Learning Ropes With Walla Walla Man Is Unbeastly Work

WALLA WALLA - The cowboy's workshop is tucked in a back yard at the end of Newton Street, past rural houses, corrals of horses and windswept grass.

This is Don Parsons' place, where he creates not only the cowboys but the cows. Parsons, a retired dairy farmer, is one of the valley's master roping instructors who also builds mechanical cattle for roping.

His inventions, the calf tracker and the steer tracker, are used nationwide by roping schools and amateur and professional ropers. Parsons hold patents for both devices in the United States and Canada.

"Why chase cattle to learn to rope?" he asks, standing amid a herd of metal cows in his workshop. "Why not learn how to do the roping first?"

Parsons' workshop is stuffed with devices used to hone the skills of ropers. Two long parallel chains ending in curved black pipes descend from the rafters like a skinny tire swing. The pipes, when swung back and forth, help ropers learn how to catch the back legs of steers.

From the rafters along one end of the shop, calf trackers hang like sides of beef. Their canvas-covered bodies are barrels with blunted cones welded on to serve as heads. Sled-like runners extend downward for legs.

When roped, a roll bar on top of the calf tracker allows it to flip over, back onto its runners, so the roper can try another throw.

Parked along the walls is a small herd of steer trackers, the devices that help team roping skills. Each skinny metal frame, which looks like a bicycle cross-bred with a jungle gym, boasts horns for the header to rope, and kicking hind legs for the heeler to ensnare.

When the roper snags the horns or heels, the tracker releases the rope.

Parsons' students learn to rope the trackers before they advance to cows. Some never move on; they rope for fun and have little interest in actual calf or team roping.

The first lessons consist of throwing the rope at a stationary calf tracker. Then as students advance, the tracker is pulled by a horse with the roping student pursuing on horseback.

"I can take most anybody and have them roping in around an hour," Parsons says, picking up a rope. His left palm and fingers are patterned with calluses, the distinctive marks of a man who has handled a rope for nearly five decades.

Most Saturdays find him at the fairgrounds roping or working with a group of students. Occasionally, he also holds intensive roping schools.

"I like to work with kids," he says. "I do it mainly for the kids. They learn fast."

Parsons' first device was the calf tracker, built in the 1960s to help his children learn to rope. The first model was primitive. He and his son, Lynn, put wheels on a sawhorse, wrapped the body in burlap and attached a bucket to serve as the head.

It roped OK but its movement was hard to control and it kept tipping over. Sled runners would work, but Parsons didn't know how to bend the pipe to make them. He paid someone else to do it. The hefty bill he received in return was enough to convince him he needed the ability to bend pipe himself.

He finally came up with two homemade machines of steel and wood that bend the pipes to create the features of trackers. Parsons turned out a few trackers, then a few more. Ropers liked them. The market began to grow.

All of the trackers are handmade by Parsons or his son in their workshop. Business with national markets isn't always big.

"We sell mostly by word of mouth," he says. Rather than getting into full-scale manufacturing, he adds, "we just work them here. We like it this way."