Making belt buckles from cow horns provides therapy for Oklahoma man who lost hand

“I wouldn't have this hand if it weren't for my wife,” said James Coldren, an Oklahoma belt buckle maker and ranch foreman.
by Bryan Painter Published: February 24, 2013

— James Coldren and wife Shari sat in the new Ford pickup on a January morning in 1991 and argued for a moment.

Shari insisted they go back to the ranch shop and get his gloved left hand, which had just been severed by the blade in the hydraulic press.

James didn't see the point. He said head east to the hospital 45 minutes away in Pawhuska.

The wife won.

And because she did, James has completed his 1,633rd belt buckle crafted from Watusi steer horns. That's the total just since he started keeping track of the buckles in 1994. The 48-year-old ranch foreman of Sooner Cattle Co. has no idea how many he'd cut out, pressed, branded and buffed from 1985 to 1994.

Regardless, it's not the quantity of what's he's done with the buckles that matters most.

It's the quality of the therapy the craft provided him that he and his wife treasure.

“The buckles are probably the only reason he really kind of got it moving,” Shari said of the reattached hand. “He didn't have any therapy. If he hadn't been determined to do it, that hand wouldn't be doing what it is right now.”

Today, a black Timex watch band fits snug around James' right wrist. Not a significant detail unless you realize why it's on that side.

An embedded scar rings his left wrist. That's right where the blade came down.

‘I was hurt bad'

On Jan. 23, 1991, James was in the shop at the ranch headquarters, a little ways from their house, with the horse barn in between.

He was cutting some big, heavy cable. This was to be used in a winch so they could load a cattle sprayer onto their trucks. The cable was in a 50-ton hydraulic press. The blade in it resembled an ax blade.

It was air over hydraulics. The person operating it would pull this lever down and the air would make the hydraulic cylinder go down and it would shear that cable.

At one point, he was getting ready to make a cut and the cable slid out the back. Out of reaction James reached with his left hand to grab it. There was a set of snow tire chains that go on a dual wheel truck hanging up by the machine.

The machine made a little vibration because of the air. Apparently one of the chains jiggled loose, fell and landed on the lever.

The blade came down and severed his gloved left hand close to the wrist.

Coldren, “bleeding terrible,” called Shari at the house and told her “I was hurt bad.”

“She didn't know how bad it was because I didn't tell,” he said.

Applying pressure wasn't working.

“I got in my truck and drove over here, I hung my arm out the window,” he said.

A wet towel wrapped around the injured limb, he got in the passenger side and Shari, who happened to be off work that day, left their son with a neighbor and got behind the wheel. She headed to the shop.

That's when the argument kicked in.

James asked her why. She said they were going to get the hand.

“I said, ‘There ain't no sense in that, what are they going to do with it?'” James recalled. “We argued about it. She said ‘Well, I'm not leaving without it.'”

They got the hand.

Shari made the 45-minute trip to Pawhuska in 20 minutes in the new Ford pickup.

“The drive to town scared me worse than anything,” he said. “Twenty miles of dirt road, driving 100 mph is scary, I'm telling ya, hitting the high spots and them bridges, I just knew we were going to crash and both be dead.”

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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