MONTANA COWBOY HALL OF FAME Legacy INDUCTION
DONALD ELTON ABARR (1923-2016)
DISTRICT 6 - YEAR 2024
Born on a team drawn bobsled February 15, 1923, between Elbowoods and Plaza, North Dakota, Donald Elton “Don” Abarr was the first child born to Lillian May (Jones) Abarr and Carl Emmett Abarr. With a Gros Ventre Indian as their guide, they did not reach the hospital in time due to a blizzard setting in. Don was born of tough stock which helped prepare him for the future that awaited him.
The family moved to Billings in 1926 and later homesteaded about 65 miles south on the east side of the Pryor Mountains. At the age of seven, driving the team and wagon, Don, helped his father cut and haul the logs for their one room cabin a distance of some five miles. The 18 by 24 or so foot cabin would eventually house four brothers and two sisters. Around 1929 the family attended a Sun Dance in Pryor—Plenty Coups was chief at the time. Following eight years of education at the Dryhead School he hired out to break horses. Eddie Hulbert gave Don his first bronc, Omaha, in exchange for wages in 1937. Experience and knowledge gained working with his father and others helped outfit him for his future life as a working cowboy.
Don was a decorated veteran of World War II serving his country in the United States Navy for five years, four months, and 17 days, which he proudly stated up until he passed. He spent ten months on the USS LST 270 in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, witnessing the Atomic Bomb. He received a letter of commendation from General George C. Marshall for his service. One spring Don ended up in Cody, Wyoming in search of work which he found at the Pitchfork Ranch, having “caught the stage to Meeteetse”. He also found his first wife Annice Belden, the daughter of Frances and Charles, co-owners of the Pitchfork along with her brother Eugene and Helen Phelps. Frances and Eugene, the children of Annice (Williston) and LG Phelps who had started out with a piece of land purchased as a hunting lodge which he “grew” into a ranch. Don and Annice moved on, marrying January 1948 in Billings, Montana. In 1952, they, along with his stepdaughter Margot Somers and their children Lili, Rob, and Kathy, tried to make a go of ranching along the Boulder River by McCleod, Montana. In his union with Annice, Don also found the difficulties that alcohol presents in one’s life. Their trails separated and Don was back to his life as a working cowboy following a short stint as owner of the Belfry Bar. He was quite a tumbling tumbleweed and continued to search for his cowboy heaven as he worked on many outfits throughout Montana—including the Teigan, M/M, and Borner Ranches around Grass Range—Wyoming, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Don had the good fortune to meet—and become friends with—numerous old timers as well as up-and-coming cowboys—both working and rodeo—and many great bosses during his tenure as a cowboy. Often, Don found he “couldn’t polish the mahogany” (could not afford a drink). At one point he and his friend Al Smith were given $25 to help get back to Montana from California, a story shared in his book Hoofbeats on the Wind - TALES OF A SAGEBRUSH COWBOY that he and his fifth (and last) wife Dorothy wrote while living in Lambert, Montana. It has been said that “reading his book is like sitting at a table listening to Don tell a story”. He loved to have people stop by for a visit and always offered up a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, as that was “the cowboy way”.
Don could pack: a chip on his shoulder, a string with a perfect diamond-hitch, through the back country with ease. He built miles upon miles of fence, packed horses, wrangled—including for the movie Little Big Man—calved, lambed, roped, branded, wore a leather belt with his name on it, logged, worked on oil rigs, built bridges, fought bare fisted, always carried a cotton handkerchief, laughed and cried due to happiness as well as sorrow, built more than one home, shed, or gazebo, tended bar, ran a trap line, worked for $15 a month, dug ditches, trapped gophers for a penny each, rep’ed, trailed cattle, rode slick-heeled and not, was at times able to polish the mahogany more than he might should have, fished, rode a sunfisher, read the Bible, pawned things, was the proud owner of a Percheron work horse and his trusted pistol “Blue”, irrigated, owned a brand and a bedroll, hated rattlesnakes, ate more wild game than he cared due to necessity over the years, got grounded less often than he rode ‘em, shod more than a few horses, smoked, worked a mining claim, SSS’ed, wore a black silk scarf around his neck, built as well as destroyed friendships, healed and sometimes never healed from injuries sustained. Many jobs taken were stop gap measures till he could get back to another cowboying job as that was Dons desired profession. He loved his God, his family, his friends, his country. He would toss his bedroll alongside the road just about anywhere overstaying in a hotel or pick up a hitch hiker to lend a hand. As he got older the price of a room or dinner out was tough for him to get his head around. All in all, an ordinary—yet extraordinary—life for an independent working cowboy.
Don was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1976 and became a devout believer. He tried to follow God’s ways “near as a human can.” Like many a cowboy the land under the wide-open sky of day and shining stars of night was his first church.
When his children moved him in to a long-term care facility in Cody, he felt it was “too nice for an old cowboy”. He would be up and at the table drinking coffee (often with butter and a bit of sugar) before sunrise and was happy to have visitors—as long as they did not stay too long—a habit he had developed when visiting his kids in Wyoming. He would drive four and a half hours and might stay for a cup of coffee.
A reflection of past days was shared in his book: “People were more satisfied then, it seemed, had time to talk or at least nod.” “The cement jungle of today about makes a fellow head for the ‘Big Open!’ But where? The west is still the west. All that has changed are the roads, the people, and the fences. Quite some change. But I’ll stay in Montana or Wyoming. It’s all good, ain’t it?” “Rodeo, a great sport. Number one with me!” "Cowboys and cow outfits in different states—an era fading away as hoofbeats on the wind." “To all the cowboys I’ve worked with, it’s been a pleasure.” “To all my friends, I've enjoyed it all.” “So long!” “I’ll see ya on the trail.”
Don rode to the “Big Open” at 93 1/2 years-to the day-August 15, 2016. He was laid to rest at Rockvale Cemetery near Edgar, Montana looking over the Pryor Mountains, Donald Elton Abarr’s first real home. Son, Grandson, Brother, Friend, Cowboy, Navy Veteran, Husband, Father, Uncle, Grandfather, Great-Grandfather, but
MOST of all—A Cowboy.
Hoofbeats on the Wind, TALES OF A SAGEBRUSH COWBOY, DON ABARR, Copyright 1989, Published by THE STILLWATER SUN Columbus, Montana, Printed in the United States of America
“reading his book is like sitting at a table listening to Don tell a story”
Darlene Abbott McNair, Sheridan, Wyoming