Master trapper and tanner Tom Oar gained a huge following when he featured in History Channel’s “Mountain Men,” which premiered on 31 May 2012 with nearly four million people tuning in. He poured on the grandfatherly charm with eyes that twinkle and a ready smile. As the reality television series introduced more people who preferred to live off the land in the wilderness in the succeeding seasons, the public’s interest in Tom didn’t wane.
- 1 Early years of Tom
- 2 Moving to the Big Sky Country
- 3 “Mountain Men”
- 4 What living in the wilderness was like for Tom Oar
- 5 Retirement and moving to Ocala
Early years of Tom
Tom Oar grew up in a rugged lifestyle in the country outside Rockford, Illinois. His father taught him and his brother Jack to ride horses before they could even walk. When they both turned seven, his father also taught them to perform tricks or stunts while riding a horse; it was dangerous, but his father was a true horseman so he ‘survived’ that, and was hooked on the adrenaline rush that it gave him.
When he was 15, his mom took him to the edge of town, from where he hitch-hiked to Ohio and rode bucking horses and bulls.
In the early 1960’s, Tom rose through the ranks of the International Rodeo Association, and built a name for himself as a champion rider. However, his success on the rodeo circuit came to an end in February 1970 when he rode a bull named Woolly Bugger – it was said that their heads collided and he was knocked unconscious, but continued to be tossed violently with his hand still bound tightly to the bull’s back. His legs were underneath the bull’s hind legs and the bull stepped on them as it continued to buck. It lasted for a couple of minutes before the ropes could be cut to free him. Three hours passed before Tom regained consciousness – he had bruises all over his body, and had sustained severe concussion. The bull died two weeks later, and Tom jokingly said, ‘I think I gave him a concussion, too.’ After a month, he went back to riding bulls, but it was never the same as his success in the arena became a thing of the past.
Moving to the Big Sky Country
Tom eventually retired from the rodeo in 1981, and looked forward to some peace and quiet, as he and his wife Nancy moved to Montana. They had been there before for the rodeo, and the place appealed to them so they chose it to set down roots. The couple built their first log cabin themselves from cutting logs to splitting shakes. There was no electricity, and Nancy had to carry five-gallon pails of water from the well.
After 17 years, he and Nancy built their next home in a more remote area near the Yaak River in the Kootenai National Forest, which covers about 2.2 million acres in north-east Idaho and north-west Montana. ‘I only have six acres, but beyond that, it’s all open land. I don’t have to ask permission to hunt or trap,’ he said. There were around 250 people in the community, although most of them only stayed during the summer months in which the weather was good. They had running water and electricity, so their living conditions improved.
Tom said, ‘We really had no idea exactly what we were getting into, or how I was gonna make a living out here,’ but he knew in his guts that they would survive and thrive there. He had experience in trapping and tanning hides back in Illinois, and he knew he could earn money from selling animal pelts – he even bought his pickup truck with it. He could make moccasins, but used chemically-tanned leather for those. However, when he went on a trip to Canada, he bought a moose hide tanned using animal brains, and said that it was so soft that it felt like cloth rather than leather, and so he adapted to make moccasins that way.
When they stopped by an Indian store in Billings, they discovered the primitive art of brain tanning through a 16-page book that cost him $3. The quality of their craft had improved significantly, which meant that they could sell the tanned animal skins or hides at a higher price.
He sold moccasins, clothing, hides and other items that he made, at the Black Powder Rendezvous, a re-creation of what a trade center in the 1840’s was like. The 10-day event every summer was strictly regulated that people came, sellers and patrons alike, in that era’s clothing, and they would camp in canvas tents. Back in the day, fur trappers would come to sell furs and hides to fur companies, and so replenish their supplies. Tom jokingly said, ‘I was born a hundred years too late, or maybe 200 years too late.’
Tom’s neighbor, Tim Linehan, was the host of “Trout Unlimited” for six years, committed to preserving upland streams and rivers where fish spawned, and had been friends with one of the camera guys who established Warm Springs Productions in Missoula, Montana. The producer had an idea for a show about people living off the land, in the wilderness, and Tim mentioned to him about Tom being a perfect fit for the show’s concept.
Tom said the production called him up, and the crew came to take photos as he went about his day. When the TV project was approved, a five-man film crew followed him for at least a week every month for six months during the winter season until spring – ‘They filmed us for five days to get a segment, and the segment lasts seven minutes,’ he said in amusement.
The couple watched the show, and although they were in it, they didn’t know what to expect, but Tom was happy with how it turned out, saying ‘It hasn’t embarrassed me.’ He did say that some of the things that were shown were exaggerated – ‘They always have to make it seem more dangerous. I’m too boring otherwise,’ he revealed.
Being on the show made him popular, and as a result, he continued receiving orders for his moccasins. saying ‘There’s not enough moose left in the valley up here for me to supply all the moccasins people want.’ When he made a primitive bow or a stone-blade knife in the show, people would call wanting to have one as well.
What living in the wilderness was like for Tom Oar
Preparing for winter
Montana winters last seven months, so the couple had to prepare well to ensure that they had enough firewood and food, as the closest supermarket was around 160km away. As they were both getting on in age, things that they used to do were becoming more challenging as each year passed. Stocking up on food meant hunting to harvest meat. He was sometimes accompanied by his dog, Ellie, and his friend Will. To attract a buck, they used an old hunting trick of rubbing antlers to make sounds that imitated two bucks fighting over a doe.
While Tom and Will went out hunting, they could see signs of bear activity, such as a tree being killed by a bear scraping its bark, as well as a number of bear scat. Bears were also looking for food before they hibernated, so an encounter with one was a real possibility. Tom said one of the greatest worries living there was being mauled by a bear. It was said that the bears run towards a gunshot, as if they had become aware that it meant an easy meal.
Our #MCM goes out to Tom Oar for his rugged charm and amazing vests. #MountainMen
Posted by Mountain Men on The History Channel on Monday, April 13, 2015
Predators stalking his home
One morning, Tom found bear tracks just 45 meters from the house; a bear also tore open their pigeon coop, and grabbed a couple of birds. They put an electric fence around it, but it wasn’t enough to deter the bear, so they increased its voltage. They called for help from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the game warden came. He deduced that the bear who was a frequent visitor to Tom’s place, was around 300 to 400 pounds.
After winter, the bear biologist warned them that the bear would be back. True enough, it came back one night and attempted to enter his shop, despite the high-voltage electric fence, but was only unsuccessful due to the door latch. Tom took a warning shot to scare-off the bear. He couldn’t afford for livelihood to be compromised, saying jokingly that if the bear destroyed his work, he’d be moving to Florida.
However, it was not just the bear that was getting too close to their home, but also wolves. Bears and wolves were protected species in Montana, so their population had grown. It seemed that these wild animals were getting hungrier, and they were running out of food – maybe the smell of fresh blood when Tom was skinning a deer and fleshing its hide attracted these predators. Wolves traveled and hunted in packs, so they were very dangerous. He had to force the wolf pack off his land, to go back high into the mountains.
It was one thing for Tom to encounter bears or wolves while out hunting, but to have them come near their house was a different matter, and definitely a cause for concern.
Fire season in Montana
From their place, they could see smoke on the horizon from a forest fire, and knew they had to prepare in case it reached their place.
It was a possibility, as they were surrounded by trees, and Nancy said it was like living in a tinder box. Tom had to widen the firebreak around his property, as intense fire could leap distances of many meters. He along with his good friend Tim, cleared more trees from both sides of the road and around their house.
Helping his neighbor
Tom is an experienced trapper so when Tim came to ask him for some help with the beavers in the pond and was worried about raw sewage contaminating their water source, he readily agreed to help. He set some traps for the beavers, and it took a few days before those beavers sprung them. He went home with his catch, skinned them, and stored the meat and fur.
Visiting his brother
Tom’s brother, Jack, invited him and Will to come and visit him in his ranch in Idaho – it took them eight hours driving to get there. They reminisced for a while about the last time they rode horses together with their dad.
Later on, Jack asked the two to accompany him in checking his fence, to make sure that there were no loose wires through which a lion could get in. He said he spotted a mountain lion at the edge of his property and was worried about it killing his horses at the farm. Lions were known for ambushing their prey, so they were very careful. They managed to push the big cat back into the hills.
Jack, a falcon trainer, took the two out into the field, and let his falcon hunt grouse. The falcon would dive-bomb and get its talons into the prey, and the dog would retrieve the birds. However, the hunt wasn’t successful that time, and they headed back to the ranch. Tom and Will were just happy to see how fast the falcon flew; they stayed at the ranch for five days.
Later on, Jack moved to the Yaak Valley so he could be nearer to Tom.
Due to the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, such as social distancing, Tom had to do everything alone without a friend or an apprentice who could help him. Things were much harder since he’s in his late 70s, but he knew he had to continue working. He set up traps for bobcats, martens, weasels and even wolves, then checked them every day to see if he’d caught anything. He also didn’t go to the ‘Rendezvous’ to sell their work, but brought them to Will’s trading post.
Retirement and moving to Ocala
Tom’s children Chad and Keelie, from his previous marriage to Jan Frazer, wanted him to retire and move to Florida, even before “Mountain Men” started airing. In his 70’s and living in the Yaak River Valley wasn’t easy, from the harsh climate to the wild animals in the area. His son knew the danger and difficulties because he had been going there since he was 15, for Christmas and summer vacations and said, ‘I’ve lived what they are showing. That was just my life growing up.’ He’s worried about his dad.
Tom and Nancy went to Florida to visit his kids, and Chad took him fishing while Keelie brought the couple to Chad’s workplace; he is a co-owner of Horse Country Carriage Company, which offered horse-drawn carriage service in historic downtown Ocala. Tom’s mom, Mary Jane, was there waiting to see him. He took his mom, Keelie and Nancy on a carriage ride, as Chad had work to do.
The couple later toured a retirement home, and gave it serious consideration. They talked about the time Tom retired from the rodeo as he said, ‘it just isn’t as fun anymore, and if it isn’t fun, then I’m not going to do it.’ Nancy advised him that if he’s feeling that way about their way of life at the Yaak, then it’s time to change.
He knew that moving to Ocala to be near his kids would be a big change, one that would totally change his way of life – trapping, for one, would not be an option.
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He didn’t see himself reading newspapers while sitting on a porch and doing not much else. ‘That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I don’t want that kind of retirement,’ he said. Tom admitted that while Ocala was a pretty place, he would have to find something to do. Nancy, on her part, found the place gorgeous and said, ‘It’s like I’m on a different planet. The flowers and the birds are different. I love being home, but this is certainly a treat.’
According to some reports, Tom has retired, as he and his wife have left Montana, although not exactly when it happened. It was said that although they’d been staying in Florida, it was only during winter. He hasn’t retired, as he continued to do what he loves doing in Montana throughout the rest of the year. He still appeared on the show’s 10th season in 2021.
A sign outside their house in the Yaak Valley read ‘He is free who lives as he chooses.’ His son had said that his dad has always lived life his way, and that’s the way it would always be. His mom knew that Tom belonged in Montana, and wanted him to be fulfilled in his own way. Tom said, ‘I love being a mountain man…I’ll be a mountain until the day that I die.’ adding, ‘If anybody tries to take it away from me, it’s going to be one hell of a fight.’