An accidental success: The life and philosophy of the Stilsons

2018 Honorary Cattleman of the Year
Kathleen Ellyn

Wallowa County Chieftain

Published on September 4, 2018 4:25PM

Judy and Jim Stilson of Joseph (and Flash). The Stilsons were honored as Cattlemen of the Year by the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association.

Kathleen Ellyn/Chieftain

Judy and Jim Stilson of Joseph (and Flash). The Stilsons were honored as Cattlemen of the Year by the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association.

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Jim (1941) and Judy (1947) Stilson were honored at the Stockgrowers Banquet last month as 2018 Honorary Cattleman of the Year. As usual, the story of how Jim and Judy made their lives in Wallowa County as cattle ranchers — or in this case, horse trainers and cattle ranchers — is a tale worth repeating.

So, about that horse named Linoleum.

Story is, Jim went to town one Valentine’s Day and Judy was sure he was going to come home with a brand-new piece of Linoleum for Judy’s kitchen. Judy was a farm wife and linoleum was an acceptable Valentine’s gift.

“We really needed a new kitchen floor,” Judy said. “I was doing some remodeling.”

Instead, Jim got sucked into a great temptation — he went to the auction yard. And he gave in to temptation — and came home with a horse instead.

“He called her Val because it was Valentines Day and tried to convince me she was my present,” Judy said.

She wasn’t having that, and Jim had to go back to town and do better, but the horse stayed and was named Linoleum.

And that story should tell you a lot about ranch life and Jim and Judy Stilson, particularly their sense of humor.

Jim and Judy grew up fairly near each other in the Palouse Valley of Washington and both their fathers, Dean Stilson (and wife Jean) and Ray Harp (and wife Bea) were grain farmers.

Jim’s mother, Jean, was a school teacher and Judy’s mother, Bea, was a farm wife. Jim and Judy knew one another through friends and cousins, but “we weren’t impressed with one another in high school,” Judy said.

Judy went to business college in Spokane and Jim studied general agriculture — but he didn’t want to be a grain farmer like his father.

“I wanted to be a cowboy,” he said.

They liked each other a lot better when Jim was in college, and in 1966, they married.

“I’ve ridden horses all my life,” Judy said. “I think he only dated me because he wanted to ride my horse. He didn’t know which end of the horse the saddle went on before he met me.”

“That’s the truth,” Jim agreed.

They got their big break into ranching when Judy’s dad and uncle bought a ranch near the bridge in Imnaha in 1967. Jim and Judy came down to help out temporarily, and then became partners in the family endeavor. They ran about 500 cattle on grazing permits in the forest and operated a home ranch.

Three active kids (one a Chief Joseph Days princess) and 10 years later, their older partners wanted to retire, so Jim and Judy decided to make the move to private land and operate a smaller herd of 200 on private property on Liberty Road out of Joseph. They had their fourth child there.

There were lots of “town jobs” for the full-time ranchers, too. Judy worked part time for Crestview Cable Company for 20 years. Jim worked at the Blue Ridge Cattle Company feed lot and at the Enterprise Sale Yard.

Over the years they had four children: David, Jill Huffman, Shellie Paparazzo and Adam.

Jim had been training horses part time all along and folks took note and started asking him if he would take a horse and start it.

“It just kind of happened,” Jim said.

It was 1994 before Jim’s unadvertised reputation had grown to such an extent that he was training cutting horses and worked two different training facilities at Potlatch and Coeur d’Alene in Idaho.

“That was an accident,” Judy said. “It just happened. Well, my dad had something to do with that. Dad never went to a horse auction without bringing something home. Once Jim got started training horses dad thought ‘I can go to an auction and buy a horse and it doesn’t matter if they’re not broke because Jim can train them.’”

So, Judy’s dad started shopping for a horse training facility and one thing led to another, she said.

“It’s an awful hard job to make a living at,” Jim said.

Judy laughed. “Well, I don’t think we ever sold anything, we traded.”

One way or another, by hard work and by accident, they built a good ranch life. They enjoyed their children, and now their grandchildren, and made notable contributions to their community.

Judy was active in Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association and Oregon Cattlewomen, and was past president of the Cowbelles and did “everything” in the organization. She was second vice president of Oregon Cattlewomen, Beef Education Chair Person for the state and State Chairman of Adopt a School Program, a precursor to the current Ag Exchange program and more.

Jim was a 4-H leader, a past president of the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association, was active in both Stockgrowers and the Oregon Cattleman’s Association and more.

“Then, I don’t know, I got old,” Jim said. Not that he quit working. He became lead Wallowa County brand inspector in 2009.

But they consider themselves semi-retired; the cattle dwindled down to a few Scottish Highlanders the grandchildren like, and the horse trainer in the family is grandson Cody Arbogast.

“He’s got that affliction,” Jim said.

“If Jim decided to buy a horse now, he could just say, ‘here, Cody,’” Judy said.

There’s a twinkle in Jim’s eye at this comment. He’s ready to carry the family tradition a little farther — and that’s family tradition on both sides the family. Jim would be happy to be the same bad influence at horse auctions as his father-in-law, Dean, was — if Cody would like to go to a horse sale.

Retired, semi-retired, whatever they call it, the Stilsons will always be active and relaxed about how life is going at the same time.

“It kinda just happened,” Jim said.



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