‘I’m not walking out of here:’ Wilson recalls picking up, managing branding wagon and more over 77 years
Up until five years ago, Robert J. “Jim” Wilson fed his cows and sheep using a team of horses. When it was announced that he was inducted to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, he said that he did not expect it “a damn bit.” Yet, for anyone who knows him, it is no shock at all.
At the healthy age of 77 years old, Wilson makes sure to wrestle at least one calf during branding season every year. His mustache smiles in embarrassment whenever he is forced to talk about himself: he’d rather be roping something on a good horse in good cow country. Wilson was raised on his ranch near the obscure landmark of Ridge, Montana (straight west of Alzada), and has rarely strayed, except to drive to rodeos. The Wilson Ranch was homesteaded in 1917, where Wilson’s father was raised by his great uncle. From the time Wilson was a young boy, he was horseback with his father and great uncle, tending to cattle and sheep until he grew to be an adult. The Wilsons have always run both species, saying, “cattle for prestige, and sheep to make money.”
The nearby Parks Ranch used to host local rodeos for neighboring cowboys in the 1960’s, and when Wilson was a teenager, he joined the pickup men in the arena. How he never “killed anyone” during those first few trips, Wilson does not know, but with a keen knowledge of animals, he soon understood his position and purpose. His pickup man career began around the same time he graduated from Belle Fourche High School. He picked up for 50 consecutive years, from the age of 18 to 68. Over the years, he mainly picked up for Burch Rodeo, but also had many committee hires as far away as Panoka, Minnesota. He was a regular fixture at Mandan Rodeo Days in North Dakota; Douglas, Wyoming, and Buffalo, Wyoming. Wilson said that if he ever stopped getting butterflies watching the first horse out, he would quit. “I had a lot of fun doing it,” he said. His wife, Louise, accompanied him to all of the rodeos, helping him by warming up and untacking his horses.
Wilson organized a branding wagon each spring for several years. For roughly a week, he and neighboring ranches took two wagons filled with food and bedrolls and rode their saddle horses to brand at one ranch per day. They covered roughly 20 miles and branded 4,500 calves, replicating to the best of their ability the spring brandings from more than a century ago. If a ranch wanted their calves branded by the crew, they had to send someone to help for the duration. This lasted “until things got modern and everybody had to be in a hurry,” says Wilson.
Wilson was a lifelong teamster, which meant that he “had every wreck known to man,” according to Louise. Throughout his life, a team was used every day to feed in the deep, blowing snow of southeastern Montana. When his neighbor and friend, Judd Bilbrey, died in 2019, the team was used to carry the casket up the hill to the Ridge cemetery. Wilson’s last team was injured and getting old, which came about the same time as Wilson’s two hip replacements. Having pickups and tractors, he did not need to use the team, but preserved the tradition all the same.
Wilson has also served Montana as a brand inspector, usually taking his horse with him to gather so as to get a better look at the cattle. He has never been fussy about the horses he rides. “Something that would work” is the only thing that mattered to Wilson. “I didn’t care if they were big, ugly, or little,” he says. In addition to having more horse wrecks than he could count, Wilson also survived wrecking a helicopter that he had purchased for coyote hunting after five years of flying it. “I’ve done just about everything, to a point,” he says.
Still as spry as ever he was, Wilson does not plan to slow down with the running of his ranch. Wilson says, “I’m not walking out of here, let’s put it that way.” His grandson, Travis Kuhbacher, has been working alongside him for several years, also assisting with brand inspecting. His wife Louise, says that he has–and continues to live–“the very best life on this earth.”
Though Wilson insists that “there’s lots of people that deserve it just as much as I do,” he will accept his induction into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame at the banquet in Great Falls, Montana on Feb. 11, 2023.