Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Jean Pocha
Pathfinder 

Jack Hooker named to Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame

 

March 24, 2022

Photo provided

Jack Hooker has spent more than 80 years in the saddle taming wild horses, riding rodeo and packing into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He is the 2022 Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame District 12 Living Inductee.

HELMVILLE - "Sitting around crackling campfires and hunting camp dinner tables listening to Jack Hooker tell stories of adventures was a great privilege I had during the years I worked at the Whitetail Ranch," said Rebecca Ondov. "His philosophy on life empowered him to train horses and mules not merely in an arena, where the fence draws a line as to how big the wreck can be, he trained them to be sound work animals in the high country of the wilderness, where the unexpected happens in the blink of an eye. Up there you get to test your training skills when you sprinkle in a bunch of cliffs, some mountain lions and grizzly bears, and the guests who don't even know how to get on a horse. His philosophy? He was an avid learner, always growing and experimenting with new and different ideas and techniques." 

"He also believed that the bigger the struggle the bigger the adventure, so he embraced working with challenging horses and mules-even to the point where he rode into the wildfire of 1988, when 240,000 acres were burning, to tell [his] crew, who were 17 miles back in, what trailhead to come out," Ondov continued. "Jack invested his life into being the best cowboy that he could be. And to me, Jack, you've always been a legend."

Growing up around cowboys taught Hooker the old-fashioned ways of the West: never take no for an answer, figure things out with little guidance, treat women well, stand and fight for what's right, be honest in word and deed and treat others as you would like to be treated. This was the start of an adventurous life that took Hooker from wrangling wild horses, riding saddle broncs, participating in the Korean War, sled dog racing in Alaska and finally knowing the Bob Marshall Wilderness from the back of a horse.

After more than 80 years in the saddle, Hooker was named to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame for District 12 (Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Silver Bow, Granite, Madison and Powell Counties) after being nominated by his daughter Jodi. He will be recognized in April in Great Falls.

"Being nominated to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame is amazing, I just can't believe it," said Hooker.

* * * * *

Born Nov. 19, 1930 and growing up on an Oregon ranch, Hooker learned how to drive a team of work horses for haying and feeding cattle, as well as daily ranch work and training colts. He lived with his grandparents and uncle after his parents divorced. 

"My uncle was a big guy, too big for riding colts," Hooker recalled. "He would snub a colt up to his riding horse, then I would climb up on his horse and over to the colt. I was a little guy and not too heavy for the young horses. As the only child around, the horses were my best friends."

Hooker learned the old-fashioned way of training horses: rope them, sack them out and snub them up to a gentle horse for the first ride. Then horse and rider were turned loose to work the kinks out.

Hooker wanted to get away from home because his uncle was "real rough" occasionally brandishing a bull whip towards him. The first time Hooker ran away from home he made the mistake of taking his uncle's horse. His uncle tracked him down and told him, "You can run away but don't take my horse." 

Running away for good after finishing eighth grade, Hooker chose a rainy night that washed out his tracks. He headed for the Elko, Nevada area. Short jobs at ranches helping with haying and training horses supplied travel money and supplies. 

"I stopped at one run down place and the rancher had some colts that needed to be trained. He was a crusty feller and there were pigs and chickens running around with the horses. There was no front door on his cabin and at night chickens came inside and roosted on the bed stand," Hooker said."The next morning that old pig came in while the rancher was flipping pancakes. With the spatula, he slapped that hog and chased it out of the cabin. Then he went back to flipping pancakes. I don't think I ate much that morning."

Summer work at a cattle ranch near Elko provided lessons in rawhide braiding which served him well during rodeos and outfitting. Finishing his first summer in Nevada, Hooker's boss told him to go back home and get an education. Hooker saddled up and rode the nearly 400 miles back to the Umatilla, Oregon area. The Westmeyer Ranch provided lodging in exchange for training colts, on the premise that he would attend high school in Umatilla. 

High school football appealed to Hooker and he was soon on the six-man team. Being athletic and fast, he was happy to take the ball and run down the field with it. After becoming a bit of a football star, Hooker found himself at the mercy of jealous rival football teams who roughed him up and broke his nose, putting an end to his football playing. Without football, high school lost his interest and Hooker returned to Nevada.

While back in Nevada, Hooker worked for the Prunty Brothers where he started riding saddle broncs. The Prunty Bros. gathered and used wild horses in rodeos they produced. In addition, they raised horses and trained army remounts. Hooker was introduced to natural horsemanship there. The Pruntys kept the weaned colts in the corral for the winter, gentling them, halter training them, working with their feet. The colts began accepting people as part of their herd. When horses were two years old they were brought in to complete their training.

"They remembered those lessons from being colts and we had a lot easier time training them," recalled Hooker.

One day the Pruntys trailed their rodeo stock 45 miles to Wells, Nevada for a rodeo. Hooker competed in the saddle bronc and met up with some other cowboys. He decided to leave Pruntys and go rodeoing.

Hooker spent the next four years traveling throughout Nevada and Oregon rodeoing, wrangling wild horses and doing ranch work.

After winning the saddle bronc riding at the Pendleton Rodeo, Hooker heard his name called over the loudspeaker to come and ride another horse.

 "I didn't want to turn anyone down," Hooker said.

There was a wild horse in the bucking chute waiting for him. They asked him to ride it to see if it would be a good bucking horse. The rodeo manager had it in for him, Hooker said, and he buzzed that wild horse with a hot shot in the chute. It got pretty crazy and eventually Hooker was released from the chute astride this horse. It bucked a few times, then took off at a dead run for the other end of the arena where the loose horses were corralled.

"The pickup men were scared of that horse and wouldn't get close enough to help me off, but too close for me to jump off. The horse and I slammed into the back gate of the arena and went crashing through, into a pen of loose horses. Then all the horses were running in the arena," Hooker said. "I don't know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital in Pendleton with my leg messed up bad. The leg wasn't broken but mashed to a pulp. It kept getting worse and then the doc wanted to try a new medicine, penicillin it was. Then my leg started healing up."

Getting out of the hospital, he took a job towing a combine with a D-8 cat to harvest grain. The bad leg stuck straight out in front of him. After weeks, he could feel his leg start to twitch and began massaging and moving it a little more each day until he was fit enough to get on another horse.

Since Hooker had been living as a drifting cowboy, he didn't have an address and draft notices for the Korean War missed him. When he was 21, the draft caught up with him and he was on the next boat for Japan.

"I was hoping for adventure and excitement," Hooker remembered after enlisting. 

The Army didn't blink at his damaged leg and assigned him to driving tanks. In addition he was put on communications and lineman jobs in the demilitarized zone. Hooker attained the rank of staff sergeant and was a physical trainer for the troops.

One day in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, he climbed a 50-foot power pole and took off his belt to climb around a supposedly dead transformer. The transformer was actually live and Hooker was thrown to the ground, the electrical charge passed through his arm and out his leg.

"I've been lucky many times," he mused in the article "Man of Wild Places" from the September 2008 issue of Bugle. "But never any luckier than that day in Seoul."

After three years of service in the US Army, Hooker was discharged Jan. 31, 1954 and returned to the States and saddle bronc riding. The rodeo trail took Hooker to Missoula, Montana that summer. One evening in a bar, in came Tom Edwards "Hob Nob Tom" owner of the Whitetail Ranch in Ovando.

"Any cowboys here want to go to work?" hollered Tom. "Show up at the ranch in the morning."

Hooker made it to the Whitetail Ranch. Edwards gave him a quick course in packing and said that he would meet them in the Danaher as soon as he could get there. Hooker had no idea what Danaher was or where to go but got the job done. Once in the mountains, Hooker was amazed.

"This has got to be heaven, the mountains are the greatest thing I've ever seen," Hooker said.

The summer pack trips Edwards took into the Bob Marshall used to have 20-30 guests and they stayed for 10-14 days. People from the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation as well as large private groups and hunting groups went on their trips. Evenings around the campfire included singing and storytelling but Hooker was hesitant to participate. With prodding from Edwards and encouragement from the guests, Hooker began sharing stories and gradually grew in confidence as he saw the guests' enjoyment. This was the foundation for his expansive storytelling skills.

"Tom Edwards taught me how to converse," Hooker said in the 2008 Bugle article. "It was perhaps his most valuable gift to me."

Hooker continued to ride saddle broncs and herd wild horses in the off season. He became the Nevada State Champion, Reserve Champion in Idaho, Calgary Stampede Champion (1955) and Champion at the Toppenish, Washington Rodeo (1955). He never joined the pros. Instead, he said he did "just fine" on the amateur circuit.

Wild horses were taking up rangeland allotted to ranchers for their cattle. In those days they were free for the taking. Hooker worked seasonally for Frank Morgan in Nevada. They gathered up bunches of wild horses and sold them to the slaughterhouses for $5 per horse.

Since the country was so big, Morgan asked Hooker if he wanted to learn how to fly a plane to help with the horse herding.

"Flying wasn't that hard," recalled Hooker, "and I really enjoyed it."

Hooker worked for various ranches, herding wild horses with the small plane. If there were any good-looking ones, they would keep them for training and sales to local ranchers.

Nevada supplied not only adventure but also a wife. He married Marilyn Mercado in 1959. They decided to purchase the Eagle Cap Pack Station, a small, rundown outfitting business in Joseph, Oregon.

After buying the ranch with a VA loan, there wasn't much money left for horses and mules. Hooker frequented the local horse sales and bought the leftovers for $5 a head. He was willing to work with the unwanted and sometimes dangerous horses to make them usable.

Hooker remembered a mule named Red. 

"The boys at the sales yard were terrified of her," Hooker said. "They warned everyone that that mule would kill someone."

Hooker bought her anyway. With the horse-gentling practices that he had picked up from the Prunty Ranch, Red became a useful mule but she always had to be watched. 

Hooker started hearing about gentle ways to train horses that complemented the skills learned at the Prunty Ranch. By studying videos and going to clinics put on by Clinton Anderson, John Lyons and others, he began learning new ways of learning the horse's language.

"People try to put human thinking into horses. Man has to think like a horse and the horse will tell what his trouble is," Hooker said about his training philosophy.

In a short six years the ranch grew from 19 horses and mules to 260. They took pack trips for guests, hunting trips, day rides and packed a lot for the Forest Service. While in Oregon, children Bill, Jodie and Sandra were born and raised.

In 1969 the Hookers bought the Whitetail Ranch from Edwards. In 1972 Marilyn was killed in a car accident. Later that year Hooker married Karen (Geary) Hooker.

 "Buying the Whitetail Ranch put me in debt for 20 years, " Hooker said, "but by golly Karen and I made it."

Some of the guests asked Hooker if they could come to the ranch and see the backcountry in the winter. Hooker thought sled dogs might be a good method to accomplish that. Traveling home from a horse sale in Oregon, they passed a sign saying, "Sled Dog Puppies For Sale," Hooker brought home a female and a few puppies. Teaching himself how to train and drive a team of sled dogs, Hooker was soon a musher. When Hooker heard about the Iditarod Sled Dog race in Alaska, "I thought it would be fun." 

Going 1,049 miles solo was no deterrent to this experienced adventurer. In 1976 Hooker placed 19th out of 34, and in 1977 placed 10th out of 36. Between the Forest Service limiting sled dogs into the backcountry and responsibilities of the outfitting business, Hooker gave his sled dog team to friends in Colorado.

After selling the Whitetail Ranch in 1996, Hooker continued outfitting and working with horses. 

At the age of 76, Hooker continued horse training by helping a friend who had gotten 10 Haflinger horses. Haflingers were new to Hooker, they were hardy, strong and compact Austrian mountain ponies, palomino with flaxen mane and tails.

"And I thought, boy, these are mountain horses. These are horses that really got a lot of potential," Hooker said. "They like everybody, they just got good dispositions."

Hooker began breeding Haflingers and Morgans together for riding and pack horses. Outfitting continued on their smaller scale ranch in the Ovando Valley until Hooker sold the outfitting business in 2010.

Changes Hooker has seen in the outfitting business include a decrease in the size of groups that are allowed, down to a total of 15 people on a trip, including the crew. Working around burned-out areas has affected the movement of the wildlife. In addition, Hooker has seen a decrease in the adventure spirit and fitness of guests.

Photo provided

Jack Hooker packing an elk out of the Bob Marshall.

"People are less willing to be uncomfortable these days and going into the backcountry has its share of discomforts." Hooker said.

Last fall Hooker rode into Smoke's Bridge up the North Fork of the Blackfoot River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a trip he has taken thousands of times. At 90 years old, Hooker sat tall and proud, happy to be in the saddle.

Being nominated to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame was a surprise to Hooker. He said he does not feel like a cowboy. 

"I've always enjoyed life," Hooker said, "Everything I've ever done, I've enjoyed doing."

For more information about the MCHF visit http://www.montanacowboyfame.org. To read Hooker's full biography visit https://www.seeleylake.com/home/customer_files/article_documents/mchfhooker.pdf 

 

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