You know how you get those phone calls where no name shows up, and it’s usually some telemarketer. I got one of those a while ago and instead of ignoring it, I answered.
A young man at the other end asked if this were Barrie Qualle, mispronouncing Qualle. When you have the name Qualle, you get used to that and answer to Quail or Quall also.
It is a tip-off that this person doesn’t know you. Rather than hang up immediately, I affirmed that was me. What he said next caught my attention.
“My name is Matt Foster and I understand that Sonny Tureman was a friend of yours,” he said. I perked up and confirmed that I had cowboyed with Sonny in California.
He went on and said that he had read a column in the Chieftan that I wrote and mentioned Sonny. His dad, who lives in Walla Walla, had read it and forwarded it to him. He then went on and revealed that he was Sonny’s grandson and his dad was Sonny’s son.
His dad had met Sonny once, and Matt had never met him. This was getting pretty interesting. Sonny wasn’t one to discuss personal things with any of us that knew him.
Matt continued and asked if I could fill him in on what I knew of Sonny. We talked for about 30 minutes and ended with agreement to get together and continue the discussion.
Just to fill you in, Sonny grew up in John Day and later became a world-champion bronc rider, winning several of the big ones like Cheyenne. Sonny not only could ride broncs, he could calf rope and team rope with the best. He was also the hardest man I ever knew. He knew no fear.
A week later I got a text from Matt who was on business in Baker and he wanted to drop by the next day to visit. The next morning, a young man about 30 showed up and looked enough like Sonny he didn’t have to tell me who he was.
We visited a while, and I remembered that Ray Zannuto had told me his neighbor Merle Hawkins had a saddle that Sonny won in 1941 at the Pendleton Roundup. I mentioned this and the kid lit up and eagerly asked if we could go see it and get some pictures.
I phoned Ray and asked if he could contact Merle and arrange the meeting. Ray called back five minutes later and told us to come by and he would take us down to see Merle.
All the way to Wallowa, I was hoping this wasn’t a wild goose chase and Merle might show us a dried up old saddle with no assurance it was one Sonny had won. When we arrived at Merle’s, we found Merle temporarily confined to a wheel chair.
He told us the saddle was upstairs and for us to go get it and bring it down. We found the saddle and brought it downstairs. After looking it over, I was almost as thrilled as Matt.
The saddle had a plaque on the cantle that read “won by Sonny Tureman.” It was an old Hamley, the kind they have always presented at Pendleton, and to Merle’s credit, he had kept the saddle in great condition.
He had replaced a little of the riggin but the rest was original and in using condition. Matt began taking pictures of the saddle, and I took a couple of him holding it. Matt was full of questions, and Merle told us what he knew of the history of the saddle.
Merle had bought the saddle at a horse sale for $138. He didn’t know who owned it and said it was covered with dust and bird droppings when he got it. He cleaned it up, oiled it and has used it since the ‘60s.
Matt said he would love to have the saddle and asked Merle if he would sell it. Merle hopes to be back in the saddle soon and declined to sell. I hope that works out for him, but if he ever does sell it, no one would appreciate having it more than Matt.
A few days later Matt sent me a picture he found of Sonny holding the saddle the day he won it. It would be interesting to know the route the old saddle took finding its way to Wallowa County. I discussed this with my friend Bill McCullough who lived with Sonny for a couple of years, and he said Sonny could have gotten low on funds and sold it or probably just gave it to a friend. Sonny travelled light and won lots of saddles.
I told Matt that Sonny was such an interesting guy that someone should write a book about him. He answered that he was working on that project and collecting as much information as he could. I asked him what he would call the book. “The Cowboy I Never Knew.”
Barrie Qualle is an all-around working ranch hand, author and ranch rodeo enthusiast. He lives in Wallowa County.