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Award belt buckles pay tribute to personal feats

Being long-lasting and having a practical use make belt buckles ideal for use as awards – and in many cases a better choice than the traditional trophy or medal.

By Steve Evans

Once upon a time and not too many years ago, wearing a belt and buckle was part of normal attire – especially for men who might be thought of as country bumpkins if they wore suspenders instead of a belt. Those daily-wearers knew a belt only lasts for a certain number of years, but the metal buckle could be used indefinitely and outlast the owner’s life. Heck, belt buckles are dug out of the ground at Civil War battle sites and still look pretty good.

Being long-lasting and having a practical use made the belt buckle ideal for use as awards, and in many cases a better choice than the traditional trophy or medal. The recipient could wear the buckle with pride as proof of an accomplishment, or if he or she didn’t want to be a show-off, could stash the buckle away as a keepsake. 

Often an award buckle represents a milestone in the recipient’s life, as with Richard West, who drove one million miles for Transport Service Company. Or it may be an award for a fun event which seemed to be a lark at the time, as with Judy Cullen’s chili cook-off award. It’s amazing how many different styles of award buckles have been produced, and if you know the story behind the buckle, it’s all the better. 

If someone is going to receive recognition for a Herculean effort and the award is a belt buckle, it better be a dandy. Such was the case with Chase Squires of Denver, Colorado and his massive (almost half pound) “Heartland 100” buckle awarded to him on October 15, 2006. Chase ran for one day and one night through the prairies of eastern Kansas to finish the 100 mile footrace with a time of 25 hours 7 minutes.

“Most 100 mile races give belt buckles as a finisher’s medal,” Chase said. “As you become exhausted and sleep deprived, your mind starts to play tricks on you. The buckle becomes the most important thing on the planet. It’s called ‘buckle fever.’ It’s all you want. Get. The. Buckle.”

An ultramarathon is any race longer than the standard 26.2 mile marathon. Over a 12-year period, Chase Squires ran in 27 ultramarathons. On October 8, 2007 he was awarded the “Arkansas Traveller” buckle for running 100 miles through the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Chase recalls it was very hot and humid. “Halfway through the race, the aid stations looked like MASH units, bodies everywhere, people were just wiped out.” Chase attributes his slower time of 28 hours 34 minutes to the tough conditions, and notes how only 66 runners finished out of 140 starters.

The logo used on the Arkansas Traveller buckle came about in 1991 when the first annual race was being planned. The design was drawn from two inspirational pictures, a scene in the Ouachita Mountains and the most dominant ultra runner of the day, Ann Trason.

The good looks and nice size of the Arkansas Traveller 100 buckle makes it an ideal choice to wear daily. Someone who doesn’t wear belt buckles might think the AT100 is large, but take a look at the Ragnar Trail Relays 2015 buckle (6” x 3 5/8”) which is too big to be worn comfortably. It’s fine to wear while standing upright, but when you bend forward far enough the buckle will jab even the most slim runner’s abdomen.

Another extra-large buckle is the 1983 “Cactus Country Classic” buckle won by Mike Drennan of Arizona. It’s a big beauty, measuring 6 ½” x 4 ¾”, and is the largest buckle shown in this article. [This page, top right.] Mike Drennan won over 70 belt buckles in his career as a top horseman. As a young man he won rodeo buckles in bareback riding, saddle-bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling. As Mike grew older he started judging at rodeos and horse shows, which led to him training and showing horses,and winning more buckles.

Note the 1959 buckle awarded to Mike for bronc riding at a rodeo in Wichita, Kansas. It’s a classic rodeo buckle complete with the name of the rodeo, the year, and the champion’s name. It has a bronze cowboy on a bucking horse, two bronze wild roses and bronze rope around the buckle’s edge, all on a buckle made of nickel silver. 

A rodeo buckle will often have information on the back telling what it is made of, common are German silver and nickel silver. It’s interesting that neither contain real silver. German silver and nickle silver are two names for the same thing: a mix of copper, zinc and nickel. The most expensive rodeo buckles are made of sterling silver which is 92.5% real silver and 7.5% copper.

One of the smallest buckles in today’s article is the 1964 Heinz buckle measuring 1 5/8” x 1 1/8”. It was a 25 years of service award given to George E. Pendleton who was the Heinz district sales manager for Maryland, Virginia and the DC area. George’s son Jack recalls, “Dad sold train box cars filled with ketchup, beans, baby food, soup, relish, and pickles. He would take me with him to set up some of the displays in local stores, something as a child you never forget. He was a true salesman, and knew everyone by name. He slept, ate and breathed H. J. Heinz. He was a devout company man, a trait and loyalty that is hard to come by today.”

Every award buckle is beautiful to the recipient, but some are truly stunning. Take a moment to check out the 1951 AAU boxing buckle. This design shows two boxers duking it out while Nike (the Greek goddess of strength, speed and victory) is floating down into the boxing ring preparing to lay a wreath of laurel leaves on the victor’s head. This championship bout took place on March 16, 1951 at the Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco. The winner of this buckle was Leo Anderson of Oakland, California who defeated Tommy Flores for the AAU Pacific Association Championship’s 126 pound weight class.A.A.U. Stands for Amateur Athletic Union.

Because Leo had won the AAU featherweight title, he was sent in April, 1951 to represent his region at the AAU National Boxing Tournament at Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts where he made it to the quarterfinals before being eliminated. Five weeks later, and back in California, Leo debuted as a professional fighter, and won his first bout by knocking out his opponent in the first round. Leo Anderson’s professional boxing career lasted from 1951 through 1962 with a record of 5 wins and 7 losses.

“Till my trophies at last I lay down,” is a line from the gospel song The Old Rugged Cross. What does happen to an award buckle when the original recipient dies? The recipient may have let it go when downsizing to get his or her house in order, but most are inherited by next of kin. If the buckle is known to be important, it may stay in the family for one more generation.

One way or another, award buckles end up on the market and most don’t come with the story behind them. Luckily some have the information of who, when and where located on the buckle. These are the most desirable.

Sometimes information on the buckle is misconstrued by the new owner. Take a look at the 1888 buckle. This 131-year-old buckle has old-English script which makes it difficult to read. The reseller pointed out how the wording of “best bonding analysis” and “foreign matches” appears to make this an award for an employee who produced matches at a chemical company. I bought this buckle and was temporarily on-board with the story. It turned out the inscription didn’t read “bonding analysis,” but instead “bowling analysis” and Kensington C.C. is a cricket club. Great, that’s even better!

If you are the actual recipient of an award buckle you should consider writing a brief “who, when, and where” note to keep with the buckle. If you were not lucky enough to be presented with such an award, go ahead and buy one, maybe a champion bull riding buckle. But please, tell the truth when someone asks if you actually won it at a rodeo.

Steve Evans, collector, author, volleyball player.

Steve Evans, collector, author, volleyball player.

Steve Evans is an avid belt buckle collector in Arkansas. He has more than600 buckles in his collection, including 195 award buckles as seen in this article. Steve has never actually won an award buckle, but he has received a few trophies from playing at volleyball tournaments. Steve is a serious volleyball player and hopes to bring home a medal this summer when he plays at the USAV Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, albeit the 60 & over age division.

Steve is best known for being an authority on guitars stencil-painted with cowboy and Western images as sold by Sears and Montgomery Ward circa 1930s-1950s. He co-authored the book called “Cowboy Guitars,” published in 2002, which is now the bible amongst cowboy guitar collectors. You can reach him at Jacksonville Guitar Center, 1105 Burman Dr., Jacksonville, AR 72076;, Shop/Guitar Museum hours are Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites. 

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