Connie Frost still has scars on the three middle fingers of her left hand from the time a mink got a hold of them. She was just a toddler and according to her mother, Marge Bertram, “The latch (to the cages) was tight but the wind blew it open and she got in. She reached for one of the mink and it bit down hard. I had to find something to pry its jaws open with from the toolbox that was in that building — a mink will really hang on.” Marge ended up taking Connie on a trip to the Doctor’s office that day “for meds and some loose bandages, but she was OK.” (The poor mom was really shaken up, though.) A similar thing happened with Connie’s brother, Bruce, after he’d dropped a water can while doing chores and one of the males grabbed a hold of his hand. “Mink are mean,” Connie pointed out. “Bruce and I used to take one every now and then as a tiny baby and try to raise it up, but we were NEVER able to tame them completely.”
Between 1939 and 1969, during the heyday of luxury furs, the Charles Bertram family of Cedaredge, Colo., bred high-quality mink (in addition to cattle and sheep) on their 300-acre farm. “My husband already had 20-30 pairs when we got married in 1943,” Marge reminisced, but at their peak of operation the family had about 2,500 of the hardy little animals, including 500 females which were used as breeding stock. “We fed the mink fish along with some sort of chow, and since they got fresh food and water every day — and the cages had to be cleaned — someone had to be there ALL the time. If we left to go to a rodeo (Connie was extremely active on the Little Britches circuit, becoming World Champion in 1967) either a hired hand or my husband’s brother, George, had to come over and stay. It was a full-time operation.”
“There were rows of pens inside every building on the property,” Connie added. “It was a lot of work. We had to scrape off the old feed first before they got new, and during cold weather we had to break a film of ice off each water bowl.” She never minded the work, though, and as Marge pointed out, “selling mink certainly helped to pay the bills.” For the Bertrams, who were highly supportive of Connie’s activities in gymkhanas as well as rodeos, those expenses continually added up. “We spent every summer weekend — especially during the two years before she became Champion — on the road,” Marge said. Eventually, Connie’s trophies covered bookshelves, tabletops, the dining room table, the top of the china cupboard, and the coffee table. Meanwhile the mink, which grew lush, beautiful fur in shades of silver-blue, sapphire, Alusian (dark), standard black “and even a tannish yellow-white” were bringing home trophies, too, since they regularly won at championship honors at mink shows in Denver, Colo., and Salt Lake City, Utah. “Pelting season started in November and December,” the women told me. “THAT was when the work seriously began. We had to stretch each of the mink furs on boards to dry, and then we shipped them by train to the Hudson’s Bay Company of New York City, which was a fur-auctioning business.” It was a good way to add to the family’s income, but for Connie the greatest thing the money went towards, no doubt, was her pride and joy — a pretty mare eventually registered as Connie’s Cricket.
At 14 hands high and barely 900 pounds, the 3/4 Quarter horse and 1/4 Arabian was just 6-years-old when the Bertrams bought her but immediately, she and Connie became a winning team. When she wasn’t caring for livestock, playing in the band or doing her homework Connie was either practicing with or conditioning the horse, often four or five hours each day. Together, the pair came heartbreakingly close to winning World Champion honors at the 1966 finals but “Cricket backed into a loose sheet of metal while we were doing the trail course,” Connie recalled. “It cut her hip so badly that we weren’t able to compete anymore that year.” Fortunately, because so many points had already been accumulated, the pair still finished sixth in the World.
Cricket was 10 at retirement, but Connie continued to compete in gymkhanas on her for several years. (She and husband Vern gave the mare a loving home until she developed bladder cancer at 27 and had to be put down.) By that time, “the market for mink had dropped and because Charles was getting older*,” the Bertrams decided it was time to quit, selling out their remaining animals. “We had a small operation compared to others,” Marge concluded. “I remember that there was one place in Delta (Colo.) that had over 10,000. And there ARE some farms coming back these days.” She was quiet for a moment as if looking back in time. “It’s a good life. It’s a good way to raise your kids.”
* Charles Bertram passed away in July 1987. His wife still lives in the same house that they shared together since the beginning of their married life. ❖