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As the sun shone over a frosty 30 degrees below zero Eastern Montana landscape, twenty-two years ago, Owen Badgett was warm inside the NNN ranch barn. At dawn, he’d fed the cattle out at Rawlston camp with his grey Percheron team. He’d warmed their bits underneath his jacket as he headed out to hook up the greys. Only after loading the sled with another 1300 round bale of grass hay for the cattle’s evening supper did he drive his dilapidated ‘red’ truck over thirty-five miles of ice and snow to NNN ranch headquarters. Badgett wanted to watch and learn from his boss, ranch owner and legendary teamster, Albert Newman, how to build a wagon.

Newman often said that, “Owen was born 100 years too late. He likes everything old time. He likes to live in the past.” Maybe that’s a part of why Owen builds wagons. It certainly describes Badgett, who brings the flavor of the ‘western past’ to all that he touches in the present. Newman, beloved and respected as a rancher and family man, passed away this past year, but Newman’s wagon building teachings, live on in Owen Badgett.

Owen came by this way of life naturally. His family settled in eastern Montana more than 100 years ago. According to Owen, the Crosby’s (his mother’s side of the family), started the town of Nolton in the 1880’s. Grandad Badgett came to Otter Creek MT in 1893. The folks that made it to Eastern Montana learned to survive in below zero weather, or 100-degree plus heat and were out there on their own.

Those people were drawn together by the love of the land and respect of each other.

According to Badgett, the big blocks of deeded land were mostly put together with sheep. The ranching industry was open range. Ranchers soon learned they had to farm and have a feed base to winter there. The cattle industry, which spawned the rich life you read about in tales of the west, took hold.

Badgett loved all the parts of the cowboy life. His Dad, Lee Badgett, was a ‘Gypsy Cowman”. Lee and family (Owen’s mother Helen, and sisters Sharon and Margot) moved from ranch to ranch working for various bosses, and ran his cattle on their lands as part of his pay. “There was a lot of Gyspy cowmen those days,” affirms Badgett, who ended up following in his dad’s footsteps. “I worked for an outfit, like the NNN or the Montgomery Ranch with a verbal agreement. They’ve given their word – it’s better than any contract that a lawyer drew up. I knew they wouldn’t break their word.” Then one day, that part of his life was getting a bit tough to maintain, and Badgett moved to town, the town of Ingomar. Ingomar MT was a sheep shearing station in its heyday. The railroad was a big part of Ingomar prosperity. The train went away. The sheep went away. It is now a town that boasts twelve people (when everybody’s home), and is surrounded by big cattle ranches, like the Gault ranch.

“Town” and Badgett did not merge comfortably. He’d been out on his own, at a cow camp for 14 years. He’d had no electricity or running water. He’d had no nearby boss, or nearby anyone. He’d written his books by oil lamp. All of a sudden he had a washer and a dryer. He had to ask a neighbor how to use them.

Owen’s self-published books, five of them now, and a new one due in January, chronicle stories and poems that either were a part of his life, or represent his view. They are tales of the cowboy, the west, cattle drives, cowman adventures, when your word was your bond, a life that is disappearing bit by bit. The stories are at the same time deep, fascinating, funny, and irreverent, sort of like Owen. “The reason that I write is that these stories need tellin,’” says Badgett. “…in the verbal sense, they last a generation. I want them here for future generations.” Owen’s spelling is atrocious, so he always has someone check his books in advance and correct any misspellings they find. And his wagon building, although honed by one of the greats of Eastern Montana, bears Owen’s particular trademarks.

The first wagon that Owen drove (“Well, I didn’t really get to drive it, but my dad handed me the lines.”) was a hayrack, when he was six years old. He was hooked for life. From that time he imagined wagons of his own, and teams to pull them. His next wagon experience happened when he was working out in the Mojave Desert. He bought wheels from a local hay store, and built the frame and all the rest. He still drives that buggy today. “But I realized I had plenty to learn about wagon building,” he reminisced. “And I knew that Albert Newman back home was the one to learn from.”

Badgett’s wagon building approach is very “Owen”. He doesn’t draw up plans, or measure like most folks. But he knows what he wants, and creates what he dreams. “I ponder on it,” said Badgett, “And I need something to keep me busy. I need a project to keep me outta trouble.” He smiles. It should also be mentioned that Owen prefers horses and wagons to any truck or car. He has often named his vehicles horse names like “Brownie” or “Red”, and does not have anything nice to say about them at all. In Owen’s mind a car is just a mechanical device waiting to break, or have a flat tire, or behave in a mysterious fashion that does not include moving forward. If Owen had his way, he’d drive a wagon everywhere. His wagon tires are better than the ones he puts on his vehicle. Since Ingomar is at least 25 miles away from anywhere, a wagon ride to town is just not practical.

While building, Owen pays no mind to a plan, or due dates. He just stays focused on the wagon taking shape a bit more each day. Owen doesn’t use engineering tools. But he knows exactly what he wants. Things may shift as he goes along, in how the vision comes together, but come together it does. “I don’t know anyone else that builds wagons exactly like Owen,” said his neighbor, Morris Ware, who was also a benefactor of Owen’s recent wagon building. Badgett said he decided “If your gonna build one, why not two?”

To begin his freight wagon project, Owen took ownership of a blue and yellow international wagon he found at an auction sale. He took the thing apart down to the frame (he still has a part of the wagon hanging outside his shop), and began to rebuild it with all the improvements he had in mind. First, he would give his new wagon a better turning ratio than a regular wagon. He used a roller type wheel well that he’d seen work before. “It added three feet to the turning ratio of the tongue.”

Next he put tools at the hand of the driver. Many an eastern Montana wagon has been in dire need of a part or two while crossing the plains. And Badgett figured he had seen and experienced enough tool-searching for a lifetime on the prairie. So he built a tool box into the footboard. Although he borrowed the roller in the wheel well from what he had seen before, “The toolbox in the footboard is my invention,” he added. He also put a ring front and center to attach the lead chain to. It pulls directly off the kingpin, “And is a lot simpler to hook a lead chain to,” added Badgett.

Owen also increased the room in the two side boxes; which now partially cover the wheel well. While he was at it, he upgraded just about everything. He had the wooden wheels completely rebuilt by a local wheelwright. The running gear has new parts. The new wagons are made of pine, with oak cross stringers. They are not fancy, but they are beautiful in a big sky, Montana plains, old west way. And they all bear Badgett’s Tumblin’ T brand.

No sooner had Owen taken that first spin with the new wagon, he began to think about another project. He knew about a wagon just sitting up at the Newman ranch, gathering dust. He’d had his eye on it for a bit. It would make a perfect hack, or people hauler. The wagon originally came from Cody, Wyoming, and was now owned by Wally Newman, Albert’s son. So Owen made a trade and got the wagon. What did he trade? “No one’s gonna know except me and Wally,” said Owen. But it was a good trade, you can be sure of that.

Owen got busy taking the new wagon apart, and Morris Ware offered a great idea. “Why not use old cedar posts, and split ‘em for the bottom and back of the seats?” Ware knew that Owen had a secret stash of prime cedar posts and when they were split and oiled, they would make great seats for the hack. Owen quietly went to his stash and grabbed some of the aged posts. “They’re gonna look good in that wagon,” adds Owen, “I think I’ll probably have four seats.” The new wagon is taking shape.

Where there’s a wagon, there needs to be a team. And Owen’s team is a special pair of buckskin mules, he discovered in California. Badgett, did a short stint in the early 1990’s helping the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) round up wild horses and donkeys in Susanville and then the high desert of Ridgecrest, California. By 1994 the time had come for Badgett to return to Eastern Montana. On his trip home, Badgett brought along his BLM adopted blue-eyed saddle horse, Sinatra, and a couple of BLM adopted buckskin mules affectionately known as Ghengis and Attila that came from the Susanville facility.

Out of seven buckskin mules the BLM had rounded up on Skedaddle Mountain near Susanville (mules are a rare thing to find in the wild), the soon to be named Ghengis and Attila were the most determined – determined to do whatever it was no one wanted them to. While the other five seem to gentle down, Ghengis and Attila had apparently confounded the BLM. The only “gentling” process had happened with the inmates. Those two mules had flunked.

When the two mules were sent back from the prison program to the BLM office as un-trainable, Badgett was intrigued. “I had never seen an un-trainable mule before,” reminisced Badgett, “so I decided they might be just the project for me.” And the mules’ names came soon after. “Those mules were convinced they were Ghengis Kahn and Attila the Hun when I first started working with them,” said Badgett. Owen loves a challenge and, apparently, so did the mules.

Ghengis’ favorite pastime, besides eating, turned out to be biting. And Ghengis, who had not perfected much, had gotten “biting” down to a fine science. On the other hand, Attila seemed to be coming to a begrudging respect for Badgett, as Owen continued to work with them both. Eventually Ghengis must have gotten bored with biting, and went on to your basic stubborn conduct. And Attila decided what was good for Ghengis would be great for him, too.

Folks nearby were dubious about the eventual outcome of this three-way stand off. In fact, the mules were corralled for a short time at a Ridgecrest ranch owned by RC and Wanda Kirkendoll. RC and various assortments of ‘Harness Experts’ were taking bets that Owen would NEVER break those mules to drive. A favorite local pastime was watching the Owen “training” process, predicting calamities of all sorts. As the story goes, RC bet each and every one of the doubters $50 that Owen would be driving those mules. And, as it turned out, RC was the one who made money on those bets. Although, it probably was a good thing that RC didn’t put a time limit on the outcome.

Eventually, you could see the mules flying across the desert pulling a cart with various passengers, and Badgett at the helm. Owen told brave buggy riders, “Don’t worry that there are no brakes on this buggy, I have a way to stop them if they take off with us.” In fact, this team of buckskin mules has taken Badgett on many a wagon ride adventure across Eastern Montana, and is a solid team to count on. He does everything from participating in historical wagon rides to giving school kids rides during the holiday season.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a different kind of adventure with any team. And there are tales of getting Owen’s buggy stuck in the Musselshell River, with the mules dragging their harness off into the greasewood at a dead run and taking off on a bumpy ride with a camera-person passenger once or twice. But, generally speaking, hundreds and hundreds of miles have been traveled with those two mules quite comfortably. So, Ghengis and Attila are settled on the plains of Eastern Montana, along with Owen Badgett. None of the three will ever be considered broke. But, locals might say, “Where’s the fun in being broke?”

And after all, it was only fitting that Owen’s brand new freight wagon would have Ghengis and Attila at the helm on the first ride. All those years; all those adventures; all those tall tales coming together in one historic wagon ride with three complete characters on the Eastern Montana plains. What happens next to the wagons? “Well, they’ll be driven by me and others. They could be for sale, for a pretty stiff price,” said Owen with a big grin. For certain they will sport Owen’s tumblin’ T brand, and the uniqueness that is Owen Badgett.

NOTE: Owen’s books are “Made of Iron”, “Rawhide and Velvet”, “A Deep Seat and a Faraway Look”, “A Loose Ladigo and A Locked Dallie”, and “Get your Suger Beet Bluchers, It’s All Lies”. The DVD documentary about his life and Eastern Montana is called “The Gypsy Cowman”.

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