GRAVES CREEK – The Geneau family was filled with dreams when they first pulled on their gloves and started clearing a spot in the woods where their home would stand.
Jeff and Audra Geneau wanted this to be a place where high-risk and special needs children could discover something about themselves while working with horses.
The couple named it the Rockin’ JAG Ranch (for Jeff and Audra Geneau).
They wanted it to be a place where people from the big city could get a taste of country life and where young rodeo-hopefuls could learn the finer points of riding a bronc from a man who had competed in and won his share of professional rodeos.
Jeff was a former PRCA and CPRA professional bronc rider who earned the CPRA all-around cowboy title three times.
Their goal was to share their love of living close to nature and use that to make a positive impact on people’s lives.
Three years ago, they bought 60 acres on Graves Creek west of Lolo and started the hard work that it would take to build that dream.
They didn’t want to be swamped by debt and so they took it slow. A farrier by trade, Jeff loved to say that he’d shoe a horse and then go buy some boards to put up on the house.
They were making progress and were filled with hope.
On Tuesday, Sept. 23, all of that came to crashing halt when Audra heard a gunshot come from inside their home.
From the next room, she heard Jeff say: “Oh my God.”
He had been cleaning some guns in preparation for an upcoming hunting trip with his sons.
She found him slumped in a chair. Using her training as a nurse, she started CPR. She stopped only long enough to call for help.
Jeff Geneau died in his wife’s arms.
“They’ve never been able to make sense out of it,” said Bruce Fox, one of a number of people who’ve stepped forward to help the family since that tragic day. “Jeff never had loaded guns in his house. I don’t think anyone will ever understand how this could have happened.”
“I truly believe the Lord put this on my heart to help them,” Fox said.
Fox got to know Jeff through his farrier trade. Almost every time he came to shoe Fox’s horses, Jeff’s teenage son Blaize would be right there by his side.
“I remember watching them together,” Fox said. “Jeff would show him what he was doing in such a loving way. I could see the bond between the two of them. It was a very, very special thing. It just broke my heart to hear that news.”
Fox is focusing his efforts on finding a way to get enough of the home construction completed to allow the Geneau family to apply for a conventional real estate loan.
Right now, the family faces a balloon payment on the property in about 15 months.
People interested in helping can learn more at the website rockinjagranch.com. There are links to a Go Fund Me site there as well.
Jeff and Audra Geneau worked together to build the farrier and horse training business. Without her husband, she has no ranch income and there are no life insurance benefits.
So far, she’s sold some horses and the family’s milk cow to help raise money to keep the family afloat. More possessions will go in an auction later this year. She’s looking for work.
“We’re hanging in there,” Audra said last week at the family home. “Every day is tough, but the holidays are especially hard for all of us.”
Their home is mostly a shell. The insulation remains uncovered on the ceiling and the floors aren’t covered yet.
But that’s not what they see when they look around the inside of their home.
Audra, her son Blaize and daughter Francesca see the beautifully crafted kitchen island, the hand-built chandelier and the loft that Jeff built on days he was supposed to be resting from an illness.
“Pretty much everywhere I look, I can see him,” Audra said. “He did pretty much everything that you see here in this house. He could just never sit still. He could do more work in a day than four men.”
The two met when he came by to look at a truck she was selling. By the time that meeting was over, he’d agreed to pay several thousand dollars more than her asking price and threw in eight dates to seal the deal.
“He told me the eight dates were negotiable. He might want more,” she said. “I never did cash his check. He told people later that he’d met his match in horse trading.”
When the couple moved to Montana, they first settled in Clinton. From there, they started their search for the perfect location to start a ranch.
“We both loved this place right from the first,” she said. “We really prayed about it, long and hard. In January 2012, we contacted the real estate agent and started the dream.”
“We wanted this place to be where we could give back to people,” she said. “We wanted it to be a place where people could come and experience this lifestyle. That was our ultimate goal. We were working on it step by step while building this house board by board.
“Right now, we’re just hoping to be able to hold onto the ranch somehow,” she said. “We want to be able to continue that dream as best we can. It’s in God’s hands now. He will have to show us the path.”
“Jeff taught us all to never give up. He told us we can’t be quitters. He said be true to yourself and that your word is your bond. And he said give your worries to God. If you pray, why worry and if you worry, why pray?”
Audra said her husband was a humble man.
The only belt buckle that he kept from his rodeo days was the first one he won on the professional circuit. He wore it proudly for years.
Jeff was a bronc rider. His youngest son Blaize liked riding bulls.
They joked about that and gave each other a hard time.
Blaize kept his dad’s belt buckle.
Jeff was buried wearing his son’s.
“He was the biggest inspiration in my life,” Blaize said. “I looked up to him more than anyone.”
Audra nods her head and smiles.
“He was just one of those guys who was larger than life,” Audra said. “He loved God very much. That’s where I find my comfort. I know where he is. I know we’ll be together again.”