By Pat J. Merriman
For Dunn County Herald
Part of the group I eat breakfast with each morning, I’ve dubbed them the “Breakfast Posse”, at Nana ‘Lil’s these past several months is a legend in North Dakota and, although I knew that Ray Fettig’s name was well-known in rodeo circles, I had no idea who I was sharing a cup of coffee with every morning.
His book Trails of Triumph was published in 2009-10 and, is considered a masterpiece on rodeo-ing in the West. Fettig’s family, Father Jacob, Mother Theresa, six brothers Joe, Tony, Frank, Nick, Jack, & Phil and sisters Margaret and Monica started the Fettig rodeo legend on the family farm right here in Killdeer back in the 1920’s where Ray was born.
Moving forward to WW II, the rodeo had become a big item in the area and, Fettig Rodeo Broncs was coined by brother Nick and, eventually run by Phil until his death in a 1960 truck accident in Bainville, Montana, “Well, Phil ran the business and was a good horsemen who was also good at PR,” said Ray, “You couldn’t give horses away, so, Phil bought a bunch of them from area owners and some people just gave ’em to him to save the horse.” Jack took over the family horse business in 1962 and, ultimately, Phil’s son LeRoy (Ray’s nephew) took the reins both figuratively and literally in the 1980’s. “LeRoy was only 18 when his dad died. So my Mom, sister Monica and I raised him I guess.” “I’ve outlived all of my brothers and sisters…I’m the last one left now,” Ray says in reference to the recent death of his nephew LeRoy who was recently taken by lung cancer. Something Ray sadly ponders, “He never smoked a day in his life.”
The Fettig Farm is long gone (sold back in the 1960’s after Jacob and Theresa’s deaths) but, was replaced by a section of land north of Killdeer on the Missouri River near Lost Bridge. The property is currently owned by LeRoy’s estate administered by the late Fettig’s wife Carla and is known as Fettig Brothers Rodeo Company, a 2000 inductee into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame with famous (or infamous as the case might be) horses like Spur Dodger, Figure 4 and Reservation Red along with bulls like Dark Angle, Jamboree and Double Deuce. In addition, the business brought back two national titles from the World Class Bucking Horse Championships in Kalispell, MT, in 2013. The “Cadillac of bucking horses” in rodeo circles, this small, local business has a big national reputation.
According to the terms of LeRoy’s Will, Ray will continue to feed and care for the horses as long as he can.
At age 93, that is a tough regimen for the nonagenarian who awakens every day at 4:30 a.m., has breakfast with the Breakfast Posse at 6:30-7:30 a.m. and, gets back to “the horses” by 8 a.m., “I call ’em in, feed ’em, cuss at ’em and, work with ’em, sometimes, I fall down,” jokes the spry 93-year-old grinning at the self-deprecating joke. “You don’t train bucking horses, you breed them,” he explains, “bucking is a natural instinct.” Cowboy Mike Fred at the Richardton city rodeo last month (the ultimate winner in the bucking division) mimics the remarks of other competitors, “That horse was a Fettig horse. It don’t get any more challenging than that. They’re the best.” Ray replies, “Well, I just think we put a lot of effort in looking for good breed stock.”
Another Breakfast Posse member Joe Wallace quips good-naturedly, “Ray’s the last surviving member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.” Brother James Wallace chided his sibling, “It is an honor just to know him. He’s irreplaceable.” A sentiment echoed by Gary Fritsche who has known Fettig for at least 25 years. And, Joe Wallace continues seriously, “A couple of years ago I saw Ray out pulling weeds while I was working in the field. It was 90 degrees and that guy worked all day weeding, never stopped, never took a bite or drink of water. He’s a tough old guy…a real cowboy.” Allen Bang joked, “Ray and his friend Carl got lost in Dunn Center once. Took them 20 minutes to leave and, they had to ask for directions to get home.” All kidding aside, the locals at breakfast obviously admire Ray Fettig and Bang replied, “He’s one of a kind.”
Fettig has some sage, and bittersweet, comments about the current state of the rodeo, “I like horses…they keep me out of the nursing home. I spent 41 days there once…didn’t care for it. I like to take care of the tomatoes and cucumbers in my garden too.” He is also a little disenchanted by what he sees as a lack of burning desire to rodeo among today’s youth, “New kids just aren’t interested in horses…just computers.” He is also concerned that Killdeer is “growing too fast” and fondly remembers the town before the oil booms that have come and gone, “It was a lot friendlier place back then.” Ray also closed this interview with a positive outlook, “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. You could line up 100 men and, I don’t think they could tell about the same experiences.” I agree and, I wish more good, productive years to Ray Fettig…my new friend and breakfast companion.