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Osage County craftsman described as 'the best in the world'

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

WYNONA -- John David Israel knows the world has heard of him – he’s done numerous interviews through the years -- but he’s not a man to boast.

The Osage County Historical Society decided this year to honor Israel as one of its Heroes and Legends, but he clarified he didn’t want to be “blown up” bigger than he ought to be.

“I’ve never gotten good at it,” Israel said, when asked about having worked with metal for the past 50 years. He hand crafts bits and spurs for use with horses, and people are happy to pay good money for them, but Israel credits his friend, Wayne Roach, with teaching him about his materials.

“I know the least about my materials than anybody,” Israel said during a recent summer afternoon conversation outside his workshop, near Wynona.

Roach helps define the thing, other than hard work and dedication, that makes Israel a well-known craftsman.

“John has the best eye of anybody I ever worked around,” Roach said, explaining that Israel, now 80, doesn’t need measuring tools to supplement his vision and judgment.

Israel acknowledged that his products sell well, especially at benefit events, but adds that he’s not sure why.

“I don’t know why they give so much,” he said.

What he can tell you with certainty is that it is important to him to know that someone wants the items he makes.

"It motivates you when somebody wants something you make,” Israel said. He recalled learning about a teenage girl, who said she wanted “one of John David Israel’s bits” when she finished high school.

The memory brings him to the brink of a tear.

He can also tell you what he wants from his bits and spurs.

“I’m not going to make anything that I don’t think will work,” Israel said.

The metal he uses has to be strong enough not to bend, but soft enough not to break. He guarantees his work.

Israel came to Osage County more than 60 years ago, the son of a pipeline company employee and a seamstress.

"If she wanted something an inch long, she didn't have to measure it,” he said of his mother's sharp eyes. Israel is also of Cherokee heritage and he notes with a smile that he’s heard the Cherokee people of are of Jewish descent.

“Nobody could have a more Jewish name than I’ve got,” he said, recalling a story about a woman who asked him if he were Jewish.

Israel has also worked as a cowboy, and has trained and shown "cutting horses." He showed cutting horses for 10-15 years, and used to travel to Beaver (previously called Beaver City), for that. A cutting horse is trained to work with a rider to cut a cow from a herd and keep it from getting back. 

Cody Garnett, founder of the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska, says Israel is simply “the best in the world” as a maker of bits and spurs.

“His stuff just works,” Garnett said. “He knows what he’s doing.”

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This is the fifth in a series of five feature stories, honoring the five 2020 Heroes and Legends honorees chosen by the Osage County Historical Society. The other honorees are Wendy Ponca, Jan Johnston-Tharp, the late Gen. Kenneth Taylor, and the Rev. Kenneth Woodhams. The annual Heroes and Legends dinner was not held this year because of concerns about the transmission of COVID-19.