The scene before me is reminiscent of the old Western song lyrics, “empty saddles in the old corral.” Saddles, tack, and spurs now sit quiet and gather dust, guitars lie where memories of Western melodies waft, but Bob’s eyes still twinkle.
Bob McPhie is one of the few great American Cowboys left in the Heber Valley, not to mention, one of my childhood idols. I fondly recall sitting in the grandstands of the old local rodeo arena beside my grandpa. I would balance my popcorn on my lap and clap for Bob as he rode in the grand entry serpentine. Bob served for twenty-five years as the Rodeo Chairman of Heber’s Mountain Valley Stampede. Bob spent most of his life on the back of a horse. Some of his earliest memories are of riding behind his mother’s saddle, while she held his brother Joe in front. The three of them would ride over to Little Valley, where his father was herding sheep. In his low, slow drawl, he shares, “None of us had cars when I was a young person. There was only one car in our whole high school. The next best thing to have in them days was a good horse. My dad bought my first horse from Sweats over on Center Creek. We bred her to a paint horse, Ol’ Paint, that Dean Clyde owned. We got a beautiful paint horse out of it, and its name was Tango. And I rode that little horse forever and ever.”
When he was a boy, Tango was sighted outside a sheep camp, giving Bob away after he swiped a few firecrackers herders used to scare coyotes off. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, depending on how you look at it, his grandfather was the sheriff of Heber. When he found Bob, the sheriff sentenced him to a week’s worth of haying in Wallsberg to pay for his bit of mischief-making.
Don’t Fence Me In
Bob’s best friend all through school was Ardean Clyde, my grandmother. As a young boy, Bob and my grandma ran wild. They rode horses everywhere, always together. Bob chuckles at his younger self, remembering a very long horse ride with no bathroom break — due to embarrassment. The two of them were bringing horses back to Heber from Hannah. He claims with a grin that it near killed him.
Bob was born May 22, 1930, to Less McPhie, a miner and sheepherder and Maude, his loving mother, who cherished her time as a housewife and served up the “world’s best” shakes and a mean nut sundae at Palace Drug. Bob has always loved sheep and began herding at a young age following the footsteps of his father. His grandmother recorded in her journal how proud she was of Bob, who at age 15, returned from sheep camp with $50 in his pocket. He had been the Camp Jack; this title entailed such things as packing water, feeding horses, doing quite a bit of the cooking, little odds and ends around camp, and moving camps with teams of horses.
When Bob was 17, he worked for Bill and Erve Jordan. Midseason, the herder got sick and had to quit. Erve instructed Bob to move a herd of 1000 head of ewes and lambs out of the head of Wolf Creek. He woke that morning bright-eyed and chipper but soon felt a sinking feeling of despair upon discovering that every horse had taken off in the night. He began his first day as herder alone on the top of Wolf Creek with no horses. This lesson was the beginning of an education from the mountains as a herder. Bob eventually found the horses quietly grazing in a mountain meadow not too far from camp. Bob’s come a long way from that first experience. After spending a lifetime immersed in the field of large animals, and working in the saddle, Bob’s wisdom of all the facets of livestock production is vast. “You learn a few things out there,” he smiles sagely.
Home, Home On The Range
A man of God and country, Bob has served both throughout his 90 years. As a young man, Bob enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. While his ship was docked in Long Beach, he met a lovely long-legged lady. Although Bob went out with her just enough to make her boyfriend real mad, the California beauty captured Bob’s heart. After his discharge, a few months later, this country boy returned home to Heber and sent Miss Mitzi a ring through the mail. She called him to accept his proposal. He drove to California, and they returned to Heber City as Mr. and Mrs. Bob McPhie.
Determined to make something of his life, never straying from his passion for livestock, Bob attended BYU’s Animal Science Program. Now married and needing to care for his family, Bob began working nights as a miner. His sweetheart, Mitzi, often attended his classes taking copious notes to share with him when they were home together. His professors saw the dedication and teamwork of this remarkable couple, and realizing that he was working himself to death, suggested a better job, one where Bob could use his love of Animal Science and agricultural background. His connections at the university gave him a foot in the door at Roper’s Stock Yard in the Basin. From there, he went to work for Hesson-Clark Animal Health Company, working mainly with poultry, and then landed a job with Bayer.
Bob enjoyed a successful career as a pharmaceutical representative for Bayer in their large animal sector for 35 years before retiring. Respected as he was in the industry, he was asked to return for another two years as a consultant. Bob also served on the Utah Cattlemen’s Association for twelve years as a committee member. His service with them melded well with his day job. He cooked a lot of beef to promote the beef industry and represent Bayer. He had quite the cooking outfit rigged up on a fancy trailer. It had a big round fire pot where he would cook the beef attached to the end of a pitchfork. The meat was stripped off and threaded onto kabobs to serve thousands of people at events like BYU tailgate parties.
Get Along Little Doggies
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Bob lived in Caldwell Idaho, where he met up with another friend from Heber, Lyle Buhler. Both were huge rodeo fans and roped a lot putting together several roping events and jackpots. Champ Gross, President of Calf News magazine out of California and Tom Hovedun, Secretary of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, approached Bob and Lyle about launching what is now known as the International Feedlot Cowboy Association. They reached out to cattle feedlots from California to Kansas and Nevada to Canada. A large organization was formed, and ropings followed, beginning regionally, with winners advancing to the finals. Bob served as president of the association for 20 years. In 1981 Bob and his good friend Don Simms won the World Championship team roping in Elko Nevada. Bob still sports his buckle today. Now as many as 900 roping teams compete in the world finals.
When Bob made his way back home to Heber, his dad had a thoroughbred mare bred to a famous cow horse, Keno Blanton. From that breeding came Bob’s 16-hand, jet-black gelding Keno. Keno is one of the best rope horses Heber Valley has ever known. Performance speaks for itself, and word spread far and wide across the west. Keno carried several good cowboys to victory, including ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee, Leo Camarillo. Bob was offered tremendous amounts of money for Keno. A couple of Texans at a roping event handed Bob a blank check and told him to fill in his price. Bob told them in no uncertain terms; it just wouldn’t work, he’s not for sale. Keno is laid to rest in the corral by Bob’s home.
Bob’s talents didn’t end at roping; his fingers were darn good at lassoing a tune too! Some of my favorite memories include Bob and his guitar, sitting around a campfire, or at my families’ barn parties, singing old cowboy songs with my grandfather. Cash was low, but the talent was high in the home of Bob’s parents. The McPhie family were very talented with music and were known to get together for reunions at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City to play and sing. Bob’s mother bought him his first guitar as a young teenager. Bob leans back in his chair as he recalls, “My Grandma McPhie took a piece of paper and drew six strings on it. She put dots where my fingers should go for the different chords. That was my first lesson. That’s how I learned to play guitar.”
Bob began singing with his cousin Joyce and later began to entertain on his own. He sang in bars and church houses across the United States throughout the years. In 1964, the last year the National Finals Rodeo was hosted in Los Angeles, Bob traveled with my grandfather, Arvin Anderson, and their friend Mont Fitzgerald to attend the rodeo. On their way home, the three stopped by a casino and bar in Las Vegas to wet their whistle. It just so happened that there was a talent show going on. Mont disappeared from the table and, upon his return, proudly announced, “You boys better get ready. You’re up next.” Shocked, the two gathered their composure. Grandpa grabbed a guitar, and the two swaggered to the stage and started to sing. Mont’s plan played out well as he passed his hat around the crowd for change. In the end, those two cowboys won the whole kit and caboodle. I asked what they won. With a sly smile, Bob replied, “Some more drinks.”
One Sunday, while at a roping event in Idaho with his son Brett, a prompting struck Bob like a lightning bolt. He knew this was not where he should be on Sunday. This life-changing moment led to years of devotion to his God. Some of Bob’s most cherished years were spent as the bishop of Center Creek Ward for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bob recalls a conversation with a young man who couldn’t imagine how this bishop could possibly understand his view as he’d been doing a bit of drinking. Bishop Bob told him that he’s, “spilt more of that crap than you’ve ever drank, so don’t try to tell me I don’t know what it is.” This ‘been there done that’ perspective has helped him reach hearts that are a little tighter at entry. He recalls sharing the mic with and singing at funerals of characters in the valley who may have been a bit rough around the edges, but these folks are near and dear to Bob’s heart. As bishop, he tended to run things just a little unconventionally. Sometimes swearing a little over the pulpit and bending minor rules, such as no guitars in Sunday meetings.
A mischievous grin spread across his face as he told me about picking up his guitar one Sunday morning. Mitzi asked him where he was going with it. He told her, “I’m taking it to church.” He explained it was his good friends’, Brother and Sister Ryan’s 65th anniversary, and that he was going to sing them a song. Mitzi retorted, “Bob you’re not supposed to do that, and you know it!”
“Who the hell’s gonna stop me? I’m the bishop!” She resigned, “Well, go ahead then.”
Midmeeting, sure enough, he called a halt to everything, had the Ryan’s stand up, and he sang to them, “When your hair has turned to silver, I’ll love you just the same…”
Later in life, Bob’s guitar traveled with him to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he and Mitzi served two missions for his church. When he returned to Heber, he joined the local Senior Citizen’s band. I believe that to date, Bob has sung at more funerals than most undertakers have attended.
Bob has enjoyed many accomplishments with his talents, in addition to an impressive career, but Bob’s most proud of his family. His dear wife Mitzi is his cherished partner, and their five children, Bobbie, Bret, Kris, Wendy Sue, and Bart, are his treasures. Bob has suffered loss, as Mitzi, Kris, Wendy Sue, and Bart have all passed on from this world. Yet he finds joy in being surrounded by a flurry of his precious grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His seasoned advice to me about my husband, came from his favorite song, Have I Told You Lately that I Love You? “Don’t forget to tell him you love him.”
Take Me Back To My Boots & Saddle
Sitting quietly in his chair with the chickens pecking in the yard, Bob has watched just shy of a century pass by in this beautiful mountain valley we call home. Bob has lived a full life doing what he loves with those he loves, both two-footed and four-footed. So it really should come as no surprise that Bob’s first and last jobs were on his horse riding range.
While in his twilight years, Bob went back to being in the saddle all day ridding the forest range for the Forest Service. Bob became great friends with the sheepherders whom he shared the mountain with. They would come each morning to his camp and help him saddle his horse and mount up. They got to thinking and asked him how he managed to get off later in the day. Bob told them, “I manage.” This gritty old cuss rigged up a rope at camp, that he’d trained his horse to walk under as he grasped the line, allowing it to pull him to the ground — that my friends, is a cowboy determined to live his dream till the end.