Jon Temple loved his time in the rodeo arena. The retired bullfighter and clown spent more than twenty years in regional and pro rodeos across […]
Elmer & Ruth Nettleton
Written by: Maya< Back to Articles
story by Ruth Nicolaus
Elmer and Ruth Nettleton spent their life in rodeo, and are making sure the next generation of rodeo kids gets to spend time in their favorite sport as well.
The Helena, Montana couple, who have been married 63 years, spent their lives rodeoing, Ruth following as Elmer first rode bucking horses, then bulldogging, then roping. She joined him in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association, and all the while, they helped others get a start in the sport.
Elmer was born in Butte, Montana, in 1929, the son of Clifford and Katie Nettleton. He grew up on the family ranch, spending his days on horseback. He got on his first bucking horse when he was sixteen, a bareback bronc. Ruth, the daughter of Gus and Lima Malmquist, was born in Ekalaka.
Uncle Sam called Elmer into duty in 1952 during the Korean Conflict, and he served for two years, but never left the United States. “I was one of the lucky guys,” he said. “I stayed stateside the whole time.”
Before he went into the Army, he switched from bareback broncs to saddle broncs. A black cowboy, Paul Christensen told Elmer he should be riding saddle broncs. Elmer didn’t have a bronc saddle, so Paul lent him his, and coached him as well. They traveled together, Elmer borrowing Paul’s saddle. “He was a tough bronc rider,” Elmer remembered. He and his family “were good people.”
After he returned from the Army, he switched events. Still without a bronc saddle, he borrowed his brother-in-law’s. But it wasn’t right. “I just couldn’t ride anymore.” So he began to steer wrestle.
By then, Elmer was working as a general mechanic at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Helena. He and Ruth, who married in 1951, had bought a place in the valley near Helena, and they put up an indoor arena and a building, and he bulldogged a lot.
He was mostly self-taught. “We’d go to rodeos, somebody would win, and we’d come home and try it again,” he said. Billy Joe Deussen, a bulldogger from Texas, spent his summers in Montana. “I got him to haze for me and he really put the fine touches on my bulldogging. He really taught me a lot,” Elmer recalled. Elmer could ride well, and get off, but Billy Joe helped with the polish. “When he came, that really helped me a lot.”
Elmer and Ruth planned their yearly vacations around rodeo. Most of his rodeo competition was on the weekends, but during the summer, they’d plan two or three weeks on the road, hitting as many rodeos as they could. He had purchased his Rodeo Cowboys Association card in the early 1950’s, and he went to the big shows on his summer vacation. “One time we went to Pendleton (Ore.), Puyallup, and Ellensburg (Wash.) Each year we’d plan where we could go to the most rodeos in two or three weeks.”
He won his hometown rodeo, the Last Chance Stampede in Helena, two times, once in the saddle bronc riding in 1951 and again in the steer wrestling in 1966.
It was after his retirement from the Veterans Administration in 1984 that he and Ruth began rodeoing in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association. This time he took up calf roping, team roping, and ribbon roping with Ruth, and she barrel raced. They spent their summers in the camper in Canada, and their winters at their second home in Arizona. “We’d leave the first of November and come back the first of April. We’d rodeo all winter in Arizona.”
This time it was Ruth’s turn to shine. She won the Senior Pro Barrel Racing and All-Around titles in 1994 and the Ribbon Roping title twice, in 1994 and 1998, winning three saddles overall. “We had fun,” she said. They never missed qualifying for the Senior Pro Finals any time of their senior career, from 1986 till 1998.
All the while, they were helping bring up the next generation of cowboys. There were always steers at their place in Helena, and a passel of bulldoggers as well. Elmer helped guys like Don Blixt, Jim Harris, and more get their start. Helena was the home to a lot of bulldoggers. “At one time Helena was considered the bulldogging capital of Montana,” Elmer said. “There were more bulldoggers in Helena than anywhere else” in the state.
The couple still helps young people, including their neighbor and her kids. When Michelle Wolstein moved to Elmer’s neighborhood as a teenager, Elmer helped her hone her riding and roping skills. He let her borrow his roping horse, on whom she won a saddle and cash. Now she and her husband David’s children, a son, Treg, age thirteen, and daughter Haven, age eleven, are like grandchildren to Elmer and Ruth. “The kids had sleepovers there when they were little,” Michelle said. “As soon as the kids were able to hang on to the saddle horn, off they went, helping them. Elmer and Ruth put a lot of time into the kids.”
They’re giving with others as well. “He’s always real generous with letting people come over and use his building, and giving advice.” The couple has helped Elmer and Ruth’s nieces and nephews with rodeo, and when a high school rodeo function takes place, they are in attendance. “Any time there’s a high school rodeo fundraising event, they always go. When the high school kids need sponsorships or are selling raffle tickets, they’re the first ones to sign up.”
Being around the kids keeps him young, Elmer says. “That’s what keeps me going.” He stays involved in rodeo, subscribing to every rodeo publication there is, keeping up on the standings. “He keeps studying roping and rodeo, and watches every rodeo broadcast” on TV, Michelle said.
Elmer, a PRCA Gold Card member, was inducted into the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame earlier this year, and the couple was honored at the Last Chance Stampede in Helena last July. They are humble about their accomplishments. “We had a lot of fun,” is all Ruth will say.
And they’ve helped countless other cowboys and cowgirls have fun on the rodeo trail as well.