CORVALLIS – If you want to know about the cowboy that lives inside Frank R. Mason Jr., you need to take a step inside his barn.
That whole story is hanging right there.
In the tack room, you’ll find his mother’s well-broke saddle, weathered chaps and headstall that still shines from countless hours of use. She was one of the original members of the Bitterroot Mountettes.
“When I grew up, we always had a horse around,” Mason said. “Horses were always part of our lives.”
Just across the way, there are saddle blankets made from elk hides – a trick he learned from the Martinell family of Dell.
“Those will never gall a horse,” he said.
Buried under other saddles, far back in the room’s corner, is the first saddle that he ever owned. He proudly purchased it while still in high school and had it shipped all the way from Texas to his Bitterroot Valley home.
Just on the other side of the wall, a set of elk antlers serves as hat rack for three well-used, tan cowboy hats.
It was his senior year when one of his family members shot that elk. He can remember that it happened on a Saturday morning because he had a football game to play that day and couldn’t help them get it out.
Mason will never forget that they used his brand-new saddle to pack out half the meat.
“They got blood all over my brand-new saddle,” he said. “I wasn’t too happy, but they thought it was funny.”
Higher up on the wall are his first pair of bat-wing chaps. In the other corner, there’s a pair of rawhide Indian hobbles that his family had picked up when they lived in Lodgegrass.
Right next to them is a string of rusty cans attached together by a rounded piece of wire that he found one day moving cows in the Centennial Valley. He learned that sheep herders used the cans as a noisemaker to keep their animals moving.
And then there’s the first gold poly lariat hanging on the wall that an old cowboy named Vernon Roe gave him.
“I was using nylon ropes back then,” Mason said. “Vernon told me that these gold polys seem to be able to catch stuff.”
There are so many memories here.
Mason will celebrate his 70th birthday this year.
He will also officially join 240 men and women who have been inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Mason was selected for this year’s living award from Ravalli, Missoula and Mineral counties.
This year’s legacy award for the three counties was shared between Vernon Woolsey of Stevensville and Clarence Barron “C.B” Rich of Seeley Lake.
“The board of trustees, our volunteer network from around the state, has reviewed this year’s nominations and completed the voting process,” said Bill Galt, a rancher from White Sulphur Springs who serves as president of both the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Western Heritage Center.
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“This process gives local communities a strong voice in who will represent them in the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame,” Galt said. “The Hall of Fame exists to honor those – famous cowboy or not – who have made an impact in their community and serve as a symbol of Montana’s authentic heritage for future generations.”
When people first approached Mason about the possibility of adding his name to those already honored, he said no.
At first, he thought the Hall of Fame’s focus was on the men and women who made a name for themselves in the rodeo arena.
He’d tried his hand at that sport. The first calf he rode at the county fair used its right hind foot to open a gash above his eye. Later on, they carried him off on a stretcher more than once after he climbed on the back of a bull.
“I never was very good at the rough stock, but I could rope pretty well,” he said. “I’d tell my nephews – who have done pretty well with rodeo – that they should put some sagebrush, badger holes and barbwire in the arena when they go to catching calves. It makes a difference.”
Mason grew up on a small ranch east of Corvallis.
In high school, he had a chance to attend a clinic hosted by one of the original horse whisperers, Charles O. Williamson. He was so excited about what he’d just seen that his father managed to convince Williamson to come out to their home for a private session.
After that, Mason was hooked.
He used his skills as a horse trainer to help him pay his way through college at Montana State University. Just after starting graduate school, he learned that he had a low lottery number for the draft.
Instead of waiting, Mason enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and become a rescue helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals for his service.
When he returned the U.S., he served as instructor pilot at Hill Air Force Base. He met his wife, Connie, there. He spent his last 12 years in the service flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in rescue operations in Alaska.
It was always his dream to return to Montana and cowboy again.
In 1992, that dream came true when he and Connie went to work for the Martinell Cattle Co. in Dell.
The Masons lived in primitive cow camps from July to October in the Centennial Valley. For a portion of the year, their home was an old wooden boxcar, complete with a propane refrigerator and cook stove. They depended on a wood stove for heat.
Other times of the year, the couple stayed in more comfortable quarters when it came time to calve out 1,100 mother cows.
“That’s an experience in sleep deprivation,” Mason said.
He’ll never forget the spring of 1996 when the ranch was dealing with a bad case of scours in its calves.
“I roped and doctored 42 calves one day before lunch,” he said. “Of course, I didn’t eat lunch until two that day.”
The couple spent 20 years living out their dream.
“I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it,” Mason said.