At Home with Tom Oar

Editor Bob Welch visits with the mountain man.

American Cowboy Picture

Tom Oar, 70, is one of the stars of the History Channel show, Mountain Men. Just finishing its second season, the series follows several men and their families as they face the challenges of living off the grid, using only what nature provides and their own skills and ingenuity. Oar makes his living tanning wild game hides and crafting traditional buckskin moccasins, pants, shirts, jackets, and other primitive trappings.

How did you come to settle in Montana’s Yaak Valley?
Nancy and I are both from northern Illinois and knew some people who moved to Troy, Mont. When Nancy and I would come out here in the summertime to rodeo, we stayed with those people. There came a point in our life where we figured the majority of rodeoing was over, and we wanted to move to Montana and build a log house. So we bought a chainsaw in Illinois to build a house with when we got here. We bought an acre-and-a-half that had a little two-room log cabin on it and we lived in that while we built the house. It took us five years to build it. We’ve lived here for 34 years now.

Why is your lifestyle—living off the land—so important to you?
I guess I was born 150 or 200 years too late. I always thought of the past and history. I’ve kind of relived it in a modern way. I’ve trapped beaver in the Rocky Mountains. My rodeo career kind of put me in the past, too.

The trappers and traders of the 1800s are fascinating. Who are your mountain man heroes?
Joe Meek, and of course Jim Bridger. I don’t have a favorite, but those guys were a tough lot. The travel they did was remarkable. Jedediah Smith went from St. Louis to the West Coast and up in to Oregon and Washington to trap beaver. But maybe he was more into exploring. The West was really settled by the people who created the fur trade. They were scouts for the Army and the ones who showed the settlers how to get over the mountains. It’s a lost past, I guess.

Maybe not completely, with men like you still doing what you do. On TV we see you working, but tell me more about your craft.
The stuff we do is out of the past. I braintan animal skin like the Indians did 200 years ago. Braintan buckskin is so far superior to any commercial stuff that they’re making nowadays. It’s a completely different thing. It’s tanned with animal brain and it’s almost like cloth rather than leather. If you hold it up to your lips, you can blow through it. That makes it comfortable to wear. Body perspiration evaporates through it and keeps you cool. It’s amazing stuff to wear. The moccasins breathe so your feet don’t get sweaty.

How do you market your wares? I noticed you don’t have a website.
I sell most of my stuff at rendezvous, which are reenactments of the old 1840s fur trades. If you’re dressed properly at one of these, you’re wearing braintan buckskin. If you dress like that and go to town, everybody stares at you.

You went from a life of solitude to being the centerpiece of a cable network reality show hit. How has life changed for you?
I’ve got a pronghorn skin out there that I’m tanning right now. The show hasn’t changed me so far to any great degree. I do get more orders than I ever have before. I could never keep up with all the business we’ve got in the past year. When we make a jacket or a buckskin pair of pants, it’s all hand-sewn. We don’t use a sewing machine.

We usually go to one or two rendezvous a year and before we go I’m working my fanny off to get buckskin tanned so that I can go to the rendezvous and make $3,000 or $4,000. But now, with the show, I’m getting paid so that takes some of the pressure off. But still, I love to tan. It’s a good feeling of accomplishment to see what I can do with my hands.

On the show, Nancy is always talking about your rodeo knees. What events did you work?
I worked the saddle bronc riding and the bull riding. In 1961 we had to make a choice if we were going to go to IRA or RCA rodeos. There were more IRA rodeos in the Midwest and East, so I was a member of the IRA for 16 or 17 years. It was a fun life.

The show makes a big deal about your kids pressuring you to move to Florida. From what I’ve seen, it seems unlikely. Are there days you consider changing your lifestyle?
Yeah. I’m 70 years old. It takes eight or nine cords of wood to keep this place warm. It’s just Nancy and me and an old Dodge pickup and 30-foot chain. We can’t keep doing this forever. I keep telling Nancy, one of these days you’ll probably just find me stretched out dead over the fleshing block.

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