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The Mills Brothers


Article & photos by Nancy Brannon
No, not the famous jazz and pop vocal quartet of the 20th century who made more than 2,000 recordings and won three dozen gold records. These are the other Mills brothers – Jim, “Dubb,” and Darryl. Located in Cherry Valley, Arkansas, they are skilled craftsmen who make and repair saddles and create metal signs with various equestrian and farm themes. Look for Jim Mills Saddle & Silver and Snakebit Ironworks, located next door to each other.

Jim Mills started doing leatherwork when he was a young man riding horses, but didn’t have his own saddle. He was loaned one that was in disrepair, so he fixed it to ride in it. But then the owner wanted it back! So he bought some tools from Sue Perry, a reiner from Harrisburg, Arkansas, who happens to be Justin Timberlake’s step-grandmother and Jonathan Timberlake’s grandmother. Really! So around 1964-65, Jim started building saddles.

Jim stayed with saddles, saddle-making, leather works, riding horses, and showing horses, while the other brothers went on to other things. All three brothers used to go to shows together, but Jim was the one who stuck with showing. He showed horses for years, and won championships in all kinds of classes. In 1966 he won a championship “in flag races on the craziest horse around,” he said.

Jim kept building western saddles. The last one he built was a roping saddle, and he has a tree ready to start another, with two or three “on deck.” Lately he’s been working on a pulling collar, which he’s just finishing. “The pulling collar is what ropers use,” he explained. “It takes the pressure off the horse’s shoulder.”  He makes chaps, gun holsters, knife sheaves, and phone cases. He makes custom leather notebooks, spurs and spur straps. He now has a machine to cut out reins, so reins are forthcoming. “If it can be made with leather, I can do it!” he said. He cuts out his own paper patterns for whatever he wants to make.

With his new Dürkopp Adler sewing machine, Jim finds it much easier and faster to sew his current specialty – cell phone cases. “I’ve made over 2,000 cases,” he said. That’s 2,060 to be exact because he keeps a list of who got each one. That way if any repairs are needed or they want another one, he’s got the records.

Darryl helps Jim refurbish and repair saddles; he comes over every morning for their daily pool game before getting to work. He’s a retired principal from Wynne Junior High School.

The managing residents of Jim’s shop are two Australian Shepherds: Oz, short for Just Aussileum, and Becca Josephine, his third chocolate Aussie. Jim used to raise Aussies and has always had at least one dog with him.

Before going on his own, Jim worked for Cowboy Corner for many years. “I worked for Mr. George Tackett at Lazy T Western Store on Lamar even before Cowboy Corner was thought of,” he said.  Jim has also had several jobs managing farms for people. Off and on for many years, he managed Mr. George Tackett’s farm in Olive Branch, Mississippi on Goodman Road. “It was the red barn just up the road from the current location of Cowboy Corner. My son had his first birthday there.” Jim said.

One year horse trader Percy Hunter talked him into going with him to Lufkin, Texas for the weekend, where he was lured away from Tackett to manage a farm there. But after about a year, Tackett enticed him to come back to Mississippi, with a raise! Jim also managed Gold Seeker Farm for Jack Bunch and Gene Phillips’ Adobe Ranch. He worked for Tucker Saddlery for a while, then bought his own place in Olive Branch, MS in March 1992.

In 1992 he was working at Almadale Farm near Collierville, Tennessee when a horse fell on him and stuck the saddle horn into the calf of his leg. He still has the scar to prove it! It took him a year and a half to heal, learning to walk all over again, since all the muscles in his calf were damaged. He also broke his leg in 1992 – not a good year for him.

That’s also the same year he went to engraving school and started making engraved belt buckles. He now has 37 custom buckles that people are wearing, and has pictures of all of them.

Mills did reveal one of his “trade secrets” about leather care. He does not use Neatsfoot oil. “I use Lexol NF on saddles. I don’t use Neatsfoot oil because it had a tendency to burn older saddles.”

Elaine Mills was Jim’s wife and partner for 38 years. Elaine was active in Quarter Horse shows, serving a ring steward at the shows for years. She died five years ago, but while she lived, she was part of the family crafts makers, too: she etched glass. Now Jim has learned to etch glass, adding that to his many other creative talents.

Dubb is retired military, Marine Corps National Guard, and he’s also retired from teaching at Dardinelle High School. He once read a book about making metal cut outs and believed he could do that, too. So he bought a Plasmacam cutting machine for cutting artistic metal shapes in 2009, figured out how to operate it, and now makes all kinds of metal cutout art.

While the Mills brothers are always busy creating something, they do not let work interfere too much with fun. The brothers play pool twice a day.  All three brothers promptly go to lunch at 11:30 at the local restaurant. Jim and Darryl go fishing at least once a week. Even retirees have to keep a routine! And Jim attends Cowboy Church in Wynne, Arkansas on Sundays for breakfast and preaching and on Tuesdays for dinner and Bible study.  This Cowboy Church knows how to lure members! He’s even helping organize another Cowboy Church in the area.

Jim’s philosophy of life: “If you can’t enjoy life, you don’t need to be living it. If you can’t go somewhere and have fun, just stay home.”

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