Community mourns Bob Hanson – Cowboy, war hero, craftsman
In the river breaks about seven miles northwest of Bison, S.D., a boy was born Oct. 3, 1918. One of seven children born to Jim and Elsie Hanson, Bob grew up on the homestead, working alongside his family to make a living.
Jim Hanson was a freighter and hauled supplies to Bison from Hettinger, N.D., and occasionally Lemmon, S.D., with a four up team of Percheron horses. Bob’s dad also had a custom harvesting outfit with a header pulled by six horses and two header boxes, also pulled by six horses apiece. Many of these good horses were sired by the Percheron stud that worked on the ranch, named Schnell’s Laddie.
Young Bob, at eight or nine years of age, was put to work too. “I halter broke all the colts to stand tied at the hayrack all day unattended while the mares worked. We worked mostly mares,” said Bob, adding, “Those colts learned to stand patiently until we broke at noon to eat, then they got to nurse and be with the mare until she went back to work.”
“Dad stood three stallions back then. A Thoroughbred, Percheron and Shetland. He bred the Thoroughbred stud to the Shetland mares and I broke them as a kid. My oldest brother Clarence “Bud” would ride them until they quit bucking then I took them and made kid ponies out of them,” explained Bob. “The Thoroughbred stud was tough but his colts were really good. They were just like the P.O.A. (Pony of Americas) and made great little horses.”
“I rode and broke horses most of my life. I knew a lot of the old cowboys from the old days back then too. I knew Fred Jennewein from the Hat Ranch, Frank Beck and Dode Willey. I really admired those men,” said Hanson.
“I went to country school and then went two years to Brookings ag school and learned blacksmithing, welding, carpentry and other trades,” explained Hanson. “I also rode racehorses for Nels Fogh from Prairie City (S.D.) and some others.”
He took on the job of building a dam for E.G. Felty, a barber in Faith, S.D., on his ranch about 15 miles southeast of Faith. “I broke four head of horses to work doing it. I did the plowing and dirt work for the whole thing. I rebuilt a road plow to cut the gumbo, then used a fresno to move the dirt,” said Hanson, who added that the dam was 2,800 feet long and is still there today. He also hayed for Felty.
Like many young men of that era, World War II called and Hanson was 23 years old when he went in to the service in 1941. He was aptly placed in the 15th Horse Cavalry at Ft. Riley, Kan., where he rode and trained horses every day. Learning to hunt while growing up on the ranch paid off when he scored third out of 300 in pistol scores. He also went to three gunsmithing schools while in the army and had 87 contested fights in the boxing ring.
In 1944, in Doslet, Brittany, France, the armored car he was in was hit by a 40 mm incendiary shell. The driver of the armored car was killed and the other men and Hanson were burned, plus Hanson was wounded by shrapnel. “It busted up my feet so bad and I didn’t think I could even walk, but when the artillery shells started going off, I ran like a squirrel,” recalled Hanson. “I couldn’t get away though, and the Germans caught me. A German aid man who was very good with burns went to work on me and probably saved my life.” He was moved to a nearby house that had been converted to a hospital. “They transported me in a wheelbarrow ‘cause I was hurt and burned so bad I couldn’t stand to be carried. A French doctor, Renee’ Jambon worked on me too and said I had a one in one hundred chance of survival when I was brought in,” said Hanson. He and Jambon stayed in touch and Hanson even returned to the scene of the fight and visited those involved in recent years.
After treatment and a time of recovery, Hanson was sent to a German prison camp. “My Colonel was captured just before I was and he spoke fluent German so could deal with our captors and mess with their heads and protect us a little,” Hanson said that he marched miles on his crutches with his wounded feet. “You think you can’t walk any further, but then they’d pull the scabbard off the bayonet on their rifle and press the point to your back and you find that you can keep going after all. They sure didn’t care either way.”
The pain of his wounds and burns, and the deprivation of the prison camp aren’t the focus when Hanson talked of the four years he was held captive. His admiration and respect for the colonel who protected his men glows in his eyes today as he speaks of that colonel. When freedom finally came, Hanson weighed a mere 87 pounds and his feet were crippled. (Click here for a story about Bob being recognized with the French Legion of Honour medal.)
Not one to lie around and bemoan the hand dealt him, when he was discharged in 1945 he went to gunsmithing school in Denver, Colo. Later, he married Donna Wright and they had three sons. Terry, Jim and Rick, a Vietnam veteran, have all passed away, as did Donna in 2002. Bob has 12 grandchildren, “a passel of great grandkids and one great great granddaughter,” he says with a smile.
They moved to Hulett, Wyo., where Hanson opened a welding shop and did some blacksmithing. “Those were long days of hard work,” he remembers. In 1971, he was asked to return to his home country and become a Deputy Sheriff in Perkins County. He worked at that and as a brand inspector for the next 11 years. Hanson proudly commented “Donna was also a Deputy Sheriff. She was the first woman deputy in South Dakota.”
After 1982, Bob and Donna moved to Washington to help their son Rick start an apple orchard and were there for seven years. Perkins County lured them back, though, and they returned to their home.
Never idle, Bob guided prairie dog hunters for over 23 years, sheared sheep and raised and trained horses. He always hunted to provide meat for his family, and over the years harvested 27 elk, one moose, plus uncountable deer and antelope. “When my boys left home, they found out that you could actually buy meat. All they knew you could buy was hotdogs,” Hanson said with a laugh.
Hanson also became an EMT after taking training in Hettinger, N.D. He was also a CPR instructor for many years.
With his training and interest in blacksmithing, he has continued to build useful and artistic items in his shop in Bison. For many years he belonged to a blacksmith association based in Piedmont, S.D., and learned more tradition blacksmithing practices from them. The artistic items he designs and builds in his shop are scattered throughout his house and in the homes and businesses of many others.
He’s justifiably proud of a branding pot design that he came up with that can hold many irons and keep them all hot and ready to use. Ranchers in the Bison area still ask him to build items they need, such as the branding pots.
Hanson is also a collector of interesting cowboy items. He once traded the breaking of five head of horses for a Leonard Stroud saddle while he was in gunsmithing school around 1946. He went to the school after a close call when he nearly lost a foot in a wreck with a horse. His collection also includes horse hair ropes, bridles, bits, bosals, different types of ropes, and memorabilia galore. Photos line the walls with everything from Presidents and U.S. flags, to photos of him in the cavalry and horseback at many phases of his life.
Though his feet have been a problem always, Hanson hasn’t let it deter him from doing whatever it took to make a living and enjoy life. His last horse, a stud named Cordy, died three years ago and he hasn’t ridden since he was 93. His constant companion is a Welsh Corgi named Dundee who tells him when someone is at the door. Bob’s hearing isn’t all it used to be, but his mind is sharp and his wit is keen. He has nearly quit driving recently due to dizzy spells, but he never has to worry about not being able to get somewhere. The community loves and respects Bob and someone is always willing to be his driver. Everyone in town knows him and an outing to the local café yields a steady stream of people wanting to say hello and share something with him.
Bob Hanson is a son of the land, a war hero and a product of the hard working people who settled the country back when it was all horseback or teams to do the work. His work ethic is unmatched and his spirit and optimism are an inspiration to all. Even after almost 95 years, he’s still looking forward to the future and what he’s going to build next in his blacksmith shop.
From his obituary:
Bob Hanson passed away Jan. 24, 2017.
Awaiting his arrival on the other side are his leading lady Donna, posse members Terry, Jim, and Erick; parents Jim and Elsie; brothers Bud, Leland, and Llewellyn; sisters Genevieve, Mildred, and Evelyn (Tootsie)
Hands left to tend the camp are Daughter-in laws: Kathy and Jo. Grandchildren: Sheila (Doug), Tanya (Ray), Josh (Michelle), Adam (Cas), Amber (Tim), Dawn (Brandon), Justin (Christina), Teresa (John), and Shane (Krista). 20 great-grandchildren and 13 Great-Great grandchildren
Funeral services will be 1:00 pm, Saturday, January 28, 2017 at the Bentley Building in Bison SD with Pastor Brad Abelseth officiating, with visitation starting at 10:00 am.
Burial will be 11:00 am, Monday, January 30, 2017, at the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis.
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