RONAN – This may be a strange way to start a story about a Mission Valley sculptor who happens to be 90 years old, but did you know if you put a calf in the bed of a pickup and drive off, its momma will just stand there?
However, if you can somehow safely hang the little thing outside the bed of the truck where she can see it, and slowly pull away, the mother will follow.
You need to know this to understand how Don Grazier – a cattleman who never gave a thought to doing anything artistic until the age of 65 – came to turn steel into life-size Brahma bulls, bighorn rams and saber-toothed cats, and larger-than-life geese, cranes, blue herons and hummingbirds.
“What got me started was I had this ranch down by Garrison,” Grazier says. “A neighbor’s cows got in with mine, and I got this diarrhea in my calves. It can be deadly, and you’ve got to doctor ’em up.”
You want to bring the momma in with the baby to do the doctoring, Grazier explains, and his had a ways to travel – “Had to cross a bridge, railroad tracks plus a highway,” he says – so he came up with this idea.
A sling, which he could attach to the back of his pickup, where the calf could safely ride and serve as sort of a carrot on a stick for its mother.
To test his invention, the rancher made himself a model calf to put in the sling.
When Grazier was done, he decided his handmade calf didn’t look half bad.
“I’ve seen artists who can’t draw cows,” he says, “and I thought mine looked pretty good. I don’t know, maybe it was conceit on my part, but I thought, ‘If I can make a calf, I can make a bull.’ ”
And that, it turned out, wasn’t all.
From that model calf, which still sits on a shelf in Grazier’s garage outside Ronan, has sprung a zoo-full of hand-built steel animals that have wound up as far away as Switzerland.
“I might never have done this if it hadn’t been for the idea for the sling,” he says.
The sling itself worked so well – “Like magic,” Grazier says – that he manufactured and sold them to other ranchers for a while, although he didn’t make much money, he says.
The artistic ability he stumbled across at the age of 65, however, opened up a new world for the cattleman.
He started building life-size animals in his shop in Garrison a quarter-century ago, at the age most people retire.
Grazier made horses, Cape buffalo, longhorn steers, African wart hogs, whatever caught his fancy. Even extinct species, such as Irish elk, came back to life in his shop.
He only made about a third of a woolly mammoth, but it was an impressive third – Grazier had the 11-foot-tall animal with 10-foot tusks, which vanished from the planet thousands of years ago, bursting through a wall.
In the large front yard at Don and Mary Belle Grazier’s home, two bighorn rams with full curls are reared up on their hind legs and ready to crash down on each other in battle.
And they can, too. The rams are on cylindrical pivots so they can be raised and lowered. Although they’re just out decorating the Graziers’ lawn, the idea is that they can serve as a gate to a driveway or road when they’re lowered into the butting-heads position.
His sculptures can stand 13 or more feet tall, depending on the animal, and when he soon branched out into birds, the rancher went from life-size to larger-than-life.
“I couldn’t do a small sculpture,” Grazier says. “I like ’em big or bigger – natural size if it’s a cow or horse, and three to four times as large if it’s a bird.”
One of his latest projects – and he likes to have three or more going at once, in case he gets bogged down on one – will celebrate this winter’s unexpected Arctic visitors to the Mission Valley.
Grazier hasn’t seen a snowy owl in person, even though a blizzard of them have congregated just a few miles north of his home.
But he’s seen plenty of pictures, and that’s all the native Montanan needs to turn out a larger-than-life steel replica.
“They’re all the rage around here,” Grazier says, and he’ll have the snowy owl’s wings outstretched and large talons out and ready to snatch up prey in his latest piece.
Born outside Fort Benton in 1921, Grazier moved to Dixon with his family when he was 6 years old. He stayed for half a century, building up “a pretty decent ranch,” but sold in 1977 and moved to Garrison, a sale that came about through what he calls “a long set of complicated and painful things.”
But the move turned out to be a blessing for him and his first wife, Virginia, he says.
They found great people in the Garrison area, he says.
“Truth is, I’ve never had a bad neighbor,” Grazier says. “Maybe that’s why I’ve lived so long – that, and good doctors. The only trouble with good doctors is they get rich and retire, and you have to find another one.”
Twenty years ago, Grazier suffered a serious heart attack at the age of 70, and eventually had a pacemaker inserted in his chest.
“Now I go by what the doctors say,” he says. “Except for the part about no meat, no fat, no sugar, no salt, no eggs – I totally discard that good advice.”
Don and Virginia Grazier were married for 53 years before she died.
Mary Belle, who he knew from his Dixon days – “His son and my daughter started first grade at the same time in Dixon and graduated together,” she says – was also married for 53 years.
That’s 106 years of combined experience, and the couple now has 10 more years of marriage under their belts, to each other.
“I took Mary Belle to meet my sister, Vivian, who’s 95,” Grazier says, “and she said, ‘I don’t know how one man can get so lucky twice in his life.’ ”
The couple moved to Ronan seven years ago, when Mary Belle’s daughter, who lives just down the road, insisted they were getting too old to be so far away.
That, too, Don Grazier counts as a blessing.
“Great people,” he says of his wife’s family, “and we’ve needed ’em, too.”
Among other things, Mary Belle’s granddaughter’s husband, Terry Bergh, does much of the welding on Grazier’s steel sculptures nowadays.
“I can’t weld worth a darn anymore,” he says. “I can’t see good enough and my hand’s not steady enough to do anything more than spot-weld. Plus, I can’t stand for more than two or three hours at a time. Been in too many horse wrecks in my life, and the last one jumbled my back pretty bad.”
It was in a doctor’s waiting room years ago that Grazier picked up a magazine.
“Fancy thing,” he says. “The Robb Report. It’s aimed at the very rich, and it even says so right on the cover.”
An idea came to Grazier.
“I put an ad in,” he says. “I thought, ‘Maybe someone will think I’m a famous artist.’ ”
Whether that’s what they thought, or they just liked what they saw, officials at Breitling, a Swiss watchmaker, had a secretary ring up Grazier.
He sold them sculptures of two geese landing, which Breitling placed just above a pond at the company’s headquarters in Grenchen, Switzerland. The Graziers have a framed photograph of the geese, now in their Swiss home, hanging in their Ronan home.
“Then the son of the guy wanted birds of some kind, so I sent him blue herons,” Grazier says. “The best thing to come out of the ad was a guy north of Spokane, who bought a monstrous sheep’s head, two geese, two herons, two buffalo and a moose head skull.”
Ads in other magazines haven’t done as well. One, Grazier says, in a Western magazine, “Got some twitters, they said. But I don’t even know what those are.”
He’s been moving some of his recent artwork through the Red Poppy in Ronan, an arts center that features the works of 140 Mission Valley artists.
Grazier’s sit outside, near U.S. Highway 93, and often attract passers-by, according to co-partner Olivia Olsen.
“We’ve sold several of his pieces,” she says. “We had some cranes that are up on Rocky Point (on Flathead Lake) now, and some geese that are in Ferndale. It’s amazing how he can cut and weld and get such exquisite figures that are larger-than-life.”
Currently outside the Red Poppy is a Grazier sculpture of a horse bucking an Indian into the air that can be had for $4,500. It’s almost – almost – the only time he’s sculpted a human, and Grazier purchased a store mannequin to use as a model.
At the request of a friend, he also sculpted a bust of a Viking that hangs outside Charlo High School.
But the Robb Report ad was an $8,500 gamble that paid off well. One of the first calls from it turned into a $21,500 sale of a giant elk horn – Grazier does those too – to go over the entrance to a Utah ranch.
“If you’re going to advertise in a classy magazine you’ve got to put a big price on things, or they’ll think something’s wrong,” Glazier says with a shrug. “It’s been really amazing what’s unfolded from putting something over the back end of a pickup so a cow would follow it in.”
Reporter Vince Devlin covers Lake and Sanders counties and the Flathead Indian Reservation for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at email@example.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.