MONTANA COWBOY HALL OF FAME & WESTERN HERITAGE
Gerald Lee "Jerry" Hamel
On January 25, 1936, Gerald Lee Hamel, who became better known as “Jerry” or “Squirrel”, was born to Phillip and Marie (David) Hamel in St. Ignatius, Montana where he joined his older brother Wayne.
“Phil” and Marie instilled hard-work philosophy in their boys. Jerry believes if you aren’t “producing” as he puts it, “then you are a drain on the system.” To this day he feels guilty if he takes an afternoon nap. The Hamels owned the Dixon Mercantile, which included a liquor store and café. While Dixon is pretty much a “one-horse-town” today, at that time it was a booming community. As the boys grew older, Marie felt the need to move the boys away from the shenanigans of town life and move them to the country. In 1946 at the age of ten Jerry’s folks bought the ranch where he resides today. The family milked cows and bucket-fed the calves, owned draft horses, pigs, and chickens, while raising a big garden. There were plenty of chores to keep the boys busy and out of idle-time mischief.
Even at an early age Jerry was very ambitious. At the age of 13 he joined the Dixon Indian Stockmen’s Association. This was an adult organization that he could see benefiting his long-term goals of becoming a rancher. Jerry turned out seven calves that first year on his grazing allotment. Since that time, he has served as an officer in some capacity and is currently the secretary/treasurer.
Although Jerry’s main income came from the ranching operation, he engaged in other employment to support his family along the way. He worked at a sawmill, tended bar, delivered milk, and was appointed as the sergeant-at-arms for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council. He ingeniously bought a Crown Victoria station wagon to drive a school bus route. Jerry is not really a muscle car kind of guy, but he likes a nice muscle car. Although he would never admit to that he drove a Pontiac GTO and a Dodge Charger. Yes, he is not all about trucks and trailers like you would imagine a typical rancher to be.
The family joke has always been that Jerry is like a salmon, always swimming upstream - often ahead of his time. He finds great pleasure in reading, learning, and trying new things, and is willing to change with the times if he sees fit. One of Jerry’s heroes is Temple Grandin because he understands the way she thinks and endorses the handling of livestock. Jerry has been promoting the sale of beef directly from the producer to the consumer since the 1970s. There is no way of knowing the number of pounds of hamburger he has generously donated to different community events. Jerry wanted to help with the fundraising efforts of the Salish Kootenai College Rodeo Team (SKCRT) so instead of giving money, he donated a colt to be raffled off. He hauled that colt all over western Montana to be put on display and promote ticket sales. Jerry’s effort got people involved, piqued interest in the rodeo program and brought in more money than just his one-time monetary donation.
Before the European cattle breeds were widely accepted, Jerry bought a Simmental bull in Canada. He also bought a Longhorn bull to cross with first-calf heifers for easy calving and vigor. Jerry once took a bit of a detour through North Dakota on the way home from Oklahoma to buy a Buelingo bull and the next thing you know he had a whole herd of “Oreo cows.” They are famous to say the least as you will see if you drive down Highway 200 between Ravalli and Dixon. If the Buelingo cattle were not enough of an attraction, in 2000 he invested in the buffalo business, a herd that grew to 40 head. To prove their worth, in 2001, he transported the best in the herd to the Northwest Bison Association Show in Davenport, Washington. There were over 100 head of prime Bison from the Dakotas and as far away as California at the event. The three yearling bulls he exhibited won first, second and third place one of which took home the title of Grand Champion Male. No matter the animal, Jerry’s motto is “feed makes the breed.” He may have not brought home the gold, but he did bring home the silver. A sterling silver tray, trophy cup and complete tea set to boot.
Jerry is an outstanding steward of the land. One of his proudest possessions is his center pivot irrigation system, seeing to it that nearly every blade of grass is nurtured. Jerry recycles everything, swearing there just has to be a use for it. His daily newspaper ends up in mailboxes up and down the valley where his neighbor grows “Dixon Melons”. Jerry harvests the culls and can be found slinging bins of cantaloupe to his cows to feast on at the end of every summer. His stewardship has been honored by his peers. In 1997, Jerry and his wife were presented with the Outstanding Co-Operator award by the Eastern Sanders County Conservation District. He has also received two, ten-year Appreciation of Dedicated Service awards by the same district. In 2021, he was awarded an engraved belt buckle by the Western Montana Stockmen's Association for “Honorable Service,” a lifetime achievement award.
In 1972 Jerry felt the need to produce a sanctioned IRCA rodeo in conjunction with the Arlee Pow Wow & 4th of July Celebration. It was the first all Indian rodeo held there and was deemed a momentous success. Traffic was backed up on Highway 93 all the way to “Dirty Corner”. When not on the rodeo trail he also hosted team roping’s at the family ranch.
From his first calf roping championship in St. Ignatius hosted by the FFA, to the broken arm earned while bareback riding at the state high school rodeo in Deer Lodge, traveling to the Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association (IRCA) rodeos in the western United States and Canada, to the steer wrestling championship at the Canadian Old Timers Rodeo Association in 1990 and the National Old Timers Rodeo Association qualifications in ‘90 and 1991, Jerry has been involved in rodeo.
In the early ‘80’s the spring break up of ice washed out a section of the Dixon Bridge on Flathead River. The cattle have forged the tributary twice a year since then; an undertaking for Jerry as he coordinates cowboys and river depth before crossing.
Jerry has joked that he has been married for 50 years to three beautiful women just not at the same time. These three matrimonies blessed him with two daughters, Traci and Keelyn who in turn have given him two grandsons, Suede and Ty.
While working cattle Jerry says, “you just have to think like a cow.” Only his dog, Ben, has mastered the ability to read his mind. Jerry can sort, load or doctor under the most unimaginable circumstances. His Cannon Ball bale bed has moved and loaded just about everything under the sun. It is not unusual for him to jump the four-wheeler into his boat and make his way across the river to check on the cows. At 85 years, age does not slow him down. Jerry might not do it the same way he once did, but he is still “producing” and managing to get the work done.