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"A Rodeo Life - Reg Kesler" - by Kim Briggeman

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The article below, by Kim Briggeman, appeared in The Missoulian on July 8, 2001.

A Rodeo Life

A legend on the circuit and a 'gentle giant,' Reg Kesler defined rodeo for decades in Montana and beyond

Editor's note: Longtime rodeo stock contractor Reg Kesler died in May near his home in Raymond, Alberta. The following story recounts his life in the rodeo business. The accompanying photographs were taken by Missoulian Photo Editor Kurt Wilson in May 1985, as Kesler prepared for a University of Montana Rodeo.

To say Reg Kesler took Montana rodeo by storm is too puny an assertion for a man who cut so wide a swath. Kesler, nicknamed the Colonel, took virtually everything and everybody by storm in 81 years of living. His life ended in a fatal highway collision on May 16 near his home outside of Raymond, Alberta.

"Dad had the ability to throw more guys off before the rodeo started," said Greg Kesler, 55, who along with his own son Duane, 32, follow in Reg's footsteps as stock contractors for professional rodeos.

Keslers supplied the bucking horses and bulls for Butte Vigilante Rodeo on Friday and Saturday, and they'll be at the Drummond Kiwanis Rodeo on Sunday - their first shows in western Montana since Reg's death.

"The way Dad did things was the old hard way. He was the old rancher type. Either you made it or you didn't," said Greg, a softer-spoken version of his father.

Canadian all-around champion in 1948, 1951 and 1953, Reg Kesler went on to make an inimitable mark on his sport by raising and bucking the likes of bareback mare Three Bars and saddle broncs Rodeo News and Short Crop. From 1983-89 Kesler was a director for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

He entered the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1992, after achieving similar laurels in Canada and in his home province of Alberta.

"He's everything the rodeo business is all about," Texas rodeo personality Bob Tallman said. "He's a founding father and probably the least hypocritical human being I ever met in my life."

Tallman, who announced his 14th National Finals Rodeo last December in Las Vegas, spoke at Kesler's funeral. He said the audience on a warm May afternoon at the LDS Stake Center in Raymond, Alberta, was "the Who's Who of the rodeo world." There were more than 700 of them.

Kesler's roots were in southern Alberta, but he made Montana his second home in the early 1960s. Storied rodeo hand Oral Zumwalt died in June 1962 while flanking a bucking horse at the Big Timber rodeo. Zumwalt left a leased ranch up Miller Creek near Missoula, replete with 12,000 acres and a rodeo grounds where Zumwalt had put on the KO Rodeo each May for years.

"He was just starting (as a rodeo producer) about the time Oral passed away," said Bill Holt of Lolo, who announced at Kesler rodeos from the 1950s to the 1990s. "Reg saw an opportunity to come into Missoula and rent the same ranch."

"Reg had history at that ranch," Holt said. "He had more National Finals stock at the rodeo ground than any place in the world, and it was right here in Missoula."

Kesler and his wife, Liz, who was also his rodeo secretary, kept an apartment in Missoula that they occupied perhaps a month out of each year. He considered buying the Miller Creek ranch, but that wasn't Kesler's style.

"Dad was the kind of person who didn't know how things were going to work out, so he didn't make the decision to buy. He'd sooner lease it," said Greg, who owns a place near Helena where many of his and Duane's 800 head of horses are kept.

Reg Kesler could chide himself about his poor business decisions. Bud Lake, a friend and former rodeo hand who still lives in Missoula, advised Kesler years ago to invest in 40 acres near the rodeo grounds.

"All I could think about was, 'What the hell am I going to do with a little chunk like that?' " Kesler said in a taped 1995 interview with Lake and Lyle Bagnell of Frenchtown. "Now it's all covered with houses and they sold those damn lots for $25,000 a lot, some of them."

Kesler and Holt revived the Miller Creek rodeo in 1969 and named it in Zumwalt's honor. The location of the "OZ Rodeo" on a sage-tinged working ranch mere minutes from Missoula helped draw thousands of seasoned rodeo fans and city dudes to the hillside overlooking an expansive arena.

Each first Sunday in May the Zumwalt Rodeo became the kickoff for another rodeo season in Montana. Strains of Marty Robbins, Pat Boone and George Jones greeted the incoming crowds as stock was unloaded and sorted behind the chutes. Kids roped bales of hay in the parking lot, or galloped ghost ponies around phantom barrels.

Early arrivers flung Frisbees down the hillside for dogs to chase, sat chatting on tailgates with beers or pops in hand, wandered past the bulls - most of them high-humped Brahmas - to get a snort of danger.

Kesler, bandy-legged and barrel-chested, reigned over it all. He hollered at cowboys to get on and get out of the chutes, congratulated the best rides and cheered unabashedly for his own bucking stock.

"Screamin' Reg is what everybody calls him," said Benny Reynolds, another of Montana's rodeo legends. "Everybody jumps when he hollers. He's got to holler I think to keep his blood pumping. But Reg does a lot of it in fun."

A quiet word of praise or recognition from Kesler - to a rider, a gate man, a judge, a casual onlooker - could prompt a glow that lasted a week or a career.

Paul Zarzyski came to Missoula from the Midwest to attend graduate school at the University of Montana in 1973. He took a camera out to the Zumwalt Rodeo the following spring.

"Those bucking horses came jumping out of their chutes, and I knew this was something I must have done in another life or damn sure needed to do in this one," Zarzyski recalled.

"Reg and everybody else were just so kind and accommodating, and his bucking horses were the first ones I ever got close to. What an exhilarating feeling."

Zarzyski took up bareback riding and rodeoed for most of decade while he launched a writing career. These days he lives west of Great Falls and is renowned as one of America's most distinctive cowboy poets.

Besides his standby shows in Canada, Kesler hauled to rodeos all over Montana and neighboring states.

"I can recall going to Dillon and Salmon to talk with committees there, in the beginning-type thing," Greg Kesler said. "Polson was one of the early ones, and Augusta. Anaconda was another location. Choteau. Big Timber. Belt. Red Lodge came along a little bit later. Chinook."

There were fair rodeos at Kalispell and Missoula, and later Helena and Great Falls, Deer Lodge and Hamilton.

Dillon's Labor Day weekend show grew to be the biggest of Kesler's Montana rodeos.

The weeklong College National Finals Rodeo in Bozeman "likely did more for him and his rodeos in this area than anything, because of the kids that went to school there and their families that would come," said Greg.

The Missoula County Health Department voiced concerns over the state of the Miller Creek grounds, and the rodeo was moved into the Western Montana Fairgrounds in 1988. It petered out in the mid-1990s.

Kesler had already begun phasing himself out of the business. A couple of weeks after the 1991 OZ Rodeo, he held a bucking horse liquidation sale at the fairgrounds, putting up a small purse for bronc riders to show off his animals.

Nearly 200 horses were sold, most of them born and raised on Miller Creek. Jay Hoggan of Hamer, Idaho, bought 93 of them. Norman Stokes of Okeechobee, Fla., from whom the Keslers often bought bulls, showed up and picked up a dozen or so.

National Finals Rodeo horses such as Little Gene and Three Chimes were sold that day. Pacific Trails, Pauls Valley, Pinto Pete, Red Hawk, Smuggler, Freddy all found new owners.

"When you're a guy like I am, horses are a part of your life," Kesler said. "Always have been. So you sure as heck hate to see 'em go. But at the same time, when you get as much white in the hair as I've got, something has to give."

It hurt most when Short Crop, twice voted the top saddle bronc at the NFR, was turned into the arena for inspection. Kesler figured the 18-year-old gray gelding had years of bucking left in him, but Short Crop sold for only $1,800.

"We gave him away," the former owner said sorrowfully.

Kesler eventually lost the lease on the Miller Creek ranch, and the rodeo grounds are no more.

He was en route to Colorado Springs, Colo., in August 1992 for his ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction when he stopped off in Missoula. Excited by his admittance into the Hall, Kesler also said it was time for his son and grandson to take over the business.

"I think I'll fade into the sunset," he said. "I've had my accolades. Let them have theirs."

He formally sold Greg the business in 1995 and, perhaps surprisingly, did step back.

"The last few years he didn't come to too many rodeos," Greg said. "Dad was the kind of person who did what he wanted to do, and 'Don't you tell me what to do because I'm not going to do it.'

"You'd kind of turn your back and then he showed up, because he thought maybe you were forgetting about him. He had his ways of doing things. Those things will be there forever."

Two days before his death, Kesler moved 200 cows and calves to pasture on the Milk River Ridge from his childhood ranch near Stirling, Alberta. On the afternoon of May 16, he drove to town to get the mail.

Kesler was coming home when his pickup and a van belonging to John Calder, a friend and fellow rancher from Coutts, collided at the intersection of Highways 52 and 646. Neither man survived the crash.

Kesler left behind his wife, Liz, who takes care of her mother in Henrietta, Texas; Greg and four daughters; Duane and 16 other grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, and a rodeo legacy that won't be forgotten.

"If you knew how to deal with him, he was a gentle giant," Tallman said. "That's the way cowboy rules are. Good guys do win first."

"The only thing I'd do different," Kesler said as his rodeo life wound down, "would be to do a little more of it."


You've heard of Kessler's Blended Whiskey -

that silk-smooth spur juice don't bite or snort or kick at all.

With 3-fingers' mane-holt to a jigger glass

I've rode amber bottles to an empty standstill,

fanned 'em for the crowd at closing time,

catapulted off the barstool and never took a fall.

But have you heard of Kesler's "Moonshine?"

That's Reg, MISTER Rodeo, Kesler, spelled with just one s.

And though we're talkin' buckin' horse, not hootch,

that 1200 proof of palomino lightning

turned a boastful headstrong twister

to a puny, knee-walkin', toilet-huggin' punch-drunk mess.

That gelding seldom changed his gameplan.

He sort of drifted left with lots of drop and hell for stout.

In the chute, his dude-horse nonchalance

made you crave coffee and a quirly,

till he squatted to the gatelatch rattle,

a cocked, hair-triggered set-gun, deadly for that first jump out.

Moonshine led his champion band of bares,

the blue norther's fury from Canada to Spanish lands.

With Three Bars, Applejack, and Creamo,

they bucked their famous raindance

when riggin' riders shook their faces,

and arenas took a pelting from downpours of top hands.

That day "Wolf" Loney drawed him down at Dillon,

I slowly shouldered next to Reg and heard his whispered cheers.

"Come on, Yeller, Come ON, Yeller,"

as Moonshine cracked 'em harder

to win that bout in seven -

through Reg's grit and rawhide squint, the gleam of prideful tears.

Because rodeo means partnership with passion -

legacies of beautiful duets, loves you'll never lose.

I still believed in Santa Claus and comebacks

when down in Santa Fe I read

"Moonshine put to sleep at 33" -

I toasted Reg and Yeller with a jug of homemade booze.

That night, bucked off hard and whiskey dreaming,

I'm entered-up in seventh heaven, free of age and pain.

Cy's voice raves "number 33 with Kesler"

as they float out like gliding

ballroom stars - Reg, grinning,

waltzing close, holding gently on to Moonshine's golden mane.

- Paul Zarzyski, from "Roughstock Sonnets" (1989)

The article below appears in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee site.

Reg Kesler

Stock Contractor • Inducted 1992

Reg Kesler was known for almost half a century as a top-notch stock contractor and rodeo producer. Over the years a large number of his animals were chosen as top bucking stock at the National Finals Rodeo, the Canadian Finals and the Montana Circuit Finals. He went into stock contracting because he felt the country was being depleted of the stock needed for rodeos. Many of his top stock came from his extensive breeding program, utilizing five lines of famous bucking horses. Born in 1919, Kesler began his rodeo career in the 1940s as a Canadian contestant. He competed in saddle bronc, bareback riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and team roping, winning Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association all-around titles in 1948, 1951 and 1953. Even before his career as a rodeo competitor was over, he had turned to the production side of the sport, producing rodeos as early as 1950. Kesler’s involvement in all aspects of the rodeo world won him the 1975 Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Dyson Rivett Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to the sport. As a contestant, stock contractor and association board member on both sides of the border, Kesler felt he had the opportunity to present and help maintain the Western way of life. He died May 16, 2001.


Last Updated on Monday, 01 September 2014 13:59