Montana pickup man retires after 50 years in the arena |

Montana pickup man retires after 50 years in the arena

Story Jan Swan Wood
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Jim Wilson takes a bronc to the catch pen at the 2010 Buffalo Regional High School Rodeo. He picked up there for many years and returned year after year because of the nice people. Photos by Jan Swan Wood

For a man to do a job for 50 years, he has to enjoy what he’s doing.

Jim Wilson of Alzada, Mont., has been a rodeo pickup man for 50 years and loved every day of it.

But, there comes a time to quit, and 2013 was the year for Wilson, who is 68 years old.

Ranch raised and a cowboy always, Wilson started picking up right after high school graduation in 1963.

He recalls that it was probably at Bob Wenande’s at Rocky Point, Wyo., and he says with a laugh, “I got in the arena with some guys that didn’t know any better and started picking up.”

He picked up there and then for Gib Lloyd for a lot of years and then at Broadus, Mont.

He freelanced at rodeos for a lot of years and then went to work for Burchs and has been with them since around 1992.

Jim’s wife Louise says, “Burchs really helped him to get broke into the PRCA. It was really hard to get any rodeos, even after he had his card, as there were just so many really great pickup men in this area doing the job.”

Wilson has a keen eye for what’s going to happen next in a given situation in the arena and reads livestock well, so that has kept him out of major wrecks over the years.

Louise could only think of three times that he got in a storm and those instances were pretty hard to prevent.

He had a horse get hooked in the hind quarters by a bull in a deep, muddy arena.

His cinch broke when he was dragging a bull and it jerked his horse down.

He had a bronc rear over backwards (while being led by another pickup man) and land on his horse.

But Wilson has managed to escape injury each time.

Besides PRCA rodeos, Wilson has picked up at the Buffalo, S.D., Regional High School Rodeo for years, though he got “mudded” in this year and couldn’t make it.

He’s been a regular at some of the big PRCA rodeos in the northern Plains, such as Mandan, N.D., and Rapid City’s Range Days Rodeo, where he picked up the last bronc of his career.

That last bronc rider, Jake Costello, Newell, S.D., was kind of special to Jim, as he was one the first one to pick him up in rodeos years ago and has watched Jake grow up and excel as a person and saddle bronc rider.

Wilson told his wife when they were first married that he’d rather pick up than eat.

Louise laughed when she said, “anyone who knows Jim knows he likes to eat, so you can see how much he loved it.”

He also told her that if he ever got to where there wasn’t that thrill at the prospect of the first bareback to come out of the chute, he was going to quit.

Whether the thrill is gone or not, Jim decided that it was time to quit.

His horses were getting some age on them and it takes a lot to get a young horse ready to go to rodeos.

“I’m old and they’re old and I just don’t want to start new ones,” said Wilson.

At one time, Wilson had 14 horses that he could haul when he was going the hardest.

“He quit hauling to winter rodeos several years ago. It’s just too hard to get to the rodeos and home again and he worried so much about wrecking on bad roads,” says Louise, adding, “He quit hitting as many summer rodeos, too, in recent years.”

With a ranch to run, he and Louise will stay plenty busy with the mother cows and sheep.

There’s never a lack of work to do there, so finding something to occupy the time usually spent at rodeos won’t be difficult.

His good horses will stay right there and keep working on the ranch too, though one older horse has been given the privilege of being a 12-year-old granddaughter’s saddle horse at Gillette, Wyo., and will enjoy his “retirement” with her.

Wilson has enjoyed his years as a pickup man and treasures the friendships that he and Louise have made in the process.

Though he’ll be missed by the cowboys who trusted him to help them in the arena, he knows that he’s leaving the business in good hands.

Perhaps he’ll even get to see them ride from the other side of the arena fence. ❖