“HE IS FREE WHO LIVES AS HE CHOOSES.” So reads the sign standing sentinel over Tom Oar’s house. Tom Oar is free.
On an isolated stretch of the Yaak River Valley in Northwestern Montana, Tom and Nancy Oar have made their home from the simplest of means and the sparsest of luxuries. They subsist on the land, gleaning a living through Tom’s knowledge of an all but forgotten craft: brain tanning. He is a master trapper and tanner, pitted against the harsh realities of the seasons and the forests, who has honed his art to a level achieved by few before him. To watch him work is to glimpse a remnant of the past.
“I was born a hundred years too late,” he chuckles. “Or maybe 200 years too late.”
Raised in the country outside Rockford, Illinois, Tom believes he was conditioned for a rugged lifestyle. He and his older brother exuded an innate passion for the outdoors. They spent their childhood roaming free as often as possible, and trick-riding.
“My dad was a real horseman, and he passed that on to my brother and me,” he recalls. “When my brother and I turned 7 years old, my father taught us how to trick ride, which is doing tricks on the back of a running horse.”
Despite the dangerous nature of such a hobby, Tom survived and quickly developed a taste for living on the edge. By age 15, the young daredevil discovered a new outlet to sate his adrenaline fix: rodeo.
“My mother drove me to the edge of town, dropped me off with my bull rope and my rigging bag, and I hitchhiked to Ohio, and I hired on to ride bulls and bucking horses.”
His mother’s confidence carried Tom toward the warm glow of adventure on the horizon, which he chased with characteristic poise and determination.
By the early 1960s, Tom had climbed the ranks of the International Rodeo Association and established himself as a champion rider. He thrived on the excitement of the sport and consistently made it to the finals, ranking in the top 10 time and again. Fortune turned on Tom on Valentine’s Day 1970. At the age of 35, he found himself in the chute perched upon a massive bull called Woolly Bugger.
“I usually dropped a finger in my bull rope, which meant that your hand was locked into the rope,” Tom explains. “The moment the chute opened, there was some big eruption.”
Skulls of man and beast collided, knocking Tom into unconsciousness. Bound tightly by the rope across the middle of the bull’s back, Tom’s hand pinned him to the thrashing animal.
“So now my legs and stuff are underneath his hind legs … he’s bucking and stepping on me quite hard.”
He admits it is the closest he ever came to death inside a rodeo arena. Nancy watched from the stands as he was tossed violently for two agonizing minutes until they were finally able to sever the ropes that bound him. Tom left the arena on a stretcher and didn’t gain consciousness for three hours, suffering a severe concussion and bruising over most of his body. Fate had something bleaker in store for the bull.
“They told me that old Woolly Bugger, he died two weeks later,” attests Tom, the twinkle of a cowboy in his eye. “I think I gave him a concussion, too.”
While he returned to the chutes just a month after this brush with death, he never regained his former success.
“It was time for me to quit, you know, so I did.”
In 1981, he retired from rodeo. Just as the pitch and yaw of a bronc feeds the spirit of a young man yearning for thrills, the rise and a fall of a mountain feeds the soul of a man yearning for peace.
“Nancy and I would come up to Montana in the summertime and go rodeoing out here,” he says.
The appeal of the Wild West beckoned, and they loaded all of their possessions into an old pickup truck. Interestingly, the truck they used to begin their life in Montana was bought with money earned from muskrat pelts, a small hint at the future that lay in store for the Oars.
“We had no idea what we were getting into or how I was gonna make a living out here. But I just had a feeling that, by God, I can do it. I can get it done.”
And they did. Through old-fashioned hard work, Tom and Nancy trapped, hunted and tanned, living off the land in every sense of the phrase. Yet, the early years were fraught with challenges.
“The first winter that we spent here was really, really cold,” Tom says.
They were confronted by second thoughts about their move. Although Tom had experience as a trapper before leaving Illinois, in the ‘80s he knew little about earning a living from the trade. Converting furs to profits proved to be a more challenging endeavor— until destiny intervened at an Indian Store in Billings.
“We just stopped and went in,” Tom says, “and there it was in black and white; told you how the Indians brain-tanned.”
It was his first encounter with the ancient method, the method which would chart a new and unexpected trajectory for his life. The book cost him $3, consisted of 16 pages and instantly elevated his craft. It would just take a little bit more luck to turn his tanning into a lucrative business.
“Black Powder Rendezvous, they called them,” Tom says. “They were recreations of the old fur-trade days in the Rocky Mountains when all the trappers would meet in one spot.”
Feeling well at home amongst this like-minded crowd of mountain men, he finally discovered a niche for his handmade wares. And when Tom does something, he is certain to do it well.
“The most prestigious clothing that you could wear at one of these rendezvous is brain-tanned buckskin clothing,” he says.
Patrons immediately sensed the incomparable quality of the brain-tanned hides Tom provided, and the hides began to sell at a remarkable rate. Tom found his peace.
Together, Tom and Nancy defied the odds. Danger lurked, isolation taunted, and the bitter chill of Montana winter bore down upon them; yet, they endured and prospered. Those who meet Tom, admirers and fellow trappers and so forth, will be greeted by a man who is both humble and kind. A man who is always willing to share his story and his trade and his grin. He and Nancy’s contact with the outside world is minimized by a lack of internet or cell phone reception, but his story has spread nonetheless. When asked how he copes with the steady current of visitors making the trek to his property each summer, he just shrugs and confesses he would rather people like him than hate him.
At the age of 76, he continues to toil endlessly on his craft and their survival in the mountains.
“Amazing life,” he surmises. “I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. And as long as I can still do it, hell, I’m gonna do it.”