Tom grew up on the family homestead near Wilbur, when Washington Territory was on its way to becoming Washington state. Indians were regularly around the area when Tom was growing up, and he would follow the farm’s horse-drawn plow and pick up stone axe heads, bowls and pestles that had been made and lost by the Indians. He liked to tell the story of an Indian chief coming to Wilbur to watch a man cutting lumber on a table saw. The chief had never seen a saw running before and he reached out to touch the rotating blade, severing the tip of one finger. He let out a grunt, wrapped his finger in his blanket and wandered off.
When Tom, who was the youngest of his family, was 15 years old, they moved to Montana where they homesteaded land near Choteau. Tom worked hard on the new homestead, helping his family “prove up” the land so they could earn ownership from the government.
None of Tom’s siblings had gone to college, so after Tom graduated from high school in Great Falls, it was decided that he should go to college. He attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois and graduated with an emphasis in biology and fine art. Later, he went to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Tom earned the name Hobnail Tom after he twice climbed to the summit of Grand Teton, the iconic 13,750-foot mountain in Wyoming, using climbing boots with soles covered with hobnails.
After Tom married Eila Conel of Decatur, Illinois, he got a job as Superintendent of Schools in the town of Cerro Gordo, Illinois. He held the position from 1933 to 1944 when he moved to Montana fulltime. He’d gotten a contract to teach art and biology at Helena High School.
Tom started sketching at an early age. After dinner he would take an old wood crate with him, sit down on the ground with the crate as a desk, and practice drawing horses, people and small insects that got in the way. His passion for art and drawing burned strong all his life. Tom wrote many journals, yearly White Tail newsletters, and letters to guests and other friends, all richly illustrated with his sketches. He had a strong formal art and science education and taught both subjects in schools in Illinois and Montana. But mostly he taught hundreds of his guests along wilderness trails.
He was an excellent fly fisherman, as was his father D.C., who would almost rather fly fish than eat. In 1936, when his father was 78, Tom took him on a grand 160-mile pack trip into the best of Montana wilderness fishing. After riding most of the day, D.C. would break out his fishing gear. By the time Tom had set up camp and gotten the fire started, D.C. would return with a mess of trout for supper. If they came upon a tempting creek during their day’s journey, D.C. would cast a few lines from his saddle.
In 1937, Tom bought land next to Moody and Elizabeth (Edwards) Copenhaver in the Blackfoot Valley near Ovando. Thus began the White Tail Ranch. It started with bare ground and an old pioneer cabin that had been dragged in with the Copenhaver steam engine. Later, a log lodge, guest cabins, barns and corrals were constructed. Each summer after school was out, Tom would drive his family (Eila and their son Pen) from Illinois to the ranch in Montana.
Over the years Tom took hundreds of guests from around the world on pack trips into the vast backcountry that extended from the ranch north to Glacier National Park. Summer trips included fishing and sightseeing. In the fall, guests would hunt deer, elk, bear, mountain sheep and mountain goat. The ranch had up to 75 head of riding stock and up to 50 head of packing mules along with all of the required tack.
Tom operated the ranch during the summer when he was teaching in Illinois and added weekend hunting trips to his plate once he started teaching in Helena. In 1954, he retired from teaching so he could run the ranch fulltime in the summer and fall.
Tom married Helen Fitzgerald in the mid 1950s and together they built the White Tail Ranch into a premier backcountry outfitting operation. Helen was a great cook and organizer both at the ranch and in the backcountry. In hunting camp she would stay in the cook tent and have a hearty meal ready for the hunters when they returned, earning her the name “Bear Bait Helen.” For several years Tom’s cousin Howard Copenhaver and Howard’s wife Margaret were partners in the operation and contributed to the growth and reputation of the ranch.
Tom was very well respected by fellow outfitters, government officials and guests alike for his unbridled love of the wilderness; knowledge of the area’s trails, flora and fauna; and passion for teaching—not to mention his propensity for telling tall tales.
Tom loved music and singing. He regularly took his mandolin on pack trips and there was always singing around the campfire after a long day on the trail. He delighted planeloads of people on long international flights by sitting in the aisle and strumming his mandolin. He would soon have all of the passengers singing.
Tom was a leader in establishing the Scapegoat Wilderness and made several trips to Washington, D.C. to argue in favor of it before the U.S. Congress. It is the first citizen-created federal wilderness. The Forest Service honored his commitment to wild lands by naming the main southern gateway trail in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses in Tom’s honor.
Tom was a longtime and very active member of and past president of Montana Outfitters. They were blessed with many individuals who worked at the ranch including MOGA members Jack and Karen Hooker, and Smoke and Thelma Elser.
By the time Tom was 71 years old, the years of wrangling horses at daybreak, making and breaking camp, shoeing stock and cooking camp meals were slowly adding up, so Tom and Helen sold their beloved White Tail to Jack Hooker in 1970 and retired.
What Hobnail never tired of was forking a horse or singing a song. He and Helen bought a little parcel of land on the North Fork and built a retirement home with a pasture for their horses. Tom would regularly ford the North Fork and ride to the top of Ovando Mountain.
Unfortunately, Helen died just as the home was being finished. Later Tom married Judy Nelson who had earlier worked at the White Tail Ranch. Tom and Judy lived on the North Fork until his death in July of 1975.
© 2023 Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. All Rights Reserved. ^ Back to Top