Stories

A Hunter’s Norman Rockwell Painting

Uncovering a 50-year-old mystery

By Ryan Hatfield

I’ll never forget the day I received an envelope from a Mr. Ray Croswell from Washington. Having just written my first book, Idaho’s Greatest Mule Deer, a year or so earlier, I figured it was simply a personal check for a book order. Such envelopes in the mail were common at that time, with word out about my seven-year project of capturing the history behind Idaho’s most outstanding mule deer bucks.

Instead, I opened it up and saw a stunning photo; one that spoke to me in ways you can’t imagine. To many people who might not understand all the context, the image is still amazing – a golden era photo of a pickup load of big bucks. Even with just that, it’s stunning.

However, to me – a historian of all things Idaho and hunting – I saw much more. Sure, my eyes were drawn to the pile of big bucks and all that it represents of that amazing era gone by. But I was also drawn to the sign. “Palisades Lodge. Motel. Café.” The photo was almost too good to be true. Not only did it have that classic look of that era, but the photo basically stamped the location within the image of a real “ground zero” of big mule deer in the ‘60s. The Swan Valley/Palisades area was one of the true hotbeds of giant bucks back then.

To top it off, the contrast of all the red on white, seemingly perfect placement of vintage items, the innocent appearance of the hunters, the conversation, the simplicity and perfection of the scene, everyone unaware of the photographer – it all looked to me like a Norman Rockwell painting had actually come to life! The more I looked at it, the more it just seemed so perfect it couldn’t even be real. It was the best photo I had ever seen. Part of me honestly questioned how it could be THAT perfect. Around 12 years later, when I made a particular phone call, I’d learn just how authentic it was…

Solving the Mystery

From time to time over the next 12 years, as I worked on the 2nd Edition of my Idaho book, I’d come across it and stare at it awhile, smiling to myself that at some point I’d be able to share it with tens of thousands of people. In the meantime, I called Ray and convinced him to send me the original slide so I could scan it at high resolution and get the most out of it I could.

Finally, in 2017, as the book was closer to being finished, I was contemplating what to do with it. Maybe the front cover? Or the back? Something special for sure.

Then, one evening, a good hunting friend of mine, Dioni Amuchestegui, was at our home for a visit. The discussion came up about the progress of my book and eventually it turned to what I was going to do for a cover. I showed him this photo as a possibility, and after adoring it awhile, we zoomed in on the pile of racks atop the ol’ GMC pickup. All of them were nice, but man, that one at back-center was really something else.

I’ve always been spot on with judging, and I kept running numbers through my head. After about four times, I looked at Dioni and said, “That’s a record-book typical. That thing has to score mid 190s net, easy.”

Of course, my busy mind couldn’t let it rest there. The next question emerged in my progression. “I wonder if I have that deer? You know, the story. It’s a longshot, but…”

The license plate was from California, so I figured if I had it, it would have to be either a Californian I interviewed or perhaps a rack that had been sold to a collector. I quickly started scanning through all my materials and stopped dead when I came to a 196-7/8 typical killed by Dennis Barker Bonneville County in 1968 (Palisades is in Bonneville County). I quickly compared the forks, the kickers, all of it, and it seemed like a dead ringer. Then I zoomed in on the license plate holder – “Quincy Motor Sales”. Dennis was from Quincy, California! “I’ll be damned! I have that deer!”

I don’t know who was more shocked, me or Dioni, but I’m pretty sure we started jumping up and down like a couple of excited school girls. How did that just happen?!

A Phone Call a Half-Century in the Making

“Dennis, Ryan Hatfield here. Hey, give me a shout when you get this message. I have something to talk to you about. Thanks.” I didn’t have to tell him who I was. He’d remember. Men might have terrible memories, but not about things associated with deer. A day or two passed.

Ring. Ring. “Hello?”

“Ryan, Dennis Barker.”

We made some small talk and he commented that he catches the magazine and TV show from time to time. Dennis was 70 by now, some 49 years after he killed his 196-7/8 typical out of Swan Valley in December 1968. Yes, 49 years later.

“Hey Dennis, are you somewhere you can stay on the phone and still access your email?”

“Yes, sure, just give me a minute.”

“Okay, I have something I want you to see,” I said calmly, not wanting to seem overly excited. “Just let me know when you’re in your account.”

“Okay, I’m in. What am I looking for?” he asked.

“Okay, I’m sending it now.”

I didn’t need to question the validity or authenticity of the photo the second I heard his voice crack when he attempted to speak. “Well I’ll be damned. How did you…”

It was hard for me to speak, too. I was very excited to surprise him, and also impacted by his obvious emotion on the phone. I finally explained it all to him as he listened, stunned and in disbelief.

Ray Croswell was around 30 when he departed from Washington in November 1968, ready for adventure and big mule deer in Idaho. Dennis, 21, and his friends were there separately for the same reason.

It was complete happenstance that Ray was walking through the parking lot of the Palisades Lodge when he saw a sight that necessitated him retrieving his camera. He simply framed it up, unbeknown to the hunters, snapped the shutter, and went about his way; an image captured of things encountered on his trip. For the next few decades, the slide would remain in Ray’s boxes, until 2005, when my book spurred him to send it to me.

“Well that sure is us,” Dennis said. “How the heck did you get this photo? Where on Earth did it come from?!”

Dennis didn’t really have any photos for memories from that trip. He didn’t even really wait for my reply before launching fully into detail after detail. I could almost hear his mind working in overdrive as the image brought back too many details to keep track of.

“That’s Bob Budacris there on the left, then Don Johns, then me, then Harold Tweedle. Harold went on to become a prominent taxidermist in northern California. Tweedle’s Taxidermy. I don’t know who the man is we were talking to. Probably just some guy congratulating us on our bucks.” Many more details kept coming.

“So how did you get this again?” he enquired.

“Well, after my first book came out, a man named Ray Croswell from Washington sent it to me.” I then gave him the full explanation of the dominoes that fell and how my sleuthing had cracked the mystery.

“Isn’t this crazy?” I said. “Nearly 50 years later, a photo from a guy in Washington is sent to a guy in Idaho who identifies some guy’s deer from California!”

“Wow, this is just amazing,” Dennis decried. “I just can’t believe it. This brings back so much.”

That single image really impacted him, I could tell. I could hear the joy, but it was also tinged with a bit of sadness. The joy was the resurrection of memory with specific real visualization. The sadness was the reality of how much time had passed, the age in his body, and friendships that were gone or distant now. I honestly simply felt honored to have been able to be on the phone for such a special call.

So many things had to line up for it all to happen – the photo, my book, Dennis’ buck being a B&C-registered deer, the envelope Ray sent to me, my conversation with Dioni leading to the dominoes that fell, and much more. Perhaps most amazing though is the fact that both men, Ray and Dennis, both had to be fairly young men in order for such a long time period to pass by and still be around to receive a call like this half a century later.

My Contribution

I’ve spent 20 years now chronicling Idaho’s hunting history. I’ve done some pretty intense investigative work to unearth deer and material that seemed impossible to find. The entire process has been an honor. To capture another piece of history before it’s gone and to hear the stories firsthand from the hunters lucky enough to take these incredible animals is indescribable.

Now, 20 years later, the book is done. This work cements Idaho’s mule deer legacy; captures for eternity some of the best days afield over the last 100 years. In a way, I consider it my gift and contribution to the people of Idaho.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this story – a story of a photo with its own story. It’s just one of many examples of special things captured in this new book. I also hope that you might consider adding it to your library. I have a feeling you won’t be disappointed.

The Story of Dennis Barker’s 196-7/8 B&C Typical from 1968

It isn’t easy to summon motivation when you’re hunting alone in knee-deep snow, but knowing you’re in big buck country in December helps a lot. Dennis, 21, left from the highway and trudged up the hill packing his Remington 721 .270, hoping to make it do work that day.

So how did a 21-year-old Californian find himself in such a situation? It really started two years previous when a man Dennis knew – Hale Charlton – had killed a 256-1/8 B&C non-typical in the area. Upon returning to California, Hale took his buck to Tweedle’s Taxidermy. Harold Tweedle had great interest in going up there to try it out himself, so he ultimately organized a hunting trip of his own.

Two years later, Harold, along with Dennis Barker, Don Johns, and Bob Bedecarrax, crammed four wide into Harold’s two-wheel-drive GMC pickup and drove non-stop all the way to Swan Valley.

When they arrived, they checked in with Molly at Palisades Lodge and gave her the $12/night it cost to stay there. Their room had two beds, so it would be two men to a bed. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a heck of a lot better than the December weather on the other side of the wall. The hotel room would soon come to smell like Hubbard’s Shoe Grease – a lifesaver from all the cold snow that attacked their boots daily.

Harold got a nice buck on the first day. Don followed with a good one on day two. Bob was the third one to bag a buck. That left Dennis as the only one who hadn’t yet tagged anything.

The two feet of snow had made most of the roads impassible, especially for a two-wheel-drive. Thus, Dennis had to start hiking right from the highway.

At 11 a.m., he got on top of a big ridge and glassed the steep slopes with a set of 12×50 United binoculars. Those binoculars had been dropped previously and it was borderline painful to look through them, but somehow, he saw a deer 600 yards away. It was so big that at first, he thought it was an elk! He hurried and closed the gap to 300 yards and could see it wasn’t super wide, but dang, it was still big.

He watched awhile and finally decided it was good enough. His first shot went over the buck, but the second shot broke its back, dropping it immediately.

While it was a nice deer, they saw lots of big bucks back then, so Dennis didn’t really think all that much of it at the time. Still, he caped it out and took part of a load to the pickup, coming back twice more for two more meat trips with the old Camp Trails aluminum pack frame.

By the time the hunt was over, the four young men had taken six bucks, one for each tag they bought. None of the deer were less than 26” wide.

When I interviewed Dennis, he said, “We were buck hunters, but no one knew what they had back then. Big bucks were everywhere. It wasn’t even that we thought it would last forever; it was that it was so common and natural that we never even had to think about it not lasting forever.”