bergin may be one of the more famous traditional artists that MFAP staff ever worked with, and he was certainly one of the most colorful. Though born in Illinois, he was raised in the southwest, where he learned to cowboy, including to share his occupational poetry, to refurbish, and then to build, saddles. His skills all proved useful on ranches where he worked in Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and South Dakota.
His great love, Maureen, brought him to Missouri, where they settled in due to her strong family ties in the area. He carved out his workshop there, a room where handcrafted boots wound around the room near the baseboards, with dozens of his Western hats hanging above near the ceiling. He pegged his vast array of hand tools to the walls. With his work table, equipment, and saddles-in-progress at the center of the room, visitors felt like they stepped into a bit of the West in the midst of suburban St. Louis.
Bergin served a lengthy career with the U.S. Navy followed by briefer stints with GE Medical and U.S. Record Center. Through it all, he never ceased his cowboy ways, for instance, keeping active on the rodeo circuit, or staging rodeos himself. As a performer, he acted in westerns, joined Lloyd Garber on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and performed at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Eventually, Bergin built his saddle-making reputation strongly enough to pursue the craft full-time, and his reputation was legion. For decades, Bergin typically had a long waiting list, and kept his client list secret. As recently as March 2020, he noted that he still spent time in his workshop daily, unless he was traveling.
St. Louis media, in particular, has covered Martin Bergin and his life in-depth, making it hard to choose just one interview or profile to share, though a good sample of articles and videos are available from St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Fox2, KETC, and the statewide magazine Missouri Life. Additionally, fans of Missouri’s most famous cowboy will enjoy a lengthier interview from the 2017 International Federation of Leather Guilds show.
Of course, it’s always best to give Martin Bergin the last word. Enjoy this video of him reciting one of his original poems.
Rest in peace, Martin, and enjoy your reunion with Maureen.
Readers can find Mr. Bergin’s official obituary here: https://www.osfuneralhomes.com/obituary/martin-bergin
Published by Lisa L. Higgins, September 30, 2020