Whitefish man honored for contributions to rodeo, western lifestyle

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Lee Patterson in his saddle shop at his home on Edgewood Place just outside Whitefish. Patterson began repairing saddles while working on a guest ranch in Arizona and continues to sell saddles today. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Lee Patterson is proud of his family history of cowboys.

Patterson was born and raised on a small ranch just outside Whitefish. His father Bob Patterson was a calf roper and his grandfather Fred was a cowboy on many of the old Montana ranches.

Patterson’s son RJ is a cowboy, and Patterson takes pride in watching his grandsons Colt and Jett continue the family tradition for the fifth generation.

“That’s the thing that holds the network of the family together is riding and horses,” Patterson said. “Our deal is cows and horses and rodeo.”

Patterson was recently inducted in to the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame. He was part of several individuals who were awarded western heritage awards for their contributions to rodeo and the western way of life in Montana.

“It has been really rewarding to me to be a cowboy,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be selected to be in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.”

Patterson still lives on 35 acres of his family’s ranch off Edgewood Place. He recalls as a child driving all night with the family so his father could get to a rodeo, and the young age at which he and his siblings began riding horses.

“My grandfather was a famous cowboy following World War I,” Patterson said. “He would give railroad workers rides to town on his horses. He raised and sold horses to the Army.”

Patterson himself has spent years competing in rodeos in the northwest where he roped calves and team roped competing most of the time with his brothers, son or wife Tracy, who was the first woman to enter the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon as a contestant.

Patterson has his Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association Gold Card, which is essentially a lifetime membership in the PRCA.

“Rodeo is a fun thing to do,” he said. “My father roped calves — it’s an event we enjoy doing as a family.”

After high school Patterson worked on a ranch in Tucson, Arizona while attending the University of Arizona part-time.

He opened his first western store here in 1974. While he later sold the store, he continues as a representative for American Hat Company and when he is home he spends his time in his saddle shop still building saddles.

“When I was working on a guest ranch in Arizona there were 125 horses and so something was always breaking,” Patterson said. “The head wrangler taught me how to repair and maintain the saddles.”

Later he built saddles full-time with Earl Twist and Jim Lathrop. At one time he could churn out 52 saddles in a year, now his pace is much slower and the design of the saddles much more refined.

“It’s satisfying to take the tree [or foundation] for the saddle add, two sides of leather together and form the saddle,” he said. “It’s a satisfying feeling to make something usable.”

Patterson says creating saddles can be physically demanding and he enjoys working at a slower pace these days.

“My saddles now are a lot nicer as a I go slower and put more thought in to create a better product,” he said. “When you can slow things down and do it one at a time it gives you the chance to think about it.”

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