[ “We had fun when we rodeoed, and it was good to us.” ] or fifteen years straight, bull rider Dave Garstad never finished a […]
Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
Tommy Tibbitts was born August 15, 1928, on a ranch about 25 miles south of Merriman, Neb. The ranch was called the Churn Ranch and was owned by Tom Arnold. His dad (Tom) was a straw boss as they were called in those days. Tommy had four sisters older than he and two younger. Mr. Arnold sold the ranch and the family moved to South Dakota when Tommy was a year old. He went to a country school on the Arnold Ranch through the 8th grade and went to high school in Mission, SD.
The Arnold Ranch was so big that it took up to ten days to brand all the cattle. When Tommy was 8, he went on his first branding. His job was to herd the horses while the hands were busy branding. His next job was breaking colts, and he was paid $5.00 a colt. At that time, the men working in the hay field were getting $1.00 a day and meals. “The first year it took me all summer to break four colts to ride. The second year I broke enough colts I made more than the hands in the hay field did, so the next year Mr. Arnold put me on a hay rake.” The Arnold Ranch had about four hundred head of horses, both riding horses and work horses. They had about 3,000 head of mother cows and 12,000 head of sheep. The sheep farm and the cattle ranch were connected but apart from each other.”
After World War II was over the US Marines Air Corp offered an enlistment for two years. Tommy was 17 years old, and in his senior year of high school when he enlisted. “I was sworn in on April 9, 1946. Since I enlisted before duration was signed, I am considered a World War II veteran.” After his time in the Marines, Tommy moved to Ft. Pierre along with a couple of friends. “We found work at the Old Horse and Mule Ranch which had been sold to Billy Barrak.” It was here that Tommy started riding saddle broncs at a few rodeos. He joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA now PRCA) in the spring of 1948. “My PRCA gold card number is 1198. In my beginning years of rodeo I rode bareback horses and saddle bronc. The last years of my rodeo career I just rode saddle bronc. I tried bulls but they just didn’t work for me.”
Tommy worked local rodeos in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota until a bareback horse bucked him off and broke his left knee which put him out of commission for a few months. “While I was healing I went to work in the oil fields at Lovington, New Mexico – that was a new experience. I worked there all winter until spring and I started to rodeo again.” While at a rodeo in Springfield, Missouri, he got an opportunity to make money and rodeo. A rodeo act called the Valkeries asked Tommy to drive their truck, hauling their horses. The act consisted of three girls standing on the back of horses and jumping hurdles. They had seven white horses to haul. “Their offer was to pay my expenses, pay my entrance fee at the rodeos plus a small wage. I accepted the job offer as it was a god send to a cowboy just getting started. “ His new position allowed Tommy to see the nation – they went to Denver, Ft. Worth, El Paso, Phoenix, Cheyenne, Chicago, New Yor,k and the Cow Palace to name a few. “The girls were like sisters to me, more or less like a family. We laughed and argued like a family but we still got along.”
He worked with the Valkeries for three years. “They got a contract with a circus so I quit and went on my own. Later that spring at a rodeo at Tulsa Jake Beutler of the Beutler Bros. Rodeo Producers, asked me to go to work for them hauling livestock. I went to work for them and worked until I quit rodeoing in the fall of 1959.”
He recalls his best year of rodeo – 1956. “I bucked off five horses all year and I believe I finished some where in the top 15 standings for that year. The national finals hadn’t started-yet.”
On August 2, 1958 Tommy married Linda. “That was the best thing I did in my life time. She was not only beautiful on the outside but she is beautiful on the inside. We have had two children a girl and a boy. The girl (Sonya) is an accountant in Phoenix and the boy (Tom) does a lot of work for the department of defense. He works out of Santa Diego.” After getting married, Tommy left Beutler Bros. “I rodeoed some in 1959 but I decided to give up rodeo all together.” He got a job driving truck out of Amarillo, Texas. “I drove from there for about six years. In 1967 I changed companies and started driving for Leeway Motor Frieght out of Oklahoma City. My total time driving truck was about thirteen years. During that time I logged over 2,000,000 miles.”
In the fall of 1974, he left trucking and moved back to South Dakota to ranch, farm, trade horses and work as a tribal ranger for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as well as in the tourism industry. “In 1995 I was named as one of the delegates, from South Dakota, to go to Washington D.C. to the conference on travel and tourism. Every state had delegates at the conference, a total of 1700 delegates, in all. That has been the only conference on tourism that has ever been held at Washington D.C.”
In the year of 2001 John Hadley and his wife Lois talked Tommy into trying to make rodeo the official sport of South Dakota. “It took me two years before I was able to get it to the legislator for approval. Congressman Larry Rhoden and state senator Eric Bogue introduced the bill to the legislator and it passed by a land slide on February 27, 2003 The governor, Michael Rounds signed the bill into state law making it the official sport of South Dakota.”
Tommy retired in the late 1990’s and volunteered to be a council member on a resource, conservation and development (RC&D) program. RC&D is a community development program. “The area we covered was four counties. I worked on that until the government stopped funding the program two years ago.”
He and Linda still live on the ranch outside of Martin, SD. “We live 32 miles from town,” he said. They started going to Arizona for the winter about three years ago. “It can snow really hard and the electricity goes out for days,” said Linda. They both like the change of pace for the winter.
They still enjoy going to rodeos and seeing people that they remember. “I like being able to walk into an arena and know everybody.” They enjoy their life now. “We didn’t get anything done, but we’re busy.”