Remembering Dick LaFrance, or the Early Years of a Cowboy Veterinarian

In the spring of 2014, many people are making their way back from Hardin, Montana, where they were paying tribute to Dick LaFrance. Dick was a good veterinarian, an opinionated old cuss, a good man, and a good friend to many. I have heard my father use the word “hero” to describe very few people, but Dick was one that made the grade.

My memories of Grandpa Dick pick up in the mid-70s, which is when my family moved to Bridger. Dick, his wife, Esther (or “Ole,” as Dick called her, but I called her Grandma Esther), and their five children moved to Bridger in somewhere in the mid-1950s. Esther had told Dick that moving would be okay as long as they didn’t allow horses into bars. Dick said that when they pulled into Bridger, the first thing they saw was someone was riding a horse out of the Stockman Bar and that set the tone for their time in the Clarks Fork valley. They lived out east of Bridger in a house that had at one time or another been a railroad depot, a barn, and then finally a house. To this day, I can remember the chinks indented in the knotty pine wall of our old house where one of the LaFrance boys chunked a calving chain at one of his brothers, and how Dick loved drinking the Bridger tap water. (For those outside Carbon County, Bridger water is granite hard and has enough minerals in it to kick-start a high-school chemistry class.) Whenever Dick happened by the house, he would run in, stick his head under the faucet, and drink to his heart’s content.

My husband, Joel, and I spent some time in Belgium and France last summer, walking several Battle of the Bulge sites. Dad later told me that Dick had been in that part of the war, but that he never would say much about it. He did get Dick to admit to being a scout with the paratroopers, meaning that he jumped behind enemy lines more times than he could count. His job was to blow stuff up, raise hell, and then try to sneak back behind their own lines. Unconfirmed legend has it that Dick met Art Williams (that would be the father of Mike Williams, the owner of the nearly preg-check red heeler Peekaboo) while they were in jail in France. Art may or may not shoulder some of the blame as to why Dick and Esther made their to southern Montana. I’m somehow thinking that for those of you that knew Dick, this particular historical tidbit explains a whole lot about the man you later knew. It’s all too easy to see him in his element, making wisecracks while causing mayhem.

Dick was a good vet, but then again, he kind of had to be. Back in the ’50s and 60’s, veterinarians weren’t that easy to come by, particularly in rural areas. His rounds might be up in Columbus or Billings or halfway to Hardin or down into Wyoming before winding his way back to Bridger at night. He was innovative, had a ton of common sense, good sense of humor about things, and would try just about anything as there were no referral or specialty clinics back in the day. If a horse colicked, getting it to Ft. Collins wasn’t a viable option. Dad said that when he first took over the practice, he found a sign that read “R.F. LaFrance, DVM.” Dick kept no official office hours and his practice was strictly limited to horses, cattle, dogs, or cats–absolutely no pigs! (Perhaps Dick was the uncredited impetus for Gus McCrae’s “We don’t rent pigs” sign in Larry McMurtry’s book Lonesome Dove.) The old clinic, which was just across the river outside of Bridger, was an old box car with a prefabricated log siding. When dad asked Dick how he arrived at the floor plan, Dick said, “It was easy. When I got enough money, I bought a box car. And then I added lean-tos onto it as I got a little more money.”

What I didn’t realize is that back in the day, vets nearly had to be itinerant cowboys. I remember once watching my father rope a colt that we needed to work on, and I was quite impressed that he managed to catch it on his first throw. Dick’s roping skills likely put my father’s to shame. Dick said that the first ten years when he roped something, he’d look for a post that would hold. The second ten years, he looked for one that wouldn’t. Back then, most places didn’t have squeeze chutes or alleys, and it wasn’t until some was completely broken or torn down that it was fixed, hopefully an improvement on the original model. Until that fateful day, they’d just keep getting by.

Like most good vets, Dick kept a dog in the truck. Dad got to laughing, remembering one particular dog that belonged to Dick. He used to cart this blue heeler around with him named Robbie. Robbie was good help in cattle pens, but she had a mean streak that extended to just about everyone, including Dick. She’d bite anyone that came near her truck, and again, that included Dick. Dick claimed that Robbie was so mean that when she was bit by a snake, it was the snake that died. He kept her though, mainly because good dogs were–and still are–hard to find, particularly in a cattle pen.

Dick was the kind of man that if you weren’t willing to hear what he had to say, it was best to not ask for his opinion because like it or not, he’d give it to you.  I think it is from Dick that dad learned how to lock things. For the longest time, the old box-car clinic and then even the new clinic that Dad built in the early 80s remained unlocked. Dad’s philosophy, which was pretty much Dick’s philosophy, was that if someone wanted something bad enough, they’d find a way to get in. Dick was probably right, although I cannot help but wonder if he ever read In Cold Blood. It wasn’t until I lived in Chicago that I learned that people locked things whenever they closed the door behind them.

Dick and Esther and their family moved up to Hardin after the cattle market bottomed out in 1974, where Dick continued to write brand inspections and give his opinion well into his 90s. Old family friends remembered Esther as being much quieter than Dick, a good woman who stood behind him and didn’t stand out. But then again, with five children and a husband like Dick, I hate to think what you’d have to do to move to the forefront.

Although Dad and Sam McDowell made plans to drive up and see Dick in Hardin, they never got to take that trip. Esther passed away earlier this spring, and I think that Dick got a bit lonely without her. When you’ve been married to the same person for almost 70 years, I think it’s hard to tell where you leave off and your beloved begins. I thought that whomever wrote Dick’s obituary summed it up nicely–“Adios compadre, warrior, medicine man.” Dick was someone that Dad admired and looked up to, and he had immense respect for him. I somehow doubt that Dad was the only one to hold Dick in such high esteem. So safe travels, Grandpa Dick, and we’ll see you on the other side.

Click here to read the official obituary, which is where I found that fine send-off line.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s